CHICAGO (AP) - Chicago's famed Willis Tower skyscraper is preparing for a $500 million face lift under an ambitious plan supported by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
The renovations call for six levels of entertainment, restaurant and retail space that could become an attraction for the building's thousands of employees and the 1.7 million annual visitors drawn to its SkyDeck Chicago observation deck on the 103rd floor.
The SkyDeck would also be improved under the plan. The owners have also agreed to offer 5,000 tickets annually to Chicago Public Schools.
"A lot of kids don't know about downtown," Emanuel said. "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."
A revamped plaza will include a 30,000-square-foot outdoor deck and garden, as well as a three-story transparent glass structure set atop the existing plaza.
The skyscraper, considered the second-tallest building in the nation, opened as Sears Tower in 1974. The building is owned by private equity and real estate investment firm Blackstone Group and its Chicago affiliate, Equity Office Properties.
Alderman Brendan Reilly said he has been working with Blackstone for months to help shape the project. He said it's "heading in the right direction," but that vital details need to be resolved, including enhancing pedestrian safety, determining which spaces will be accessible to the public, and managing traffic in and around the building.
A Blackstone official says construction is expected to begin in the first quarter of this year, with completion scheduled for 2019.