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COMMENTARY

Redeveloping the Superman building will breathe new life into Downtown Providence

The Providence city councilman for Ward 1, in which the iconic skyscraper is located, offers some suggestions for making the proposed plan even better for the public

The vacant Superman Building, formally known as the Industrial National Bank Building, and the Providence skyline as seen from the Providence River Walk.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

Last week, I was proud to join state and city leaders to announce a deal to redevelop the Superman building, formally known as the Industrial Trust Building, which is located in Providence’s Ward 1.

I was among those hailing this as a big win for our Ward, the City of Providence, and the state. The plan to convert the iconic building, which has been vacant for the last nine years, into a mixed-use, mixed-income community, should be celebrated.

The redevelopment of the Superman building will breathe life back into Downtown, the economic engine of our state, which has been recovering from the adverse impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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As the Councilman for this area, I’ve heard frequently about the challenges of our local restaurant, tourism, event, and hospitality industries.

This project is estimated to create 1,600 direct construction jobs and increase the state’s GPD by $166 million during the construction phase. There is a commitment for 20 percent local minority and women-owned participation in the project, and prevailing wage for construction workers with layers of taxpayer protection, including certain tax credits not being issued until a Certificate of Occupancy has been obtained.

I’ve also heard regularly from residents all across the city about our affordable housing crisis. This project will create 285 residential apartments downtown, with 20 percent of them – 57 units – permanently deed-restricted to match the state’s definition of affordable housing. I credit Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor and Governor Dan McKee for their persistence and tenacity during the negotiation process.

Ultimately, these redevelopment plans will further stimulate our local economy, reinvigorate our Downtown, and further build up this growing and vibrant residential and commercial neighborhood. The long-term returns will be enormous and certainly a step up from a seemingly frail Downtown that hasn’t quite realized its potential.

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Yet, some have been very critical of this deal, and their concerns are certainly valid. Any public-private partnership of this size should be scrutinized and deserves utmost transparency. While working collaboratively, we must ensure that the developer is held accountable.

At the local level and in Ward 1, I’ve been a fighter for our constituents, protecting the nuances of our neighborhoods and holding developers accountable. I’ve been at the forefront of making sure that the local community’s voice has been heard and with the redevelopment of the Superman building, this will be no different.

The city of Providence’s financial “skin in the game” is quite modest in comparison to the state’s: the $10 million low-interest loans from the City of Providence Housing Trust through the Providence Redevelopment Agency must be repaid, and the $5 million city grant represents only 2.2 percent of the expected funding sources. But the terms of the tax-stabilization agreement, or TSA, is where we have the leverage and hold all the cards. As such:

  1. The council should deeply scrutinize the terms of the TSA so as not to forgo too much municipal revenue in the future. We must not repeat the kind of TSA and tax break that the city executed with the Providence Place Mall. While many of my colleagues might disagree, since they are duly elected to vote on behalf of their constituents, with the Pension Obligation Bond vote up for election on June 7th, if feasible, why not ask the City voters if they approve the terms of the TSA?  I have confidence in the people to decide and this will ensure transparency, accountability, and a fair deal for the community.
  2. The Providence City Council should also determine whether the $5 million direct contribution from the city can come from our $28.1 million proposed American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) ordinance line item earmarked for addressing “Housing and Homelessness” and help increase the affordability of the deed-restricted units. This will shift the burden from our local taxpayer-funded “general fund” to the COVID relief we received from the federal government.
  3. Given the residential aspect of the redevelopment, state legislators should take the opportunity to redefine “affordable housing.” Currently, housing is considered “affordable” when it costs no more than 30 percent of the gross annual household income at or below between 80 percent and 120 percent of Area Median Income. In some parts of the city, including 02903 and 02906, the area medium income is significantly higher than in other parts of the city, leaving “affordability” in the eye of the beholder.
  4. We also have an opportunity to accentuate the community benefit of the redevelopment plan. The city council should demand the developer incorporate a publicly accessible observation deck (similar to New York City’s Top of The Rock) into the plan. Given the subsidies, all city and state taxpayers should be entitled to enjoy the Superman building and its sweeping views of the city. This will reduce the “exclusivity” effect and provide a true public amenity, all while generating traffic and tourism revenue for the city, state, and developer in the process.

While I continue to listen to the voices of our constituents and heed their important suggestions, one thing is for certain: we must also not get in our own way and squander this moment. This is a significant deal that will yield returns for the taxpayer in the long-term and revitalize Downtown and the city of Providence at large.

The alternative is the building being dormant for another decade, which in my opinion, is simply not an option.

John Goncalves is the City Councilman for Ward 1 in Providence, representing Fox Point, Wayland Square, College Hill, The Jewelry District, and Downtown.

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