Designation by the National Trust for Historic Preservation of Providence’s iconic art deco Industrial Trust Co. building as one of America’s most-endangered historic places was welcomed by local preservationists.
But they understand more than national publicity generated by the designation is needed to save the vacant tower, known locally as the “Superman” building.
“A most-endangered list is not a recipe for success,” said Rachel Robinson, director of preservation for Providence Preservation Society, which nominated the building for the designation. “It’s just keeping it in the spotlight.” The building has been atop the society’s list of most-endangered structures in the city since it was vacated in 2013. But the national designation – which does not come with funding – is a reminder that the building has historical significance.
Preserving and ultimately reusing it, she added, will require a public-private partnership with “local and state government and a corporate neighbor who is willing to make an investment as well.”
The owner of the building, High Rock Development, was not involved in soliciting the designation. PPS informed the principal, David Sweetser, that it had applied for the status.
High Rock, meanwhile, through a spokesman said it is trying to market the building on its own. “We continue to pursue every possible lead and maintain our engagement of [CBRE Group Inc.], one of the most highly regarded commercial real estate brokerage firms in the country, to actively market the property to potential tenants,” said Bill Fischer, a spokesman for Sweetser.
The challenge is a tall order. Purchased for $33 million in 2008, the estimated value of the building had fallen to less than half that by 2015, when the building was reassessed for city tax purposes.
The cost of renovation, last estimated in 2014, was on the order of $117 million for a redevelopment into rental housing with ground-floor commercial space.
Given the cost, any solution that retains the building will require a public-private partnership, said Robinson. A restoration of state and federal historic tax credits would be required, she said. Although the federal tax credit program is active, the state historic tax credits have not been replenished in several years.
Rep. Blake Filippi, R-Westerly, said the designation by the national trust will have meaning if it surfaces private investment in the building.
Private investment is what is needed, said Filippi, the House minority leader, not a public “bailout.”
If the building has no worth, he said, tear it down and convert the site to something useful. The building – clad in Indiana limestone – can be razed, broken up and repurposed, he said.
“Turn it into a breakwater,” he added. “If there is value in that building, the private market will discover it. … If it doesn’t have private value, why on earth would the state invest in that?”
Mary MacDonald is a PBN staff writer. Contact her at Macdonald@PBN.com.