Willis Tower, once the world’s tallest building, now the nation’s second-tallest, is in line for a $500 million facelift, under an ambitious plan embraced by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
“They’re investing half a billion dollars in an iconic building. Blackstone is a premier real estate company. They could do that anywhere. They chose Chicago. It’s an incredible vote of confidence,” the mayor said by phone on Tuesday afternoon.
“Making the first floor open, accessible . . . is a smart idea. . . . It’s an investment in the South Loop,” he said. “It’ll be more receptive to foot traffic for people coming, staying longer and also not going outside the South Loop for lunch. It’s gonna be a tremendous draw.”
The plan calls for six levels of restaurant, entertainment and retail space, with three of the floors above ground and three below ground.
The 300,000 square feet of entertainment space could become an attraction unto itself for thousands of building employees and 1.7 million annual visitors drawn to the popular SkyDeck Chicago observation deck with its panoramic views of the city.
The 103rd floor Skydeck will also be enhanced, to create what building owners promise will be a “world-class and one-of-a-kind family entertainment experience.”
Blackstone and Equity Office have agreed to offer 5,000 Skydeck tickets each year to the Chicago Public Schools.
“A lot of kids don’t know about downtown. Don’t see the office buildings. Don’t ride in elevators. This is going to make sure that this icon is part of all Chicago kids’ lives,” Emanuel said.
The facelift for the Willis Tower plaza is a centerpiece of the ambitious plan.
It will include a 30,000-square-foot outdoor deck and garden and a new, three-story transparent glass structure set atop the existing stone plaza.
Beneath the glass fascade will be three subterranean floors “organized around a three-story winter garden crowned with a dramatic glass skylight.”
It will provide “unobstructed views of all 110 floors” above. Atop the structure will be a skylight made of a “curved grid shell.”
Architects noted that the building once known as Sears Tower was built with the idea of separating the “urban streetscape” from the building to “minimize” pedestrian traffic.
The new design is aimed at breaking that “barrier” and re-energizing” the downtown area.
Billed as the “first major renovation in the building’s 43-year history, the plan also includes 150,000 square feet of space for “exclusive tenant use,” complete with a “full-service fitness center, expansive tenant lounges, private event space and concierge services.”
Willis Tower is owned by Blackstone, a private equity and real estate investment firm, and its Chicago affiliate, Equity Office Properties.
Emanuel’s enthusiastic endorsement virtually guarantees that the project will be more warmly received than a similar plan for the John Hancock Center, which ultimately was scrapped amid opposition from downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd).
Reilly said Tuesday he has been working with Blackstone for months to “help shape this exciting redevelopment project” at “one of the most iconic” buildings in the Chicago skyline.
“This is a great opportunity to add new life and activity to the base of an already popular tourism destination with new retail, tourism and hospitality destinations,” the alderman wrote in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times.
Although the project is “heading in the right direction,” Reilly said there are “important details” to be resolved.
They include: better managing traffic in and around the building; improving curbside loading; enhancing pedestrian safety; determining which portions of the plaza and open spaces will be publicly accessible; determining appropriate signage for the lower levels of the structure and planning for construction staging.
Two years ago, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed lifted the veil on the Hearn Company’s plan to sell naming rights to the 100-story John Hancock Center at 875 N. Michigan and build a glass enclosure that would encroach on the Hancock plaza.
Reilly adamantly opposed the project. He called the John Hancock Center “one of Chicago’s most iconic buildings” and said it was “”ripe for landmarking” to prevent the sale of naming rights and other changes that dramatically alter a plaza “nearly as historically significant as the building itself.”
On Tuesday, Reilly drew a dramatic distinction between the Hancock makeover he opposed and the Willis Tower renovation he generally supports.
He noted that the Willis Tower’s “podium, plaza and public spaces” were designed at a “different time in the Loop’s history,” when office towers were more like “commercial fortresses that literally walled themselves off from” the surrounding neighborhood.
“The Hancock’s plaza areas were designed to serve as a clean, open canvass to display the building’s dramatic architecture, embrace the neighborhood and draw pedestrians into the site. Willis Tower’s plaza and lower areas were designed for the comfort of its tenants to the exclusion of its neighbors,” he wrote. “Further, the plaza and podium of Willis Tower has always reserved extra development rights to allow for future structure to be added to the site and, in fact, that was always contemplated.”
Formerly known as Sears Tower, the Willis Tower, 233 S. Wacker Drive, was designed by architects from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Skidmore also designed the John Hancock Center.
The building was the world’s tallest until 1996, when it was replaced by the Petronas Twin Towers in Malaysia. It was renamed the Willis Tower in 2009 for the insurance brokerage Willis Group Holdings.
Willis Tower was the nation’s tallest building until 2014, when it was knocked off that pedestal by One World Trade Center in New York City.
“At the time it was done, it stood out. It’s an icon. . . . Other buildings are more gentle with their curves. This one is more muscular,” Emanuel said, noting that the renovation will soften some of those hard edges.