CHICAGO — 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.
“It’s another Block 37 in the making,” said Preservation Chicago’s Ward Miller, a reference to an entire city block that sat vacant for decades in the heart of the Loop. “It’s going to be another 30 years before something is developed on that property.”
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.
“An attack on the nation’s largest federal courthouse… would leave a scar on the City of Chicago – in fact, our entire country – not seen since the tragic events of 9/11,” Judge Castillo wrote.
The district’s current Chief Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer agrees with her predecessor that private development poses a significant security risk.
“Security groups, both public and private, examined that proposal and concluded that for many reasons, it would exacerbate risk to the Courthouse and its operations,” Judge Pallmeyer said in a written statement.
“The concerns are real,” said Jason Wojdylo, the former acting-U.S. Marshal in Chicago who oversaw courthouse security until 2020.
Five security threat assessments have been performed on the building in recent years by everyone from the U.S. Marshal’s Service to the FBI and ATF. All reached the same conclusion that the adjacent property poses a significant security risk if it’s not controlled by the government.
The Dirksen Federal Building, indeed the entire federal complex of buildings in the Loop, are architectural gems all by themselves. Mies van der Rohe designed the steel and glass structure in the early 1960’s with an open and soaring lobby that extends the length of the entire building.
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.
Former U.S. Marshal Wojdylo points out that openness often contradicts with the objective of security and yet despite ever-evolving threats, Dirksen has not been turned into a fortress.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), who is also chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has been working on ensuring the property doesn’t fall into private hands for several years. His office says none of the private proposals to redevelop the property adequately addresses security concerns.
“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.”
DEMOLITION WON’T HAPPEN UNTIL 2024
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.
“GSA has no intention of selling the property,” an agency spokesperson said while acknowledging the buildings are not suitable for federal use.
If marveling at magnificent architecture is the goal, Wojdylo says demolition of the Century and Consumers Buildings will provide the opportunity to see the celebrated Dirksen architecture without obstruction.
“These buildings have been vacant for better part of 17 years – they are not a gem that showcases the city,” said Wojdylo. “Tearing them down would not only meet Congress’ intended purpose to create a security buffer; but would beautify the area with an opportunity to see the Mies van der Rohe building from the east and open, as was his style.”
Judge Pallmeyer suggests that a new entrance to the courthouse would enhance a currently desolate stretch of State Street.
“Entrance from the east side of the building would bring foot traffic and activity to a now-quiet segment of State Street. Safety of those visitors, and the protection of this Courthouse, must be our paramount concern,” Judge Pallmeyer wrote.