OP-ED: Look! Up in the Sky….

Can this latest plan to save Superman fly or is it laced with Kryptonite?

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We would all love to see the old Industrial Bank building, AKA the Superman building, saved. It’s an iconic symbol of the Providence skyline…but it’s been vacant for almost a decade.

Recently, the owner of the building, High Rock Development from Boston, has been trying to give it another shot. While some groups, preservationists for sure, were excited by the company’s renewed interest, others were more cynical. Rather than seeing a golden opportunity, they saw the owner, as well as the building itself, full of Kryptonite.

So before the debate over this newest development gains any real steam, let’s pause for a reality check of where we are.

You can’t fault the Preservation Society for not trying their best over the past few years. Every idea was entertained. Creative charrettes exhorted RISD architectural grad students to think out of the box, and they did. The building was placed on their “most endangered species” list for years, but no realistic, financially viable proposal came forward.

Five years ago, respected preservationist and downtown developer Buff Chace and his company Cornish Associates were hired to evaluate potential uses for the building. No concrete, or granite as would be more apt, solutions came forward to spur development.

If there was a realistic opportunity for a developer to make money on the property, trust us, it would have already happened. The major stumbling blocks remain: The massive cost of rehabilitating and converting the building, and would a conventional bank or even an investment group finance the part of the deal above the subsidies? Even with this new proposal, the odds still remain “highly unlikely.”

And let’s be real here. The building has significant exterior issues, and to our knowledge there have been no architectural and engineering analyses on the complexity and extent of converting the building from offices to apartments. Once everything is planned, there will certainly be unforeseen issues. Additionally, there is no parking and Kennedy Plaza and Burnside Park are not exactly Boston Commons or Bryant Park.

According to Chace, High Rock has always been interested in housing. In 2013, they proposed converting the building into 278 apartments, but their $115 million dollar proposal needed $75 million in subsidies and $21 million in historic tax credits and the state said no. 

Today, High Rock is proposing 285 apartments at a cost of $215 million with $45 million in state subsidies, Federal historic tax credits of $22 million and a Tax Stabilization Agreement. That’s $100 million more with only seven additional apartments!

So, what else has changed? First off, the governor. Governor Raimondo was convinced that a commercial building was the answer even if Superman had to fly away. Hasbro toyed with the idea of tearing down the existing structure and building a new 36-story office tower. It was touted as a win-win at the time by many local business leaders, who believed the benefits greatly outweighed the deteriorating landmark. While the deal did not happen, the teardown option was now on the table, and it isn’t completely off the table for Governor McKee.

Last month, High Rock received a dramatic wakeup call. The building was up for tax sale, which was called off when they paid $444,655 in back taxes explaining that the delinquency was “due to internal error.” One Providence councilman wants to explore using
“eminent domain” to take the property, obviously not understanding the tremendous cost that would be passed onto taxpayers in a city that is virtually broke.

Commercial is off the table and apartments are back. In an attempt to entice more state collaboration, High Rock has promised at least 10 percent of the building will offer “affordable housing.” Allegedly some financial support might come from the successful owner of the nearby Market Basket Supermarket chain that has just opened its first RI store. 

Behind the scenes, there are rumors that other locations for the Kennedy Plaza transit station are in play that might solve a thorny problem for the city. 

Whether Providence’s Superman story has a different ending this time remains to be seen. But the two major stumbling blocks remain: The financials, although this time there are at least more encouraging headwinds based on an appreciating real estate market. And, can state lawmakers and taxpayers look past the Studio 38 debacle and take a leap of faith that this investment will be different, understanding that they will probably not be in first position to recover the investment if the project goes south.

The original TV show began with the announcer: “Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Look. Up in the sky. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Superman.”

After a decade of misfires, will some Superman finally be able to bring this building back to life, or will the sky be empty?

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