The $114.7 million plan released last week to turn Providence’s “Superman Building” into apartments generated sticker shock across the state, but few alternatives for the Art Deco landmark.
Tower owner High Rock Development LLC’s proposal seeks $39 million in state assistance, a taxpayer investment House Speaker Gordon D. Fox, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee all backed away from.
Two market studies of the building, including one commissioned by the city, supported High Rock’s suggestion that apartments were ultimately the best use for the property at 111 Westminster St.
Both said filling the roughly 350,000 square feet of office space in the building would be difficult and the developer-funded report claimed such a large increase in vacant space would depress surrounding property values.
Without a separate renovation plan, the building doesn’t appear attractive to smaller tenants. Roger Williams University, which is looking for about 80,000 square feet of downtown office space, isn’t even considering the Superman Building.
Last year, Chafee proposed moving state employees to the Superman Building in a supplemental budget request, a move re-endorsed by Taveras this spring.
Now Chafee is seeking proposals from downtown landlords for 70,000 to 80,000 square feet of space for R.I. Executive Office of Health and Human Services workers currently in Cranston.
But High Rock spokesman William Fischer said the firm does not intend to submit a bid for the state lease and isn’t interested in temporary solutions for the building.
“Our focus is on using it for highest and best use,” Fischer said. “We believe our thoughts have been confirmed that the best use is residential conversion and making decisions about the future incrementally is not the way to go.”
Health and Human Services appears a poor fit for the Superman Building, and possibly downtown in general, as its requirements call for 300 parking spaces and the 26-story tower doesn’t have any.
Colin Kane, principal of East Providence development firm Peregrine Group, agrees that the long-term future of the building is residential, but said the economics are daunting and don’t present any obvious solution.
“It is an awkward building,” Kane said. “I don’t know if there is a silver bullet. I give them credit for coming up with options, but whatever creative solution you think of, it just requires lots of money.”
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