More than 150 civic, business and political leaders gathered in the majestic grand banking hall of the vacant Superman Building Thursday to endorse the use of an as-yet-unspecified public subsidy to revitalize the iconic structure in downtown Providence.
Boosters said remaking the Jazz Age-era building with a mix of uses emphasizing residential would create more than 1,000 jobs, help fill the demand for more downtown housing, and offer other economic benefits.
"I want to close by saying how appreciative I am that so many came here today to lend their voice and their credibility to the Superman Building," said David Sweetser, the founder and principal owner of Massachusetts-based High Rock Development, which bought the structure for $33 million in 2008. "I can tell you that up to today, it's been somewhat of a lonely fight. However, together we can re-purpose this building. This just isn't a problem to solve, but an opportunity to reset downtown Providence."
Sweetser said he expects his specific request for a public subsidy to emerge within 30 days, as his firm's precise proposal for reusing the Superman Building is refined.
Yet with the General Assembly session nearing the finish line, and with the hangover from the failure of video-game maker 38 Studios still lingering, it remains unclear if lawmakers will support a public subsidy for what is formally known as the Industrial National Bank building. Previous requests for subsidies have received a lack of political support.
During a lengthy speaking program, Sweetser tried appealing to the sense of place manifested by the beauty of the iconic building developed in 1928. He pointed to how the door on the basement vault laden with more than 10,000 safety deposit boxes weighs 34,000 pounds.
Those on hand for the news conference included Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio; Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza; City Council President Luis Aponte; and Providence state Reps. John Carnevale and Joseph Almeida.
Other speakers expressing their support for the reuse of the Superman Building included downtown developer Arnold "Buff" Chace, a consultant to Sweetser; Laurie White, executive director of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce; Michael Sabitoni, president of the Rhode Island Construction and Building Council; and Brent Runyon, executive director of the Providence Preservation Society.
Advocates also pointed to a string of other Rhode Island developments that utilized public subsidies, including South Street Landing and Veterans Memorial Auditorium.
Yet the reaction on social media to looming request for a public subsidy was quick and unsentimental.
On Twitter, some people called for demolishing the Superman Building. Others called for Sweetser to sell the property at a loss after buying high, and letting the market determine the outcome.
Sweetser responded by saying it's not that simple. Even if he were to sell the structure, he said, a public subsidy would be required to re-develop it. “If you were to build this building here or in Boston, Mass., the cost of the building is virtually identical," he said. ".... Yet the rent in Boston is twice the rent in Rhode Island. It shows that there’s just a gap, there’s just an economic gap.”
Asked about the timing of the latest push on the Superman Building late in the legislative session, Sweetser told reporters that it's a function of how Citizens Bank ruled out coming to the structure, announcing in March that it would instead build a new corporate campus in Johnston.
Supporters like Neil Steinberg of the Rhode Island Foundation (disclosure: which provides some grants to RI Public Radio; the radio station is based in the RIF building) called the Superman Building part of the unfinished business of improving Providence.
"This building, I believe, and the renovation is key to the revitalization of Providence, and the revitalization of Providence is key to the revitalization of the state of Rhode Island," Steinberg said.
City Council President Aponte said the future of the Superman Building is about more than just the question of whether the public and politicians will back a subsidy. If a university winds up moving into the building, he said, the structure might come off Providence's tax rolls.
This post has been updated.