Future of vacated building unclear

Costs pose a challenge to the city’s plans to remodel Providence’s tallest building

By and
Senior Staff Writer and Sports Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The fate of Rhode Island’s tallest building remains uncertain after its only tenant, Bank of America, moved out last Friday. The tower, nicknamed the “Superman” building due to its resemblance to the Planet News building in the Superman comic books, was the tallest structure in New England when it was built in 1928. The tower will stand vacant unless a new tenant is found.

The owner of the Superman building, High Rock Development, hired Cornish Associates in January to research the feasibility of different options for the building, including converting it into residential units. Originally named the Industrial Trust Building, after the regional bank that commissioned its construction, the building has always housed a bank through its 85-year tenure on the Providence skyline.

The Superman Building is one of the earliest skyscrapers of the Art-Deco movement, which was prevalent in architecture and fashion in the late 1920s and 1930s. Though the Art Deco style fizzled by the ’40s, the Superman Building is one of several well known American products of the movement, including New York City’s Empire State building, Chrysler building and GE building, the centerpiece of Rockefeller Center.

High Rock is asking the state for $40 million in historic tax credits to remodel the building. Because the state’s historic tax credit program is currently not in effect, the General Assembly would need to pass legislation to allocate tax credits to the company. In the past the state has provided the historic tax credit to make it easier for developers of historically important buildings to incur costs associated with maintenance of aged and important properties. In an interview with WPRI, economist Dean Baker said giving High Rock historic tax credits is “crazy” because the credit will allow the owners to keep the building vacant and the rent artificially high. Instead, High Rock should sell or rent the building, he said.

Providence Mayor Angel Taveras asked the General Assembly for tax credits to help fund the building’s remodeling as part of his “legislative wish list” to the House of Representatives, WPRI reported last month. The Senate Finance Committee heard legislation to reinstate the tax credit program last week, but the committee did not discuss the Superman building directly, and a vote has not been scheduled, Bloomberg Businessweek reported.

Taveras also told the press that he is not ruling out the possibility that the building might need to be torn down.

Tearing down the Superman building would “be a travesty” because of the building’s significance and because demolition would require a large expense of effort, said Mack Woodward, an architectural historian at the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission.

“It very much defines the space of downtown Providence. It is crucially important from a history standpoint,” Woodward said.

Adding more residential space would help revitalize downtown by bringing more retail and foot traffic to the area, he said. Apartments in the building would “have tremendous appeal,” Woodward said, especially for young people who do not want to live in the suburbs or retirees who are ready to downsize.

The possible redevelopment coincides with Taveras’ recent resolution to revamp Kennedy Plaza by making it more accessible to pedestrians and drawing more people downtown.

The Providence Preservation Society is not able to comment on the best use for the building until detailed and concrete proposals are released, said Paul Wackrow, advocacy and education coordinator at the society. The society will evaluate proposals based on how they would affect the building’s interior and exterior architecture, he added.

“We hope any proposals would maintain the architectural features that give the building significance,” he said.

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