PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A federal judge ruled Wednesday a lawsuit that the owner of Providence’s vacant Superman building has filed against its former tenant, Bank of America, will go to trial before a jury.
The building’s owner, High Rock Development, sued Bank of America in 2013 after the bank decided to move its workers out of the downtown landmark, eventually seeking damages of more than $47 million over the bank’s alleged failure to comply with its lease requirements. Bank of America is fighting the allegations.
U.S. District Judge William Smith’s decision was not a total victory for High Rock – he dismissed its arguments that the bank owed damages for leaving too much furniture behind, depriving High Rock of rental income, or failing to clean up asbestos.
Nevertheless, Smith determined there are significant factual questions at stake in the suit that should be decided by a jury, including whether the bank failed to maintain Superman in good enough condition to be rented as Class B office space and whether the bank did enough maintenance on the building’s facade, electrical and HVAC systems.
A trial date will be set “in the near future,” according to Smith.
High Rock and Bank of America had no comment on the ruling.
Smith issued his decision less than a week after WPRI.com first reported the Raimondo administration is in talks with PayPal about that company’s interest in opening an office in the Superman building, which has been empty and decaying since Bank of America’s departure three years ago. High Rock has argued significant taxpayer subsidies would be required to make the building viable.
The 26-story Superman building was built in 1927 by the Industrial Trust Co., which later became Fleet Financial. (The “Superman” nickname references its similarity to the Daily Planet building in the 1950s TV show.)
Fleet sold the building in 2003 but signed a 10-year lease to keep its employees there; a year later, Fleet itself was bought by Bank of America. High Rock purchased the building – and the bank’s lease – in 2008 for $33.2 million.
In his decision Wednesday, Smith noted that Bank of America’s lease included provisions that made the bank responsible for ongoing maintenance. High Rock argues the bank left the building in subpar condition in 2013, violating the terms of the lease, while the bank argues it did enough to comply.
A key issue in the suit is the status of the building’s iconic art deco facade, which needs tens of millions of dollars in repairs; Smith said Bank of America has its “weakest argument” when it comes to damages for the facade.
Specifically, Smith said two early 2003 assessments showed the facade “was in overall good to fair condition” just before Fleet sold the building, but that over the next 10 years Bank of America “chose not to implement” a number of recommendations it received urging repairs to the facade “to prevent it from deteriorating.”Ted Nesi (email@example.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes The Saturday Morning Post and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram