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Chicago’s Willis Tower reveals plan for ambitious $500M makeover

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The renovation aims to reposition the iconic tower as the Loop’s next great destination

Blackstone

This afternoon, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel joined reps from New York’s Blackstone Group and partner Equity Office to officially take the wraps off the long-rumored undertaking to renovate and reposition the city’s iconic Willis Tower as a new destination to work, dine, and play. Described today as a “transformative plan” that will both “restore and transform an iconic American skyscraper,” the plan will completely reshape the skyscraper’s street level presence by wrapping the base in a new three-story structure designed by global design firm Gensler.

Far more than just a reimagined lobby, the redevelopment of Willis Tower’s base will feature 300,000 square feet of new retail and entertainment space. Dining options will include five-star restaurants, casual eateries, and a fresh food market to serve both the building and the greater neighborhood.

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The crown jewel of the retail podium will be a soaring so-called Winter Garden with a dramatic, wave-like glass atrium providing visitors with an uninterrupted skyward view of Chicago’s tallest building. The new addition will be topped by a 30,000-square-foot public outdoor space, effectively increasing the tower’s current green space by 500 percent. The overhauled outdoor space could also one day host a variety of programming, including ice skating in the winter months.

Blackstone

Beyond reinforcing the Willis Tower as a civic destination, its owners aim to make the 43-year-old building the ultimate place to work. Roughly 460,000 square feet of existing space within the building will be reconfigured with much set aside exclusively for use by the building’s commercial tenants. Planned amenity additions include multiple lounges, meeting and events spaces, and a newly opened 33rd floor fitness center.

The tower’s observation deck is also set to receive a major overhaul. The 103rd-floor observatory will be expanded—possibly to a second level—and see the creation of a new thrill attraction designed to give visitors a new perspective of what it’s like to be 1,353 feet above street level. The upcoming feature would supplement the tower’s current “ledge” attraction which allows guests to venture beyond the observatory’s windows by stepping inside a set of transparent glass boxes. In addition, the renovation work will also add a new underground access point for the Skydeck.

Jay Koziarz

Future tourists will also be treated to a “first of its kind” 50,000-square-foot digital interactive family oriented attraction, explained a former DreamWorks Animation exec brought on by Blackstone last year. The building’s owners are currently in the final stages of negotiation with one of the world’s top media and entertainment companies to partner anchor this addition. More information regarding this attraction and the observatory’s enhanced “thrill ride” will be released at a later time.

Work to transform the tower is slated to begin this month with design-build firm Turner Clayco overseeing the construction process. The project is expected to be completed in the Summer of 2019.

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Jay Koziarz

Watch: An Etch-A-Sketch of the Chicago skyline