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After 9/11, Willis Tower defeats fear and adapts to compete

People leave Sears (now Willis) Tower after attacks New York WashingtD.C. Sept. 11 2001. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

People leave the Sears (now Willis) Tower after attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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roeder reports

David Roeder reports on real estate at 6:22 p.m. Thursdays on Newsradio 780 and 105.9 FM WBBM. The reports are repeated at 10:22 p.m. Thursday and 7:22 a.m. Sunday.

Updated: November 9, 2011 11:53AM

The receptionist lowered her voice to speak to a reporter calling after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. “Tell them to get us out of here,” she said.

“Here” was a high floor in Sears Tower. I was the reporter, calling a boutique investment firm to find out if it felt itself vulnerable in the nation’s tallest building and would leave as soon as it could. “Them,” the firm’s bosses, said they were happy there despite natural anxiety over airplanes being steered into New York’s World Trade Center towers.

Sears Tower suddenly occupied a horrible place in Chicago business 10 years ago. Built to be an icon of corporate strength, it was transformed into a symbol of fear. People were afraid it would be an inevitable target for the next attack.

Had that fear taken hold, the 110-story tower could have been destroyed not by terrorism (its structural properties make it unlikely an airliner could bring it down), but by stigma.

The nation mourned and vented its anger, and life went on. The tower saw no mass exodus, but it had to revamp itself to face its real threat: the marketplace. It is the most recognizable building on a world-famous skyline, but its age puts it in the category of some second-class properties.

Now called Willis Tower after a 2009 naming rights deal with a new tenant, the 38-year-old building faces competition from newer towers that can promise more efficient floor layouts. Still, Willis Tower has held its own over the last decade, replacing tenants who have left. Its current vacancy rate of 17 percent is lower than the building had during the 2006 to 2008 period.

The owners, Skokie-based American Landmark Properties Ltd. and New York investors Joseph Chetrit and Joseph Moinian, have listed it for sale. They paid $840 million for it in 2004 and are believed to be seeking more than $1 billion now.

In 2007, the owners hired U.S. Equities Realty as their leasing representative. Michael Kazmierczak, who handles the tower for U.S. Equities, said that since then, the firm has negotiated new leases and renewals totaling more than 2 million square feet in the tower, or about half its total space.

Willis lost an anchor tenant, the consulting firm Ernst & Young, in 2010. However, the owner of United Airlines more than took up the slack and is taking 650,000 square feet in the tower by 2012.

The employer of that scared receptionist in 2001 also left the tower, but eight years later. The building’s most obvious security-related loss was Goldman Sachs Group Inc. in 2005, a decision it sealed months after the attacks.

Kazmierczak said key lease renewals were signed more recently with tenants that include the law firm Schiff Hardin. He said he doesn’t get many questions about terrorism. “The tenants are drawn to our location to transportation and to the under-roof amenities,” he said.

Kazmierczak said that because the building sits on its own block, even the lower floors enjoy generous views and natural light.

Before 9/11, a visitor could enter the tower and go right to the elevator. The attacks ended that privilege there and in many other downtown buildings. Some of the security crackdowns were seen as heavy-handed and the tower, like other buildings, has refined its approach.

Randy Stancik, a vice president at U.S. Equities and general manager of Willis Tower’s Skydeck, said security check-in has been speeded up. “We don’t want to be like a prison,” he said. All visitors used to have to go through metal detectors. Now only some do, and Stancik said the building continues to be vigilant with deliveries and its loading docks.

U.S. Equities had added art to the lobby to make it more inviting, and pedestrians can use it unimpeded as a short cut from Franklin to Wacker or to get to restaurants on the second floor. The Skydeck, with its separate entrance, has gotten new attention as a tourist attraction with the 2009 addition of the Ledge, glass balconies that give visitors a look 1,353 feet straight down.

Architect Daniel Coffey, a Willis tenant, said security procedures are vastly improved from the post 9/11 period. “They are acceptable instead of horrible,” he said.

Beyond the check-in desk is something else, communication with tenants, and experts on office building management said there is more of that at Willis and in other buildings because of 9/11.

Willis and other towers have contacts for every tenant, including for after-hours. Stancik said he runs quarterly evacuation drills that are taken seriously.

Michael Cornicelli, executive vice president of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Chicago, said his membership of more than 260 buildings is linked by a shortwave radio network for emergencies.

Since 9/11, the private sector has become more involved in public safety and there’s more coordination with emergency responders, he said.

Ultimately, the coming and going of tenants at Willis Tower has to do with market conditions, not fear. For the building’s owners and managers, it’s the best outcome they could have dared to imagine.

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