PROVIDENCE – It was one of the most memorable campaign ads from Gina Raimondo’s first run for governor in 2014.
Raimondo, her husband, and their two children were riding their bikes across various parts of the state as Ceci, Raimondo’s daughter, told viewers about her mom’s plan to create jobs, solve the state’s infrastructure challenges, and finally begin construction on the former I-195 land in Providence.
In the final scene, Raimondo’s son, Tommy, is seen wearing a super hero cape, and Ceci explained, “Tommy thinks all that could help fill the ‘Superman’ building.”
Raimondo will soon leave office to join President Joe Biden’s cabinet as Commerce secretary having accomplished many of her goals for rebooting Rhode Island’s economy, but the state’s tallest building at 111 Westminster St. – known locally as the “Superman” building – in the heart of downtown will be among the most notable misses on her record.
It’s not for a lack of trying. State and city leaders have aggressively marketed the 26-story skyscraper to local and national companies, coming close to landing PayPal and Citizens Bank, over the last six years. But politics, shifting priorities, and the reality that most projects are likely to need to need a robust public subsidy package have combined to leave the building vacant.
“Ever since I took office, there has always been some initiative or project where we were talking to someone,” said Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, who was sworn into office in 2015, the same year as Raimondo. “Sometimes it seemed like we we’re close, like to the one-yard line.”
The windows in Elorza’s second-floor office in City Hall give him a front-row view of the 350,000-square-foot Art Deco-style building that was constructed in 1928. It is the former Industrial Trust Bank building, but it earned its nickname because it resembles the Daily Planet building from the “Superman” comics. .
Its owner, High Rock Development, paid $33 million for the building in 2008, but city tax records show the value has plummeted to $14 million since Bank of America moved out in 2013. High Rock sued the bank for $54 million for allegedly leaving the building in disrepair, and the two sides reached what is widely believed to be a multimillion-dollar settlement, but a non-disclosure agreements bars anyone from discussing the deal.
Elorza called it a “challenging building and project” because “the market has moved past its use” as bank. He said the ideal outcome would be find a tenant who would occupy the entire building, but he called that option unlikely. He said a more feasible project might involve a mix of office space and apartments, but renovating the building would likely require significant taxpayer support.
“It would be an expensive project,” Elorza said.
David Sweetser, who runs High Rock, declined to comment through a spokesman.
The potential cost of transforming the building has long been a sticking point. In 2013, state leaders balked at Sweetser’s request for $39 million in tax credits and other assistance to build apartments and retail space in the building.
Once Raimondo took office, her Commerce Secretary, Stefan Pryor, led the charge on finding an anchor tenant under the assumption that state lawmakers might show more of an appetite to approve a subsidy package if there was a guaranteed occupant.
Aside from Citizens Bank, which opened a corporate campus in Johnston, and PayPal, luggage manufacture Samsonite gave the building a serious look. Officials also hoped Hasbro might consider moving its headquarters from Pawtucket to Providence. But no deals were finalized. Pryor declined to comment on the record.
Without a major occupant, the politics became more difficult.
While Senate President Dominick Ruggerio has long supported rehabbing the building, there was less interest from the House in recent years. Former House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, who lost his reelection campaign in November, often said he had concerns about subsidizing what he considered luxury housing in downtown Providence.
Cliff Wood, the executive director of the Providence Foundation, said Rhode Island still suffers from a “38 Studios hangover,” referring to a now-decade-old deal to give a video game company started by former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling $75 million to open its headquarters in Providence. The company collapsed, leaving taxpayers on the hook for millions of dollars.
Wood said there should be no comparison between a hard asset like the “Superman” building and a video game company, but he acknowledged that voters and some politicians have long memories.
“The redevelopment of that building, of that asset, is not a 38 Studios,” Wood said.
While Raimondo’s team has continued to shop 111 Westminster St., other proposals in and around downtown have drawn attention away from the building. At one point, there was a plan to build a baseball stadium for the Pawtucket Red Sox, but the deal never materialized. There has also been a years-long effort to build a 46-story residential tower on the former I-195 land. Construction hasn’t started, but the developer has said he still wants to build the new skyscraper.
The “Superman” building aside, Rhode Island has seen plenty of development on Raimondo’s watch. In her State of the State address on Wednesday, she said Rhode Island had just $84 million in commercial real estate investment during her first year in office. By 2018, it saw $1.3 billion.
“The long-empty Route 195 land in Providence is now a hub of innovation, with two million square feet of new development underway, creating thousands of new jobs,” Raimondo said.
Joseph Paolino, former mayor of Providence who owns real estate throughout downtown – including a tower next door to the “Superman” building – said Sweetser deserves a large share of the blame for not filling the building.
“Stefan tried hard,” Paolino said of Pryor. “But you have a seller who thinks it’s worth gold. The building isn’t worth anything empty.”
Paolino played a behind-the-scenes role last year in another potential deal involving 111 Westminster St. There was a proposal floated to allow wealthy, aging Rhode Island residents to earmark their estate taxes for a specific public project, like the “Superman” building, but it was never finalized, and then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
The pandemic has likely changed commercial real estate for the foreseeable future, so the status of the building is uncertain. But there is optimism in some circles that Biden might introduce an infrastructure package that includes incentives for similar projects. In a statement, Ruggerio said, “we are hopeful that once the pandemic eases, additional opportunities will arise.”
Elorza, who wants to run for governor in 2022, said the “Superman” building remains a “priority property,” but he acknowledged that the city hasn’t ruled out attempting to condemn it or take it by eminent domain.
“What I can say is we need to move aggressively on this,” Elorza said. “Every option needs to be on the table.”