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Can the Superman Building Be Saved?

Both sides of the debate weigh in on reviving Providence's iconic skyscraper.

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In July, when it was announced that the Superman Building would host free public tours, guests snatched up the 200 slots in less than two hours. Arguably the most iconic building in the city (if not the state), Superman doesn’t just occupy a place in our skyline, but in our collective psyche. For artists, its charismatic art deco design serves as a muse, showing up on everything from t-shirts to handbags to screen-printed posters. For citizens, it is a reminder of a time when the city, and by extension, all of us who live here now, regardless of our age, were on top of the world.

Twenty-nine floors above the streets of Providence is a room that, with its leather paneling and porthole windows, evokes the haute accommodations of travelling by airship in the 1920s. This is the Gondola Room, so called for its resemblance to passenger gondolas that drifted elegantly through the skies until a fiery day in New Jersey brought an end to a more romantic era of air travel. It’s safe to say that this room has played a key role in the decades of rumors and party myths surrounding 111 Westminster Street; the non-fact that zeppelins used to dock at the Superman Building has been repeated to and by most of us at one point or another. I’m told that the room was designed in honor of a British airship that crashed near the construction site of that very building. Google says otherwise. Regardless of any weight to the claim, it’s hard not to get swept up in the myth. 

When captains of industry were occupying this room, the vaults two and a half floors beneath the Industrial Trust Building’s grand banking hall contained $6 billion in assets behind two doors that each weigh 17 tons. Pneumatic tubes pumped cash like red blood cells through the monolithic heart of the city’s financial district. The entire building, all 380,000 square feet of it, pulsed with life. Providence was the costume jewelry capital of the world, and the building’s four-story beacon sparkled at the top of it like a diamond.

But it’s 2016, and the leather on the walls is cracked and torn, and several of the windows are boarded up. Bill Fischer, a spokesperson for the building’s Massachusetts-based owner, High Rock Development, tiptoes to a window with a spectacular view that would seem foreign to the powerful men who stood here nearly 90 years ago.

“I’m going to approach the window very carefully so as not to disturb our only tenant,” he says, speaking not of a well-to-do banker, but a peregrine falcon. The falcon, who nests just outside the window with the breathtaking view of the river, the hurricane barrier and the Atlantic Ocean beyond, wasn’t home. No one was home. There was nothing below us but steel, limestone and empty spaces.

The Death of Superman
The building has been virtually empty since Bank of America finally packed the last of its things and left in 2012. High Rock’s effort to revitalize the property has been a semi-annual discussion with its fair share of supporters and detractors. Both sides of the argument are passionate, and while everyone can agree that it’s an icon and a testament to Providence at its height, where they disagree is who pays for bringing Superman back from the dead.

Bank of America’s exit was no small shock. For 85 years, a bank had occupied the building in some capacity, though Bank of America was only utilizing about half of the building at the time. They had also invested $7 million into new fire safety and sprinkler systems less than three years prior to their vacating the building.

“That’s not the kind of investment one makes when they’re on the precipice of walking out the door,” says Fischer. “In many respects everyone got a little flat footed by their departure.”

The bank’s decision not to renew its lease was one of several factors contributing to the perfect storm of bad timing for High Rock and its owner David Sweetser. High Rock purchased the building in 2008 for $33.2 million, just as the Great Recession was about to lay waste to the state. 2012 came with the one-two punch of Bank of America’s last day of regular business operations – the dusty counters in the banking hall still display plaques with the date of the bank’s last day of business, Friday, April 12 – and the spectacular implosion of 38 Studios.

In 2013, High Rock proposed turning 35,000 square feet of the lower levels into retail and office space and converting the rest into 280 residential rental units. The plan would have required $39 million in state support, between $10 and $15 million from the city and $21 million in Federal historic tax credits. It didn’t get far. In 2015, High Rock tried courting Citizens Bank, who ultimately decided to setting up shop in Johnston. Just a couple of months ago, easy headlines briefly filled our social media feeds when the Commerce Corporation showed the building to PayPal in September, but they showed several places to PayPal.

The Building of Tomorrow

“The days of this building being single-tenant use are gone. They’re not coming back. You would need something significant for one tenant to be gobbling up 380,000 square feet,” explains Fischer. Currently there’s no concrete plan – though they’re expecting to have something for the next legislative session – but the idea has gone back to mixed-use, with the lower levels being repurposed for restaurants, retail and office spaces, with the bulk of the space turning into rental apartments.

There’s certainly a need for housing. In their annual report, Rhode Island Housing showed that demand will require 34,610-40,230 new units over the next ten years, the majority of which would be for rental properties. Of the overall demand, 57% of it will be in Providence. Fischer suggests that whatever new plan High Rock comes up with, approximately 270 units of rental housing would be a part of it.

Cornish Associates, which is consulting with High Rock on its redevelopment effort, are no strangers to the revitalization of historic downtown properties. Projects such as the Peerless Lofts have been redeveloped as mixed use spaces with significant state investments – mostly in the form of the now-discontinued State Historic Tax Credit – and the Smith Building and Kinsley Building, which offer affordable housing and workforce housing, respectively. The State Historic Tax Credit program, which Cornish’s managing partner Buff Chace had championed in the early 2000s was discontinued when the recession hit in 2008. The Rhode Island Commerce Corporation’s Rebuild Rhode Island Tax Credit, which has stipulations for the repurposing of historic properties, is seen by developers as the next best thing to the State Historic Tax Credit, but with a cap of $15 million per project it doesn’t meet the assistance High Rock is looking for for Superman.

“A safe number is $115 million to rehab the building,” says Fischer of the project’s total cost. This of course is an estimate, as at the time there’s no firm plan High Rock is ready to put forward. “There’s not a historic structure downtown that you can point to that was rehabbed without state and city support. It’s simply not going to happen. Right now this building is not producing. It’s not part of the economy; nobody is living or working here and paying taxes.”

Fischer points to The Arcade on Westminster, the Providence G and other historic buildings that have come back to life in the last decade or so as examples of projects that wouldn’t have been feasible without state aid. But above all else, the South Street Landing project, which is turning the dilapidated Dynamo House into administrative offices for Brown University and a state of the art nursing school for RIC and URI, is seen as textbook example of the good that can be done when developers and government put their heads together.

“The basic assumption there is that [the historic urban fabric is] one of our hidden assets,” says Chace. “We should come together and use the same types of resources that were used for South Street Landing to repurpose [the Superman Building].”

“The Dynamo House has received state tax credits, and that has certainly contributed to making that project work,” says Brent Runyon, executive director of the Providence Preservation Society (PPS). PPS, which has included the Superman Building on its Most Endangered Properties list twice since 2013, have selected the building as the location for their annual Providence Symposium, a weekend of events focusing on the question “Why Preserve?”

“We think that reusing and preserving that building makes a statement that our morale is strong,” says Runyon. “It’s less about preservation for the sake of preservation and more about what are we losing if we lose that building. We feel it would be similar to if city leaders had let the Biltmore Hotel be torn down in the ‘70s, or even worse.”

From an aesthetic standpoint, there’s nothing like it in Providence. One Financial Plaza, the city’s second tallest building, can’t help but look hopelessly generic by comparison. Inside Superman, the three gorgeous domes depicting zodiac signs, the seasons and the months of the year adorn the ceiling of the banking hall. This is the kind of building that just doesn’t get made anymore.

In addition to advocating for the revitalization of the Superman Building, PPS would like to see the State Historic Tax Credit return. “If structured correctly, it’s a fair system that awards credit based on merit rather than personality or politics,” explains Runyon. “It seems like that would be the kind of incentive we would want from the state to make things predictable for developers and really take the politics out of it.”

South Street Landing had its fair share of public hurdles, particularly the proposed museum for the property that turned out to be a non-starter. For years the building sat empty and decrepit. “It would still be that way without tens of millions of dollars in historic tax credits and incentives, and a tax stabilization agreement,” says Fischer. “Now the return is that you bring back a property, hundreds of people go to work, they come here, they move here, they spend money. It’s a long-term investment. The challenges of the development community and the political atmosphere don’t necessarily mesh up, but those are our realities.”

Kryptonite to Taxpayers?
Another reality is the fact that the failure of 38 Studios has left many citizens with a doozy of a hangover, turning every subsequent high-profile case of taxpayer aid into a round of drinks they just don’t have the stomach for. Tax credits for developers? No thanks, had a bad night a few years back, we don’t touch the stuff.

“These folks are sophisticated business people who are clearly capable of raising private equity. Fix it yourself. I want no part of it,” says Pat Ford, chairman of the Libertarian Party of Rhode Island (LPRI), which held informational picket lines outside of every tour of the Superman Building this summer. “We’re there just to provide a counterpoint. We don’t want people to leave with this romantic haze about how important it is.”

Ford can commiserate with the unfortunate timing of High Rock’s purchase, but at the end of the day he and LPRI – which galvanized around the fallout of 38 Studios and last year’s dalliance with building a new stadium for the PawSox in Providence – doesn’t feel it’s the role of government to fix it.

“It’s not a proper debate when you’re comparing giving $75 million to a baseball player who has no experience in the video game industry to brick-and-mortar projects,” Fischer states. “I don’t care who owns the building, there’s nobody on this planet that is going to repurpose this building without state and city support. We’ve got to learn from [38 Studios] and move on. It was an incredibly poor policy decision on behalf of a number of people who let the state down. It had nothing to do with this structure that’s been standing here and has contributed to society since 1927.”  

“Curt Schilling and 38 Studios made everybody scared of this kind of government funding, even though they’re not at all the same,” adds Chace. “That was a start up company, this is hard asset real estate.”
Sam Bell, the state coordinator for the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats, suggests that High Rock is deliberately keeping the building vacant until the state antes up. “The current corporate welfare approach has been keeping the building [unoccupied] far longer than the market would. That approach has been tried and it’s failed.”

Step out of the Superman Building and you’ll find plenty of evidence of the city’s need for affordable housing. Mayor Elorza and former Mayor Paolino have both offered their own solutions to panhandling and homelessness. Those plans offer competing points of view and come with their own detractors and supporters, but as far as Superman is concerned, it’s unclear what role its revitalization will play in this issue.

Both Bell and Ford point to the city’s shortage of affordable, low and middle income housing and are weary of taxpayers supporting high income or luxury units that will only be of benefit to a select few – specifically, Bell decries the development of downtown as “an all white, all segregated high income neighborhood.”

For their part, Chace says that he’s advocating for housing that would be of mixed sizes and available to mixed incomes. Fischer has said that luxury units are out of the equation given that the market in Providence doesn’t support them, but will the Superman Building have a place for citizens in need of affordable or low income housing? Will retailers and high income renters flock to the iconic tower if they’re afraid of Kennedy Plaza? Until there’s a plan to put forward, it’s all a bit hypothetical. What isn’t hypothetical is the dedication of either side of the argument.

“[High Rock’s owner] David Sweetser is bullish on Providence, he’s bullish on this building. He’s been incredibly patient,” says Fischer, pointing to the $5 million High Rock has paid in maintenance on the building since Bank of America left. “It has a future history, it’s just not written. We need to write it. There’s a solution to this problem, it just takes a collective will to solve it.”

Ford offers a counterpoint: “Build it. Fix it up. Make a fortune. Knock yourself out. God bless America. Just don’t do it on my dime.”

Like the hero who gives the building its nickname, the Superman Building has become a symbol. For its supporters it represents the very best of what this city was and could be again, not unlike how the last son of Krypton stood as an example that mankind could aspire to. But there were people who feared Superman too, who felt that his presence was holding humanity back and that as an unchecked power, he courted danger on a massive scale. Trade the cape for concrete and the super powered daring-do for debates over tax credits and our Superman isn’t so much different from the Man of Steel. At the end of the day, each comes with a healthy dose of idealism and the risk of collateral damage.