DOWNTOWN — Six floors of new retail shops, a big outdoor deck and a "winter garden" are all part of Willis Tower's $500 million plan to entice tourists downstairs, too.
City officials unveiled Wednesday all the proposed improvements coming to Chicago's tallest building, 233 S. Wacker Drive.
Blackstone Group L.P. bought the tower, the world's tallest until 1996, nearly two years ago with plans to improve its retail shops and 103rd-floor Skydeck observatory. The building defines Chicago's skyline and hosts more than 1 million visitors annually.
"No longer will this be an inaccessible fortress without amenities that does feel a bit desolate after 5 p.m.," said Jon Gray, Blackstone's global head of real estate. Blackstone is footing the renovation's entire $500 million bill, which the company said is its largest investment ever in a building.
The renovation includes 300,000 square feet of new retail including "dining and entertainment" at the base of the tower, as well as a new 30,000-square-foot outdoor deck.
The retail — three floors above ground and three floors underground — will be organized around a new "winter garden" with a skylight. A skating rink could occupy the rooftop deck in the winter, and the tower said it is close to securing a world class "media company" that would bring a 50,000-square-foot "digitally interactive" attraction.
Other tenants have yet to be signed, but Blackstone executives said the tower is in talks with five-star restaurants, more casual restaurants, bars and a grab-and-go "fresh market." The tower also hopes to add a new, undisclosed attraction to the Skydeck.
With a burgeoning tech scene and many companies relocating here, Gray and his Blackstone colleagues are "big believers in Chicago."
"There is a Downtown renaissance underway," he said.
About 12 million people walk by the tower every year.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the project, which will begin this month and end by the summer of 2019, will create more than 2,500 jobs. He said Chicago children, regardless of their background, look at Willis Tower as a symbol of "power," "strength," and "optimism."
"Willis Tower is a destination point for your eye and a destination point for your imagination," Emanuel said.
Willis Tower officials said they'll also give away 5,000 Skydeck tickets annually to Chicago schools, and donate $100,000 to Project Pipeline, a program for young people sponsored by the Illinois chapter of the National Association of Minority Architects.
The 110-story tower was the world's tallest when it opened in 1973, but was surpassed by the Petronas Towers of Malaysia in 1996. New York's One World Trade Center was named the tallest building in the United States when it opened in 2014.
Eli Khouri, president and chief executive of Blackstone affiliate Equity Office, said the challenge will be renovating Willis Tower in a way that complements, not contradicts, its historic frame.
"We're working with something adaptable, but it's up to us to adapt it right," Khouri said.
Click the slideshow above or scroll down below for more looks at the proposed upgrades:
A new retail structure at the tower's southeast corner. [Equity Office]
New lights at the tower's entrance on Wacker Drive. [Equity Office]
A new "winter garden" with skylight. [Equity Office]
New retail planned for the tower's southwest corner. [All renderings courtesy of Blackstone Group; Equity Office]
The winter garden entrance.
A look up at Willis Tower through the winter garden's skylight.
A look at the tower's revamped office lobby.
A new office lounge.
A look at Willis Tower's new rooftop deck. Officials say a skating rink could open here in the winter.
An aerial view of Willis Tower's new roof deck.
Another rooftop view.
A closeup of Willis Tower's new planned entrance on Wacker Drive.
A look at Willis Tower's new revamped lobby.