IF THESE WALLS: Returning to its former glory

The glory days may soon be returning to Chicago’s Willis Tower – also known to longtime Windy City residents as the Sears Tower – thanks to a major capital injection from Blackstone.

Last month, the New York-based alternative investment giant announced it would put $500 million into renovating the 110-floor tower, adding amenities for both tenants and the public in its biggest asset investment to date.

Blackstone bought the Chicago skyscraper, built in 1973 and last renovated in 1993, in June for $1.3 billion, according to data provider Real Capital Analytics.

When it was constructed, the Sears Tower was the tallest in the world, a record it held for almost 25 years. Sears moved out in 1995 after selling the building a year earlier to Boston-based AEW Capital Management. Renamed in 2009 as part of a leasing agreement with the Willis Group, the West Loop tower has long been in need of modernization, according to Blair Karmin, the Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic. The Pulitzer Prize-winner slammed the building in its current iteration, writing that “Willis Tower has always seemed like it was designed to repel people.”

Now, Blackstone plans to put more money into the tower than many firms raise in an entire fund. Its plans include adding a fitness center, lounges and private event space for tenants. Willis Tower’s office space is currently 85 percent leased, with anchor tenant United Airlines occupying 830,000 square feet over 16 floors.

Blackstone will also add more than 300,000 square feet of retail, dining and entertainment space to the base of the building and a 30,000-square-foot outdoor deck and garden, which will be open to the public.

The Willis Tower’s reputation as a tourist attraction will also be capitalized on through further renovations. In 2009, the then-owners added the Skydeck Chicago featuring glass-encased ledges overlooking the city on the 103rd floor, from which tourists snap selfies for $23 a ticket. About 1.7 million people visited last year, according to Blackstone, and the firm aims to enhance the attraction with options including an expansion to the floor below and another lookout structure.

Overall, Blackstone’s plans call for breaking away from the tower’s original vision, which was to separate the building from its environment and minimize foot traffic. Instead, the mixed-use additions will encourage pedestrians – a potential economic boon for future public-focused tenants. Renovations will also address security issues through components like double-laminated glass on the outside of the retail structure.

Blackstone said the renovations will create 2,500 jobs and reinforce the building’s status as a “civic destination and the premier workplace.”
Karmin is somewhat convinced, weighing the benefits of enlivening street-level activity in what was considered a fortress of a tower with the addition of a three-story glass plaza that may not fit with the building’s original design.

“In renderings, the revamped tower looks like a big guy cut off at the ankles,” he wrote in a February column in the Tribune. “Welcome to the agonizing world of trade-offs between form and finance. As redevelopments of iconic towers go, this one isn’t bad, but neither is it ideal.”

The pricy renovations are expected to finish in 2019, revealing the re-imagination of the 46-year-old American icon.