Will the Superman Building go Dark?

May 6, 2013

Providence already has too many underused office buildings.  Rhode Island Public Radio political analyst Scott MacKay, has some thoughts on what can be done to prevent the Superman building from going dark.

Maybe you were driving home from a night Celtics, Bruins or Red Sox game. Perhaps you visited friends in Boston or were returning from summer vacation on a lake in Vermont or New Hampshire.

 Driving down Route 95, at the crest of a hill near the Attleboros, you see the blue beacon beckoning you home from atop the Industrial Trust Building in Providence, known universally in Rhode Island as the Superman Building. Now the landmark Jazz Age structure designed in the Art Deco style popular in the 1920s is threatened with closure. This historic skyscraper has defined the Providence skyline for generations. Now, it sits empty, in mocking glory of a downtown that a century ago was a gateway to the most prosperous city in the nation. No Clark Kent is slipping into a telephone booth to save this building, which was dubbed the Superman Building because it bore a striking resemblance to the Daily Planet building in the 1950s television series. This is local urban legend, because this bank tower was never filmed for the Superman show; the actual Daily Planet building was the Los Angeles City Hall. No matter. To Rhode Islanders the building, which was New England’s third tallest tower when it was built in 1927, is an architectural gem and familiar part of the streetscape of an old New England city that values its past and has long been among the country’s top venues for historic preservation. The loss of this building would be a psychic blow to a state and city that have been much battered recently, particularly during this stubborn recession. But we can’t eat the views of this wonderful building. What happened is pretty simple:  Time and the relentless churn of capitalism wait for neither people nor buildings. The last tenant, the Bank of America, has moved out. In a city with a yawning glut of office space, no tenants are lining up to move in. So now the owners of this iconic white elephant are seeking a state subsidy to renovate the building to accommodate 21st century uses, such as a mixed retail and residential condominium development. The latest plan requested by the developers would put state taxpayers on the hook for a subsidy of nearly $40 million. Developers also want a 17-year property tax stabilization deal from the hard-pressed property taxpayers of Providence. Everybody points to the 38 Studios debacle as a template. It is true that Curt Schilling’s failed video game company and its $100 million burden that Rhode Island taxpayers may shoulder has cast a pall over some state investments in the private sector. That’s too bad because there are some economic initiatives that the state and city could use to help keep the Superman Building commercially viable. For example, the city should move quickly on its plan to move the teeming RIPTA bus depot from directly in front of this building. The belching diesel fumes and comings and goings of bus passengers too often give this part of our capital city the feel of a third world country. No prospective tenant who confronts this as a first impression is going to look positively on the building. Gov. Lincoln Chafee could help by moving some state employees in so that the building will not be mothballed in the short-term. And granting historic tax credits also makes some sense, even if direct taxpayer investment in the building emphatically does not. The owners, High Rock Development, took a gamble when they bought this landmark a few years back. They were betting that they could renew the long-term lease with the bank; they made the wrong gamble. Taxpayers obviously have no obligation to help the owners. Too tall to fail is not a viable economic development plan for a struggling Rhode Island economy. But maybe the developers can meet the state and city half way. Perhaps the building owners can raise some more money in capital markets so taxpayers won’t have to make a direct investment. Rhode Islanders don’t want to bail out this building but we don’t want that blue light going dark and taking with it another piece of our storied cityscape. 

Scott MacKay's commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35 and "All Things Considered" at 5:45.  You can follow his political reporting and analysis at our "On Politics" blog at RIPR.0rg.