Providence City Council considers taking ownership of Superman building

Updated at 5:25 p.m., Sept. 2

PROVIDENCE – As the developer who owns Providence’s most iconic skyscraper says they are working to redevelop the long-vacant property, city officials are considering taking matters into their own hands.

A proposal introduced at the Providence City Council meeting Thursday calls for the city to study the feasibility of seizing control of the “Superman” building using eminent domain. The resolution was immediately referred to the city Finance Committee for further review and recommendation. There was no discussion apart from a brief explanation of the measure by its sponsor City Councilman John Goncalves, whose ward includes the towering Industrial Trust Co. Building at 111 Westminster St.

The resolution notes that while numerous proposals to redevelop the building have emerged since Bank of America moved out in 2013, none have moved forward. 

It is in the best interest of all Rhode Islanders to bring the building back to productive use as the longer it remains vacant, the more expensive it becomes to maintain and rehabilitate, thereby increasing the likelihood the entire building will be torn down,” the draft resolution states.

- Advertisement -

The proposal comes amid preliminary plans from owner High Rock Development to repurpose the 428-foot building for residential use, including some affordable housing, for up to 450 people. While the company has been discussing options for tax credits for the project with R.I. Commerce Corp., no formal applications or plans have been submitted to the city or the state, according to High Rock spokesman Bill Fischer.

In an emailed statement on Wednesday, Fischer cast doubts on Goncalves’ proposal.

It is difficult to understand how an eminent domain proceeding would benefit Providence taxpayers – as they would be required to pay 150% of fair market value for the building, inherit the re-development costs that we now possess, and then have the responsibility to manage and maintain the building into the future,” Fischer said. “Over and over again we have seen participants unfamiliar with the property step into the fray and offer ideas that are simply not implementable after garnering a thorough understanding of development costs.”

He also said, “no one is better positioned to redevelop the building than High Rock Development and we are excited to have the opportunity to make that happen.”

Goncalves in response insisted that eminent domain was a “last resort option.” For now, he simply wanted to explore whether it was even possible. 

“This does not suggest we should go down that path,” he said. Goncalves added that he was “100% in support” of any proposal to revitalize the building, but wanted to have an alternative if a deal fell through.

He declined to comment when asked if he was skeptical about High Rock’s latest plans, given that prior proposals have not come to fruition.

Some other city officials were open to exploring eminent domain, at least as a possibility for redeveloping the long-vacant building.

 “No tool for accomplishing this is off the table,” Mayor Jorge O. Elorza said in an emailed statement. “We have explored various options and I welcome the City Council doing so as well.”

Council President John J. Igliozzi also said he was open to listening to all ideas and avenues for bringing the building “back online.”

As for whether the city would be better able to find a new use for the building than High Rock, Igliozzi said, “There is no doubt there is some potential financial benefit the city could package in a way a private developer could not.”

While High Rock paid about $33 million when it bought the building in 2008, it has depreciated to about $14 million as of the most recent city valuation.

UPDATES the Providence City Council action taken at its meeting Thursday. 

Nancy Lavin is a PBN staff writer. You may reach her at Lavin@PBN.vom.