Sears Tower Gets a Much-Needed New Tenant

The tallest U.S. building has gained its biggest new tenant since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as a Chicago law firm signs a new 11-year lease. The Sears Tower has been losing tenants, and its vacancy rate has shot above 20 percent in the wake of the attacks, because many saw it as the most likely landmark terrorists would hit in Chicago.

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A Chicago-based law firm will move its headquarters into the Sears Tower this summer, becoming the building's largest new tenant in more than five years. Since 9/11, the nation's tallest building has been considered by some to be a possible terrorism target. And its occupancy rate has suffered.

From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER: Segal, McCambridge, Singer & Mahoney is a midsize Chicago law firm that has been leasing space on the second floor of Chicago's IBM Plaza for eight years.

MARK CRANE: We have grown. We've more than doubled our size here since moving in.

SCHAPER: Managing partner Mark Crane says because of that growth, the firm had to divide its staff and lease an additional 20,000 square feet of space on another floor, meaning staff has to go down the elevator and hike across the block-long building to another bank of elevators for face time with the bosses. So with the end of its current lease nearing, the firm went about looking for new space. Its brokers returned with a series of finalists, which included the Sears Tower.

It met every one of the law firm's requirements, 64,000 square feet of space on the 55th and 56th floors, which can easily be expanded to accommodate growth. It has among the best electrical and telecommunications infrastructure in Chicago. There are great amenities, like a health club, restaurants, its own post office. And it's in a near perfect location, close to major expressways and commuter train stations.

CRANE: You know, it also has - it's a fun building in that it is a landmark, it's known by everyone. You know, people from our firm from the out of town are excited that we're moving into a building that they know about, and they'll be able to easily find it when they come to Chicago.

SCHAPER: But with that landmark status comes some risk of terrorism. Last summer, the FBI arrested seven suspects in Florida and charged them with conspiring to blow up the Sears Tower. Authorities acknowledge the plot was far from being carried out. Sears Tower management officials say they talk regularly with the FBI, and say there has never been a credible threat of a terror related attack on the 110-story building.

Nonetheless, after the 9/11 attacks, the Sears Tower did loose tenants, a few marquee ones. And its vacancy rate grows in recent years above 20 percent. The law firm's Mark Crane says security was a top consideration.

CRANE: We certainly thought about that and we waited. And all of the partners here in Chicago had an opportunity to provide their input, expressing the concerns that they had. And our feeling is that Sears Tower is a very secure building.

SCHAPER: In the lobby of the Sears Tower, no one can get to any of the elevators without a key card. Visitors must register. They must go through a metal detector. And all bags are screened just like at the airport.

TOM DEMPSEY: I really believe that we're in the most secure building in the world.

SCHAPER: Sears Tower vice president and general manager Tom Dempsey says even petty crimes like stealing purses and laptops are rare in a building with 10,000 employees and over a million visitors a year. He says several big tenants have recently renewed their leases, while more and more new ones are moving in. Many in Chicago's commercial real estate business say the tower is coming back into vogue, in part because its stunning views can't be beat.

JACK MCKINNEY: Everyone really wanted to be in the high rise for some reason. And it just can't be because they won't take a long elevator ride.

SCHAPER: Jack McKinney is president of J.F. McKinney & Associates, a real estate firm representing some of the Sears Tower's rival buildings.

MCKINNEY: We represent about 10 million feet in downtown Chicago. And there is a posity of high-rise base.

SCHAPER: McKinney and others say concerns about terrorism in high rises may have been overblown. And office tenants are returning to sky high views that they can't resist.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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