25 jun 09 The Chicago Tribune

Sears Tower plans hotel, self-greening

by Sara Olkon

Rooftop gardens, solar panels, wind turbines considered to improve energy efficiency

Despite the glut of hotel rooms and declining consumer demand, the owners of Sears Tower have unveiled an ambitious project to build a luxury hotel adjacent to the landmark skyscraper.

As part of the plan announced Wednesday, the 110-story office building would undergo a $350 million environmental face-lift designed to reduce electricity use by up to 80 percent. The owners hope Sears Tower's green efforts, including solar panels and possibly wind turbines, would supply all the power needed for the 50-story, 500-room luxury hotel at Wacker Drive and Jackson Boulevard.

Financed by private funds, the hotel would draw "net zero energy from the power grid," said John Huston of American Landmark Properties, representing the partnership that owns Sears Tower. He said the owners also were looking at public funding options.

The five-star hotel would be designed by high-profile Chicago architects Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill. Smith is the chief designer of the Trump International Hotel & Tower, the tallest American skyscraper since Sears Tower.
Huston said the hotel would open in 3 1/2 to 5 years; the tower project would take about five years and could begin as soon as next spring, he added.

Mark Eble, Midwest vice president of hotel consultant PKF Consulting, said it's too soon to say how popular green lodging would be with travelers or predict how the hotel might fare in the competitive Chicago marketplace.

"Is the Sears Tower location a good location for a hotel?" Eble said. "Hotels have to fill up seven days a week. Does anyone want to stay there on the weekends?"

Huston said he believes there is a need for a five-star hotel in the West Loop and said the project is forward-looking. "We are not building a hotel for today's market."

The announcement comes amid the worst downturn in the hotel industry since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Chicago hotel occupancy and average daily room rates have posted double-digit percentage drops over the first four months of this year compared with the same period last year.

At the same time, the city's supply of hotel rooms is rising. This year alone, four new hotels -- plus rooms that will join the inventory at Trump International -- will add 989 rooms to the downtown Chicago market.

Despite previous news reports that Sears Tower's exterior might be outfitted in an energy-saving silver skin, Huston said the modernization project does not call for changing the appearance of the building.

In addition to the environmental transformation, Sears Tower faces other changes. In March, London-based insurance broker Willis Group Holdings Ltd. announced plans to move into the building and acquire the naming rights to the tower. The Willis Tower dedication is slated for July.

The green hotel project coincides with new measures to make Sears Tower an energy-efficient skyscraper, including the replacement and glazing of the building's more than 16,000 single-pane windows and upgrades to the existing lighting and mechanical systems. Green roofs, solar panels and rooftop wind turbines also are under consideration.

Charles Jackson, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, an advocacy group, lauded the announcement.

"I think it's important to have visible symbols of goals that we have as a nation," Jackson said.