Willis Tower transforms into friendly giant to keep drawing office workers

Blackstone, owner of the 110-story building, celebrates completion of a $500 million project that, in a switch from the past, invites people into the building.

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The entrance to the new Willis Tower food and retail offering called Catalog along Jackson Boulevard.

The entrance to the new Willis Tower food and retail offering called Catalog along Jackson Boulevard.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Willis Tower, since 1973 a brawny symbol of Chicago, is flexing its marketplace muscle, reasserting its relevance amid the changing nature of office work.

Blackstone, the tower’s owner, has made the 110-story building fit for a new era, spending $500 million to ensure it’s more hospitable to tenants and visitors alike. It involved a change in layouts and attitudes at a building that for decades was standoffish with its surroundings.

“If you were in this area, you didn’t want to come in and there was no reason to come inside,” said David Moore, senior vice president at EQ Office, the Blackstone-owned property manager for the building. “Our vision and what we’ve been able to do really opened that up, invited the public in and made it a space that people were encouraged to come to.” The work lasted five years.

Blackstone and EQ had Mayor Lori Lightfoot over to formally cut the ribbon Tuesday on the changes, most of which have been in place for a few months. Star attractions include publicly accessible spots for eating and drinking, including a nearly one-acre outdoor terrace four floors above Jackson Boulevard, workout spaces and lounges reserved for tenants and a new exhibit about Chicago for visitors to the 103rd floor Skydeck.

There’s a fresh approach to security as well, a prime concern since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Tenants can pass through the touchless turnstiles with a hand swipe, and Moore said that along with traditional watchfulness, there’s a new emphasis on welcomes.

In her remarks celebrating the renovation, Lightfoot may have had her current struggles to get a Chicago casino on her mind. She said that to get what was then called Sears Tower, Mayor Richard J. Daley had to arrange for demolition of a downtown block. “It was controversial, but it was also bold, as new developments and innovations sometimes are,” Lightfoot said.

“We’ve got to make sure we’re keeping our eye firmly on the horizon. And now these many years later, can any of us imagine having the city of Chicago or our skyline without this beautiful symbol of progress? We can’t,” she said.

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David Moore, senior vice president at EQ Office, points out changes at Willis Tower to Mayor Lori Lightfoot. With them is Kathleen McCarthy, global co-head of real estate for Blackstone.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The goal is to make Willis a stronger competitor not only for other office buildings, but for the living room couch. The pandemic has made white-collar workers accustomed to working from home and many are reluctant to head back full-time to an office.

“Long before COVID, our team thought that the definition of office space was changing,” said Kathleen McCarthy, global co-head of real estate for Blackstone. The investment firm bought Willis in 2015 for $1.3 billion. McCarthy said the pandemic accelerated changes that otherwise might have taken many years.

Moore said office buildings used to aim pitches at just one or two decision-makers at a company. Now, they have to please the staff itself so the office can be a tool for employee recruitment and retention, he said.

While the downtown office market slogs through record-high vacancy rates of around 25%, Willis Tower is faring a bit better. Executives said the building is 85% leased. Its biggest tenant, United Airlines, trimmed its space there but still accounts for 700,000 square feet. Other tenants include naming-rights owner Willis Towers Watson, Seyfarth Shaw and Morgan Stanley.

Moore said several prospective deals with tenants are being negotiated. He said one new tenant has just signed on, the real estate developer CA Ventures, in a move from Prudential Plaza in the East Loop. A building representative said Fidelity Investments is adding space in Willis, 233 S. Wacker Drive.

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Lori Pfeiffer, who is visiting from Indianapolis, reads on a landscaped terrace at Willis Tower that’s open to the public.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Todd Heiser, managing director at the design firm Gensler, which worked on Willis, said the improvements resulted in more logical and inviting entrances, complete with new artwork. It ended the counterintuitive route of the old entrance, where people passed through the doors only to go downstairs before they could head up.

Off of Jackson and in a nod to the building’s roots with Sears Roebuck, the tower now has a retail and dining center called Catalog, with tenants that include a venture by chef Rick Bayless called Tortazo, a Shake Shack and a Do-Rite Donuts and Chicken. Upstairs from that is another food hall due to open later this year. Willis tenants are unlikely to go hungry.

Higher up, Blackstone has introduced four floors of tenant-exclusive amenities, places for a private meeting, an exercise session or an after-work drink, all with exceptional views. The Metropolitan, a private club, also is in Willis.

Building executives called the tower’s makeover a “street-to-sky transformation” that reached down to the caissons. Willis overlooks the Old Post Office, whose transformation into a hip office venture has created much of the excitement in downtown’s southwest quadrant.

A lot has changed, but for Moore, Willis has an enduring claim on the skyline. It’s still, he said, “a symbol of Chicago’s ingenuity, technical skills and grit.”

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A redesigned lobby at Willis Tower.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

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