TALL ORDER: Once home to Bank of America, the so-called “Superman Building” in downtown Providence now sits vacant. Recent studies say that R.I.’s tallest building would be best utilized if it included apartments in its next iteration.
PBN PHOTO/TRACY JENKINS
OPENING UP: Abby Fox, a spokeswoman for 111 Westminster St.’s owners, shows off the bank vault in the building.
Central to the argument for saving Providence’s Superman Building with public investment is a vision of the downtown economy driven by residents as much as office workers.
It’s a vision that’s emerged over the last two decades of downtown revitalization and would take a major leap forward if Rhode Island’s tallest building was filled with 280 apartments in the heart of the Financial District.
The new residents and their neighbors in other buildings would draw different services, such as a supermarket or expanded mass transit, than offices would.
The two recent studies of potential uses for the Superman Building at 111 Westminster St. outline the demographic and market shifts that have local developers rushing away from office construction toward rental housing.
If the studies are right, leaving the Superman Building as offices and failing to build new apartments in Providence will lead to serious oversupply in the office market, while exacerbating an apartment shortage that’s driving up rents.
Perhaps surprisingly, the most enthusiastic support for turning the Superman Building residential wasn’t paid for by property owner High Rock Development LLC, but by the city, which has pushed for continued office use.
4Ward Planning LLC of New York concluded in its report that “short of a large office tenant (e.g., large corporate user or the state) securing a minimum 50 percent of the building’s total leasable space within the next year, the viability of the [Superman Building] remaining as an office building is weak, at best.”
While High Rock has requested $39 million in state aid to renovate the building, 4Ward concluded that as much as $60 million would be a reasonable state investment to avoid having the vacant tower “destabilize” the local office market.
To support its finding that a downtown apartment tower is viable, 4Ward’s market study describes a real estate market tilting toward rentals in the wake of the subprime crash and expected to move further in that direction as the baby boomer generation enters retirement years.