PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Out the window of his 17th-floor office high above Kennedy Plaza, former Providence Mayor Joe Paolino Jr. sees a constant reminder that Rhode Island’s tallest skyscraper is sitting empty in the heart of downtown.
The so-called “Superman” building at 111 Westminster St. – its 26 stories looking gray, grimy and dark – looms over Paolino’s own tower next door. The ground floor of the structure, long known as the Industrial Trust Building, has scaffolding on its outside, giving a forbidding welcome to passersby.
Paolino, one of the city’s biggest real-estate owners, argues the Superman status quo is intolerable. “You can’t let it be the way it is now,” he told WPRI 12. “Right now it’s stagnant. It’s tired. And it doesn’t give the city really a good view from anybody. … This building vacant is a symbol of governmental failure.”
Few seem to disagree that 111 Westminster’s plight is a major problem for Providence. But there’s still no sign that political and private-sector leaders are close to coming up with a permanent solution to fill the 90-year-old Art Deco landmark, which has been vacant since Bank of America moved out in April 2013.
David Sweetser, the Massachusetts real-estate investor whose company High Rock Development paid $33 million for the building in 2008, declined a request for an interview. Providence officials estimate the building’s value has plummeted since Sweetser took ownership: its assessed value for property taxes has plunged from $31.3 million in 2009 to just $14.2 million today.
High Rock spokesman Bill Fischer also declined to answer detailed questions. In a brief statement, however, Fischer expressed continued optimism that High Rock “will be successful in redeveloping the building.”
One unanswered question is about the building’s balance sheet.
Last year High Rock settled a lawsuit against Bank of America that alleged the bank failed to properly maintain 111 Westminster as required by its lease. High Rock, which sought tens of millions of dollars in damages from the bank, has not disclosed a dollar figure for the settlement. But it is widely believed to have been a substantial amount.
A small sign of Sweetser’s continued efforts to find a tenant is contained in a building permit High Rock took out Sept. 27. It shows the company is renovating a 1,200-square-foot corner of the seventh floor as a “mock up for marketing … purposes only,” which will create a “model set up” to show prospective renters.
Paolino estimates it will cost more than $100 million to rehabilitate the tower, and argues taxpayer subsidies will be necessary to make it happen, perhaps in the form of historic-preservation tax credits.
“It’s too big of a building to do, and no private investor is going to be able to do that by themselves,” he said. “It has to be a community project. And you need strong, not-take-no-for-an-answer leadership by City Hall and the State House. They have to be a bulldog on this. They have to browbeat potential investors or companies.”
Gov. Gina Raimondo’s administration, led by officials at the Rhode Island Commerce Corp., has repeatedly tried to help Sweetser find a new tenant for 111 Westminster since she took office in 2015. In an interview, she acknowledged it’s been a challenge, partly because the tower’s small floor plates and low ceilings are a poor match for many modern companies, which often want open-plan offices.
“It’s a hard building to fill – it’s very old,” Raimondo said. “It’s an old style of building. It needs a lot of renovation. … We have a lot of businesses looking here, but it’s hard. It’s easier to fill a building that’s brand-new than a building that’s been there for a long time.”
Raimondo and Paolino both confirmed Citizens Bank strongly considered moving into 111 Westminster before opting instead to build a new suburban corporate campus in Johnston. “We put a lot of effort into that,” the governor said.
“We thought we had the Citizens deal done,” Paolino said, recalling a meeting in the governor’s office with bank executives, state leaders and city officials. However, he said, “parking was a big problem, and it was going to be very costly for them.”
Other companies including PayPal, Samsonite and Hasbro have all reportedly looked at the building, which also figured in the state’s unsuccessful bid for Amazon HQ2.
“We’ve gotten very close with a few big companies and will continue to put a lot of effort into it,” Raimondo said. “It’s a big building, so you need a big tenant.” She said she thinks the most likely outcome for Superman is a “mixed-use” facility, with “a combination of retail, residential and commercial.” While Sweetser at one point proposed converting the building to all apartments, the governor still wants a company there.
As for whether taxpayer subsidies will be needed to put the building back in action, Raimondo said, “Probably. But it’s premature to say. And my interest, of course, is I don’t want to negotiate with myself.”
Paolino has his own suggestion. He thinks local business leaders should form a consortium to buy the building from Sweetser and restore it, modeled on a similar successful effort in the late 1970s that saved the Biltmore Hotel. “Let’s get all the major developers and investors in Providence, major business owners, and let everybody make it into a community project,” he said.
Raimondo called that “an excellent idea,” saying, “This is important, but it’s especially important to the city of Providence; it’s especially important to the business owners who are in downtown. They ought to take ownership. No one person can fill it. … The business community, the mayor, we all ought to get together and say, ‘What’s it going to take to fill this?'”
A more radical idea has also been floated: knocking the building down altogether. However, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza all but dismissed that option during a debate on WPRI 12 earlier this month.
“It’s part of our skyline and it’s part of our identity,” the mayor said. “It’s a beautiful building.” He promised that his team at City Hall would “keep working every day to get that building filled.”
Brent Runyon, executive director of the Providence Preservation Society, said his group views the Superman building as “the biggest preservation issue in Providence,” and has put the tower at the top of its annual Most Endangered Properties list.
“It is a blight on the city to have the tallest building remaining vacant with a dark lantern,” Runyon said in an email.
The preservation group wants High Rock to take steps next year “to address the issue of spalling on the limestone exterior,” referring to pieces of stone breaking off. Runyon also said the organization thinks 111 Westminster should be “a top priority” for Raimondo, Elorza and the General Assembly in 2019.
“People who suggest that the building be torn down are either pessimists who don’t see any good in Providence or they are ignorant about the actual conditions of the building and the efforts that are going into putting the building back into use,” he said. “Boosters of Providence and Rhode Island know that the Industrial Trust Building is one of a kind, something to cherish and celebrate.”
Putting aside the merits of demolition, Paolino questions whether it’s even feasible. “I don’t think the building can be knocked down,” he said. Having consulted with engineering experts, he said, “Those bricks are going to have to fall somewhere. I think you’d have to do it by hand. I think it’s going to be very complicated.”
George Tsiatas, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Rhode Island, agreed that imploding the Superman building is unlikely. “It is difficult to demolish skyscrapers in densely populated city centers using traditional methods such as explosives,” Tsiatas said in an email.
“It can still be done,” he continued, “but at a cost starting at the top and deconstructing the building slowly using torches to cut steel members, etc.” Companies in Japan have developed a system to take apart towers and slowly lower them using jacks, he noted.
Elorza’s vision for revitalizing the Superman building is part of his larger vision for Kennedy Plaza. “We are reconfiguring Kennedy Plaza and turning it more into the Bryant Park of the city,” he said, referring to the famed green space between 5th and 6th Avenues in Midtown Manhattan. “We’re configuring it in a way that it becomes the front door, the front step to the building, to make it more marketable going forward.”
(Paolino, who has repeatedly clashed with Elorza over Kennedy Plaza, is skeptical. “The mayor talks about making it Bryant Park,” he said. “It would be great if it could be. But you don’t have a bus depot in the middle of Bryant Park.”)
In the meantime, Elorza said he has forced High Rock to do “a number of things” at the building involving “safety but also the aesthetics.” He said the city made the company move a boiler trailer off Westminster Street into the neighboring alleyway, at a cost of about $75,000 to the owner. “So we keep a constant eye on it,” he said.