“Several historic buildings could pose a ‘clear and present danger’ to federal judges, jurors, witnesses and others who find themselves at the Dirksen Federal Building in downtown Chicago. That’s according to a memo chief judge Ruben Castillo sent in 2018 to the Attorney General asking him to block the transfer of the property to a private developer who wanted to restore the long-vacant Century and Consumers Buildings on State Street.
“It was the latest chapter in a tug of war for control of the site between the federal government, the City of Chicago and preservationists that has lasted more than 15 years. Meanwhile, the buildings are vacant and deteriorating while taxpayers foot a bill that has already run into the tens of millions of dollars.
“The federal government purchased four buildings in the 200 Block of South State Street and along Quincy Court for $22 million in 2005. It came after the FBI said it foiled a plot to blow up the Dirksen courthouse with a truck bomb.
“The General Services Administration, which owns and operates property for the government, said it wanted to create a ‘security buffer’ around the courthouse. There was a plan to renovate the buildings for use as office space for federal workers. Turns out, the government didn’t need the space.
“A GSA spokesperson says the agency spends as much as $800,000 a year maintaining the property, including $70,000 a year on scaffolding rental to protect the public from falling pieces of the building. In 2015, falling bricks forced the brief closure of State Street and led to the construction of a protective canopy.
“Between 2015-2019, the GSA came close to a deal to sell the properties to a joint venture between the City of Chicago and private developers for micro-housing for the Loop’s fast-growing population of college students.
“‘We had a plan for them to reuse these buildings as residential,’ said Miller. ‘The City was behind it and then the judges put the kibosh on it.’
“Judge Castillo’s 2018 letter to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions asking him to kill the deal painted a grim potential for a mass casualty event if the property were to fall into private hands with the feds unable to control who comes and goes.
“The concerns are real,” said Jason Wojdylo, the former acting-U.S. Marshal in Chicago who oversaw courthouse security until 2020.
The CTA’s Blue Line runs beneath the courthouse and busy Dearborn Street fronts the building’s west side. More than 1,000 federal employees work there every day with many more visitors. In other words: It’s a security nightmare.
“They are so close to the Courthouse that from the higher floors it is easy to see directly into judges’ chambers and read their computer screens,” a Durbin spokesperson tells WGN. “Multiple security assessments, including from the U.S. Marshals Service, ATF, FBI, Federal Protective Service and more, made clear that the security risks are too great for private redevelopment.”
The future of the site is back on the front burner now that $52 million has been set aside in the federal infrastructure bill to demolish the buildings. Although the GSA says public meetings need to be held before the plan proceeds and demolition won’t begin prior to 2024.
WHAT’S THE PLAN?
So what’s the federal government’s plan for this site that’s now been vacant for nearly two decades? Judge Castillo wrote that once the buildings were demolished the property could be used as a security buffer, for unspecified federal corrections activities or any purpose “that promotes the safety of the courthouse.”
The current $52 million price tag only covers demolition. Congress would have to allocate additional money to develop the site. Judges and security personnel have advocated for building a new security pavilion on the east side of the Dirksen Federal Building and having that become the building’s main entrance.
That’s not a very sexy plan for preservationists who say the buildings represent the last two standing examples of architects who learned from the examples of Daniel Burnham and others who set the trajectory for the modern skyscraper right here in Chicago.
Preservation Chicago’s Ward Miller says his group has been in contact with 20 religious orders who are interested in used the existing buildings as archives, which would alleviate the need for any windows facing the courthouse. (Bradley, WGN Chicago, 4/6/22)