Finding new and viable uses for 111 Westminster St., known to generations of Rhode Islanders as the “Superman” building, should be a top priority of Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee, Mayor Angel Taveras and the Providence business community.
I do not own, and do not wish to own, this downtown property. But as a lifelong resident of Providence, as a real estate investor, a former mayor, and former head of economic development for the state, I know how important it is to find new uses for 111 Westminster – and how difficult it will be.
At 428 feet, this landmark skyscraper is Rhode Island’s tallest office building. It is also a distinguished example of Art Deco architecture, one of the city’s largest taxpayers, and a real estate anchor in the financial district. With Bank of America poised to vacate the property, 111 Westminster will lose the only tenant that we have known during our lifetimes – and Providence will soon have a very large and very empty building on its hands.
This is why I have been publicly declaring that the best option for this building and our city is to keep Bank of America in this location. All other options are going to be difficult at best. It’s been more than 25 years since the last new office building, Fleet Center, opened in the financial district. And even Fleet Center became reality only because the city secured a multimillion-dollar federal grant to help finance the bank project.
In recent years, GTECH relocated to Capital Center from West Greenwich, but only because the state gave GTECH a no-bid, 20-year contract to handle its lottery business. Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island also moved to a new office building in Capital Center, but that was after vacating three buildings elsewhere in the downtown and receiving a $25 million tax incentive from the city.
Today’s real estate market in the downtown area is dominated by tax-exempt colleges and hospitals, which are continually buying commercial properties.
What many people don’t realize is that downtown Providence has always had difficulty attracting and keeping office tenants. Private investors are reluctant to construct office buildings without some kind of governmental assistance – grants, loans, tax abatements or property-tax stabilization plans. That is why the universities, with their strong cash flow, have become so important to the city. Their expansion should be allowed to continue, as long as they are willing to make tax payments on their downtown properties.