PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island leaders on Tuesday unveiled a plan to redevelop the long-vacant “Superman” building downtown, arguing that a mix of public and private funding can revive the skyscraper for a second century atop the city skyline.
The complex financing plan — announced by Gov. Dan McKee and other officials at a State House news conference — proposes transforming the 26-story Art Deco office tower into a mixed-use building with 285 apartments as well as office, retail and event space.
The total cost of the project is estimated at just over $220 million, according to a signed term sheet between the parties. Zach Darrow, a lawyer for building owner High Rock Development, said the goal is to begin demolition within five to six months and complete the project over two-and-a-half years.
Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor said $26.2 million of the project’s budget will come from the state; $15 million will come from the city of Providence; up to $24.1 million will come from federal tax credits; and the rest will be financed by High Rock through a mix of cash, debt and equity.
“As Rhode Island continues to lead the region in our economic recovery, this project will help to maintain that momentum by reinvigorating downtown Providence, creating good-paying construction jobs, increasing our state’s market-rate and affordable housing supply, and generating further opportunities for the residents and businesses of our capital city,” McKee said in a statement.
The skyscraper at 111 Westminster St., Rhode Island’s tallest building, got the “Superman” moniker in recent years because of its resemblance to a structure seen in the 1950s TV show. But for decades it was better-known as the Industrial Trust building, named for the bank that built it in the 1920s. (The bank changed its name to Fleet in 1982, and Bank of America later acquired Fleet.)
High Rock bought the building in 2008 for $33.2 million, but it was left empty and decaying when Bank of America moved out — exactly nine years ago Tuesday, in fact. Multiple proposals to redevelop it have foundered since then, in part due to the hangover from the disastrous 38 Studios deal.
The building’s assessed value has fallen from $31.3 million in 2009 to just $14.2 million as of last year, according to city records.
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David Sweetser, the Massachusetts real-estate investor who leads High Rock, acknowledged how long it had taken to come up with an agreement to redevelop the building.
“But what’s never changed are our views on Providence and Rhode Island as a good place to make investments, and we certainly remain bullish today on downtown Providence,” Sweetser told reporters.
High Rock sued Bank of America in 2013, seeking $54 million in damages based on allegations that the bank had failed to maintain the building in compliance with its lease before moving out. The two sides settled for an undisclosed amount in 2017.
Pryor — who is also considering a run for general treasurer this year — argued the project could be transformative for Providence.
“Most of the images of our capital city’s skyline involve this building,” he told 12 News on Tuesday. “It’s a gorgeous, although dormant, feature of the skyline. This set of investments will breathe new life into this iconic tower. It will also bring hundreds of new residents to our capital city’s downtown. It will produce hundreds of construction jobs. And it will send a signal that our capital city and indeed our state are on the upswing.”
While the plan relies on existing programs, House Speaker Joe Shekarchi said the General Assembly may need to pass “enabling legislation” allowing the city of Providence to agree to a 30-year tax stabilization agreement for the project.
Pryor suggested the state had driven a hard bargain with High Rock, reducing its original state subsidy request of $48.3 million by nearly half and doubling the number of affordable apartment units. He also acknowledged it had taken six months to come up with the plan, finalized Sunday night, and that the framework still needs a number of approvals before it can move forward.
“Until it’s voted upon, it’s not enacted,” he said. “Having said that, the key executives from each of these boards, commissions and councils have been involved with this process, so we believe that these commitments will be fulfilled.”
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Here’s how Pryor described each element of the financing plan.
State: $26 million. Pryor’s agency, Commerce RI, would approve $15 million in Rebuild RI state tax credits and grant $5.7 million from the state’s First Wave Closing Fund. Rhode Island Housing would provide $4.5 million from its Workforce Housing Innovation Challenge program and $1 million from its Acquisition and Revitalization Program.
City: $15 million. The city of Providence would use the Providence Redevelopment Agency’s Housing Trust to extend a 40-year loan at 1% interest worth $10 million to High Rock, Pryor said. In addition, the developer would receive a $5 million grant from the city — Elorza said the source of that funding is still being determined — as well as the tax stabilization agreement to reduce its property tax bills.
Federal: $24 million. High Rock expects to secure $22 million in federal historic preservation tax credits. The developer will also seek to obtain $2 million in New Markets Tax Credits, a program designed to encourage development in low-income communities. Those tax credits are awarded by community development organizations.
Developer: High Rock has agreed to contribute over $42 million toward the project, which Pryor said breaks down as up to $32 million in cash equity and the estimated $10 million value of the building and the land it sits on. (The developer can offset up to $11 million of the cash equity by finding other sources of revenue, such as naming rights or telecommunications leases.) The developer would borrow $115.7 million to cover the rest of the cost of the project.
Rhode Island Foundation: Due to the timing of when High Rock will receive its Rebuild Rhode Island tax credits from the state, the Rhode Island Foundation has agreed to extend a loan to the developer at 1% interest to lower the financing costs for the project, backed by the tax credits.
“It’s often said that nothing good is easy, and this deal was anything but easy,” Shekarchi said.
All that money would turn the Superman building into a mainly residential structure, with 285 apartments taking up most of its more than 400,000 square feet. A High Rock spokesperson said the developer envisions a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom units building-wide.
Under the terms of the deal, 20% of the apartments — or 57 units — would be for lower- and moderate-income residents: 10% for individuals who make up to 120% of area median income (AMI), or $72,650 a year for an individual; 5% for individuals who make up to 100% of AMI, or $60,550; and 5% for individuals who make up to 80% of AMI, or $48,450. The rest would be market-rate units.
State officials did not immediately have more information on how much they expected monthly rent would be for the apartments designated as affordable. The term sheet said Providence residents would be prioritized for the lower-cost apartments.
In addition, the tower’s elegant 26,000-square-foot banking hall would become a space for retailers, events and community use. About 9,000 square feet would be commercial office space.
McKee and Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza indicated they are hopeful the Superman building renovation could also help revitalize Kennedy Plaza, a priority that state and city leaders have been debating for years. The mayor linked that to the growing number of housing units in the area.
“Providence’s downtown is transitioning from mostly commercial space to more and more residential space,” Elorza said.
According to Pryor, other pledges made by High Rock include using a project labor agreement to ensure union workers do the project, which he said would create over 1,500 construction jobs, and making “a best-effort commitment” to give 20% of subcontracts to women- and minority-owned businesses.
Darrow, the lawyer for High Rock, said he expected it would take roughly six months to complete demolition work inside the building, describing it as an “extraordinary” job in part because the tower sits in the densely built heart of downtown.
High Rock will also seek LEED certification for environmental friendliness, and contribute $500,000 over 10 years to the homelessness organization Crossroads Rhode Island.
Commerce RI also argued the agreement with High Rock includes protections for taxpayers: the Rebuild RI tax credits and First Wave Closing Fund subsidy won’t be paid out until the developer obtains a certificate of occupancy; Commerce RI must sign off on the sale of the building to “an institutional user” — such as a college — or leasing more than 91 units to such a tenant; and the developer must “repay some portion of the state’s investment in the event the project performs well above market.”
Senate President Dominick Ruggerio praised McKee and his staff for their efforts.
“Obviously, this is the third administration that’s dealt with this particular issue, and they’re the ones that got it done,” he said.
Cliff Wood, executive director of The Providence Foundation, said: “Hearing this announcement today was like sipping a Del’s on a hot day. It’s one of the best pieces of news we could hope for in Providence.”
However, the plan drew instant criticism from state Sen. Sam Bell, a Providence Democrat who frequently clashes with other state leaders. He called it “a truly horrendous deal, even by RI standards.”
“A city TSA is wildly inappropriate for a project receiving so many other subsidies,” Bell tweeted, referring to the tax stabilization agreement. “Especially when it is converting pretty cheap office space to luxury housing. Spending so much public money to drive jobs out of the state is a terrible idea.”
Providence mayoral candidate Gonzalo Cuervo also expressed concern about the financial commitments the city is making to the project. “Maybe we can throw in a convertible Bentley, too,” he quipped.
But one of Cuervo’s opponents for mayor, Brett Smiley, was upbeat. “So excited that the Superman building will soon be lit up again,” Smiley tweeted. “Happy to see the proposal brings more affordable housing opportunities to Downtown Providence.”
Tuesday’s announcement came as one of Rhode Island’s other high-profile public-private projects — the Pawtucket redevelopment plan anchored by a soccer stadium — is running into headwinds due to fast-rising costs for supplies and materials. Pryor said the $220 million estimate for the project’s cost was developed in recent days, and expressed confidence it is accurate under current circumstances.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook