I have been blessed to live and work all my life in Providence and to represent this great city as mayor. Many times in the past, I have seen the city’s leaders rise to the challenge of changing economic circumstances. Often, this challenge is manifested in the plight of a landmark downtown building that is empty and seemingly without prospects.
We face that challenge once again today in the plight of the dark and empty “Superman Building.” I am confident, however, that this landmark skyscraper will soar once again if city and state leaders join forces and find a new, viable use for it.
I am convinced that the best new use for the building, formerly the Industrial Trust Tower, is as the new home of a joint University of Rhode Island/Rhode Island College School of Nursing. The much-discussed plan can be put into place promptly if the state’s political and educational leaders take joint action, something I call on them to do during the 2013 session of the General Assembly.
Not long ago, the building was occupied by Fleet Financial, one of Rhode Island’s greatest economic-success stories. But Fleet was acquired by Bank of America, and the new owner has steadily relocated corporate functions to other states.
Of course, economic change affects every city, and employers come and go. Other cities that have fast-growing economies can rely on private companies to revitalize abandoned properties without any public assistance. It’s different here.
Providence has wonderful colleges, hospitals, financial institutions and professional firms, and it has a wealth of great creativity in its people. But it does not have a fast-growing downtown economy, and every major building that becomes vacant is a challenge.
The new owners of the Superman Building are seeking tax credits to re-purpose it. However, Rhode Islanders are nervous and angry about the prospect of offering more tax credits to a new business. Undoubtedly, this is a hangover from the 38 Studios imbroglio.
It should be recognized, however, that government has been involved in many other private ventures that were initially controversial and turned out very well. The list of successes includes the airport expansion, the bailout of financial institutions in the 1990s, Providence Place mall, the river relocation and the convention center. But our political leaders took decisive action because they knew that the people and state would benefit.
Still, the people and the political leadership have a right to ask for a timeout in the awarding of tax credits for private projects. But if this attitude prevails, what solutions are there for the Superman Building?
I believe that the Shepard’s building on Westminster Street is an excellent model for us to follow. Once a landmark department store known to generations of Rhode Islanders, Shepard’s closed in the 1970s and was still vacant in the 1990s, when Gov. Bruce Sundlun and Mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr. proposed that the state buy the property.
URI had to find a new home for its College of Continuing Education, because it was being displaced by the construction of Providence Place. I was head of the R.I. Department of Economic Development, and I put together a plan to relocate CCE to Shepard’s. The governor and I saw CCE as an economic engine for the renewal of the Westminster Street area. We won the needed approvals, and completed the project on time and below budget. Today, hundreds of URI students come into the downtown every day and are a welcome addition to Downcity.
A combined School of Nursing could become another robust catalyst for economic renewal if located in the Superman Building. A long-term lease offered by the state would make the renovation feasible for the private owner. At the same time, the building would remain on the tax rolls and help to support city government. The nursing school would also be close to the state’s major hospitals and to Brown University’s medical school. And the Downcity area would continue its transition from being primarily commercial to primarily institutional.
Brown, the Rhode Island School of Design, Johnson & Wales University and URI all have a major presence in the historic downtown. This reflects the reality that the Providence economy today is dominated by educational and health institutions and government, as well as retail/hotel/restaurant in the area of the mall.
Now is the time for state and city leaders to place the joint nursing school in the Superman building. It does no good for a building of its prominence to languish. We have all the tools and the programs we need to revitalize a landmark and to add another major institution to the city’s downtown institutional zone.
Yes, it will be a challenge. But if we work together, I think we will find that it really is not complicated. •
Joseph R. Paolino Jr. was mayor of Providence from 1984 to 1991 and director of the R.I. Department of Economic Development from 1991 to 1995.