Lawmakers: Political will needed to revamp ‘Superman’ building

Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio calls for support of the Superman building. (Photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI 12)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) –  From lawmakers to lobbyists, more than 150 stakeholders crammed into Providence’s tallest building Thursday to once again try to drum up support for a public subsidy to revitalize the vacant skyscraper.

The challenge: convincing anyone outside the doors of 111 Westminster Street that saving the “Superman” building will take an investment from taxpayers.

“We have to look at reality and not act on emotion,” state Rep John Carenvale, a Providence Democrat who serves as vice-chair of the House Finance Committee, said. He urged his colleagues to “do the right thing” in spite of public “naysayers.”

Thursday’s rally came with no new request to the state, but representatives from the building say they still need around $39 million in state support to turn the dormant property into a mixed-use facility that would include office space and rental apartments.

Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio said he isn’t sure if lawmakers will consider a plan to revamp the building during the current legislative session because “we haven’t seen the ask,” but he acknowledged meeting behind the scenes with officials involved in the project.

Ruggerio said he worries that Rhode Island residents are still suffering from a “38 Studios hangover,” referring to the failed $75-million taxpayer-backed loan the state provided to former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling’s video game company in 2010.

The theme of the day: “political will.”

Ruggerio, Carnevale and Council President Luis Aponte all made it clear they recognize they may need to take an unpopular vote in order to advance the project.

“It will take unwavering political will,” Aponte said.  “And a lot of money.”

The value of the 350,000-square-foot Art Deco skyscraper has taken a significant hit since David Sweetser and his real estate investment firm High Rock Development bought it for $33.2 million in 2008. The building is now valued at $15.4 million, according to the Providence tax assessor’s office.

“If the building was [worth] zero, you still could not renovate the building without public assistance,” Sweetser said. The building’s only tenant – Bank of America – moved out in April 2013.

Sweetser and a team that includes downtown developer Arnold “Buff” Chace, communications guru Bill Fischer and lobbyists Zachary Darrow and Nicholas Hemond have attempted to secure millions of dollars in state and federal tax credits for the building over the last three years, but state lawmakers have declined to take up the issue.

Fischer said the attempt to bring Citizens Bank to the building set the project back “about a year. “The bank wound up choosing vacant land in Johnston instead.

With interest rates and construction costs on the rise, supporters of the project say Rhode Island should not wait to act. Sweetser’s team says the downtown housing market maintains 95% occupancy rates, which suggests a need for more residential space.

An economic analysis from HR&A Advisors first published in 2013 and updated last month suggests 278 housing units and 33,000 square-feet of commercial space could generate around $193 million in one-time economic spending and support 800 construction-related jobs over the course of 30 months. (HR&A Advisors was hired by Sweetser’s team.)

“The longer it takes, the more it costs,” Michael Sabitoni, president of the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council union,” said.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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