The Superman Building: Downtown’s Ticking Time Bomb

Monday, June 27, 2011


Former Providence Mayor Joe Paolino wants you to imagine a city without the Biltmore Hotel next to City Hall. Or he wants you to think back to how devastating it was when Shepard's Department Store left downtown. “That’s what it will be like if Bank of America leaves the ‘Superman’ building,” he says.

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Paolino is beginning to raise eyebrows with his calls for the city to do whatever it takes to keep Bank of America in the city’s tallest and most well-known building, constructed in 1928. The bank, which is nearing the end of a 10 year lease agreed to in the early days of Congressman David Cicilline’s tenure as Mayor, has slashed staff in recent years, but is still one of the state’s largest employers, due in part to its presence in the “Superman” building.

A Ticking Time Bomb

But the former Mayor believes there is a real chance Bank of America could desert the downtown skyscraper, which overlooks Kennedy Plaza. He says the question city and state officials should be asking isn’t, “why would they leave,” it’s “why would they stay?”

“It’s a ticking time bomb if they move out,” Paolino said. “It would be like the Biltmore closing. It would kill local businesses.”

Can’t Be Converted

The building, which is owned by High Rock Westminster Street, is worth just over $30 million, according to the city’s assessor database. High Rock paid $33.2 million to buy the property in 2008, roughly $12 million more than the building sold for in 2003, when FleetBoston sold it. Soon after that sale, Bank of America acquired Fleet for about $47 billion.

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The bank has continued to be the building’s main occupant. But if it were to leave when the least ends in 2013, High Rock might have difficulty filling the space. Because of its unique makeup and the fact that it was built over 70 years ago, there aren’t many businesses that can use the space, according to Paolino.

“It’s not really the type of building that can be converted,” he said. “Unless it’s an institution that buys it, which would be great. But it’s not in great condition and there’s no parking.”

Chace: Bank of America Has A Footprint In Providence

Still, others maintain that it’s too early to worry about what will happen to a building 18 months from now. Downtown real estate mogul Arnold “Buff” Chace said he’s aware of the concern around the possibility of Bank of America leaving, but “I’m not sure why this is an issue right now.”

“Bank of America has a footprint in Providence,” Chace said. “Obliviously it would be bad to see it go. [But} I ’m not sure what you can do about it.”

Chace said he has spoken with the owner, who has indicated a willingness to modernize the building.

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It’s Not Going To Be Torn Down

Unlike Paolino, Chace said that while it’s not “21st century office building,” the "Superman" building could be converted to a mix-use space that could be for both residential and business purposes. He said the downtown area needs more buildings that could be used for more than one use, which would help it compete with its biggest rival: the suburbs.

Chace said the big question will be whether the economy will turn it self around quick enough for the owner to be willing to renovate. But he maintains that he’s not worried.

“It’s not going to be torn down,” he said. “That’s a great building. A classic ‘20s building that is well-known.”

Hearing Rumors

Others say they’ve heard rumors about the bank possibly leaving downtown, but aren’t sure what to make of them. Still, the message is clear: If the “Superman” building were to go dark, the city could be devastated.

“Any time a major thing like that happens, it can impact the economy,” well-known economist Len Lardaro said. “I’ve heard people talking about [the bank leaving], but that’s it.”

Time Running Out

But Paolino says time is quickly running out and that he believes some of the state’s top elected officials should try to reach out to Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan to convince him to keep the bank in Providence.

Paolino said he would recruit Senator Jack Reed, a member of banking committee, and General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, a former investment banker, to join Mayor Angel Taveras and “go see Brian Moynihan in North Carolina.”

Reed’s office said the Senator is committed to working with Taveras to create and keep jobs in Providence.

“Senator Reed works hard to bring business to Rhode Island and he supports the City of Providence in its efforts to grow and preserve jobs,” spokesman Chip Unruh said. “He will continue working with Mayor Taveras and Governor Chafee on this and other important economic development issues.”

Paolino Warned Cicilline

But Paolino worries that it could be too late. He was critical of Fleet’s sale to Bank of America in 2003 and said he called Mayor Cicilline during his second month in office to warn him that the bank could one day leave the “Superman” building.

And even though the bank has yet to show any indication that it will leave the city, the former Mayor believes he was right all along.

“I knew exactly what would happen,” Paolino said.

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