Greater City Providence

PBN: Cornish tapped to convert Superman building to apartments

Cornish Associates has been hired to redevelop the Industrial Trust Tower at 111 Westminster St. in downtown Providence and turn the city’s tallest building into apartments, Cornish president and CEO Arnold “Buff” Chace Jr. said Tuesday.

The owner of the tower, High Rock Westminster LLC, picked Cornish to reinvent the property, known locally as the “Superman building,” late last year, Chace said, because of the Providence firm’s success revitalizing several blocks of Westminster Street.

[alert type=”warning”]Full disclosure, I work for Cornish Associates.[/alert] [alert type=”danger” heading=”Update March 5, 2013:”]WPRI: Tens of millions in RI tax credits sought for ‘Superman’ building apartments[/alert]

Jef Nickerson

Jef is Greater City Providence's co-founder, editor, and publisher. He grew up on Cape Cod and lived in Boston; Portland, Maine; and New York before settling in Providence. In addition to urbanism, Jef is interested in art, design, and ice cream. Please feel free to contact Jef if you have any question or comments about Greater City Providence.


  • This is great news. With the Arcade microlofts coming on board and now this plan, Downtown would have new life with the influx of residents. The only issue is making them affordable enough to have people move in there.

    Then there’s always the issue of parking, which we can leave for another day.

  • A downtown full drugstore/pharmacy should be brought along with this. Walgreens has new urban oasis stores that specialize in food sections and are beautiful. CVS can stay in the suburbs with their carpets

  • Or maybe it should be a small urban Target so other needs are met and prices would be lower

  • @Michael the prices offered by stores depend on a number of things. Rent, cost of construction, population density (for frequency of sales), demographics etc.

    You can see how a place like CVS will have different prices for the same thing at different locations.

    The prices offered by a store downtown will depend on what they have to pay for rent and on the economics of how many sales they can make. It’s not just the brand, but a ton of other factors.

  • I’d LOVE to see a Dave’s Market somewhere in downtown. Maybe the 195 areas? We need a full size grocery store within walking distance for people to get the benefit of moving into the city and not be dependent on their cars/parking.

  • With the Arcade, the Providence Gas project and potentially the Superman building being converted to residential use and the high concentration of college dorms in the immediate area, it seems like a no-brainer for CVS to convert their Kennedy Plaza store into a more urban-friendly design. There’s the much nicer full service CVS at Prov Place (which admittedly can be a chore to walk to), so it would seem to make sense for them to devote a large portion of the floorspace in Kennedy Plaza to groceries.

  • Could the rent for the “market/store/pharmacy” be subsidized by adding a small amount to each unit in the building? Lets say they fit 200 units in that tower and added $50 a month to rent for the luxury of having this business on the bottom floor or next door.. wherever.. that would equal $10,000 less that the business would have to worry about in rent per month and allow them to price accordingly. A long shot and maybe not even legal, but makes sense in my head and I like to see this site active so I figure why not ask if its possible! 🙂

  • While I currently work downtown, though live on the West Side, the thought of being able to live, work, and play downtown is extremely enticing. I frequent #60 to/from Newport on weekends and also Amtrak to CT and NYC. Being close to these transit hubs is important. The rents downtown; however, are out of reach. While the Arcade seems like a good fit, there are features I am uneasy with: 200 sq ft, built-in furniture, partial kitchenette… I am hoping, if this project were to come to fruition, that it will fill the gap between the high-end Westminster Lofts, Waterplace, Providence Gas and the lower-end Arcade.

    Another note, the banking hall should be reserved for retail. Forget office space. There are other buildings downtown. Having retail space at ground level entices better foot traffic beyond office hours. It kills me to walk down Pine Street behind the JWU buildings and see wonderful retail space set aside for classrooms or offices. It’s DEAD after business hours. The banking hall also provides a direct link from Kennedy Plaza to Westminster….and through the Arcade to Weybosset. This is a wonderful opportunity to open this space for cross-block pedestrian traffic. There are elevator bays kept aside that would provide the security for residents of the tower. The adjoining glass concourse/atrium of the adjacent bank tower has retail space (Au Bon Pain, FedEx) to be tied in. There is incredible possibility here!

    And lastly, amenities; I agree with the need for a grocery store. The “guess-the-price-of-this-unpriced-product” at Gourmet Heaven is far from a grocery store. Trader Joe’s is a good fit. An urban form of Whole Foods (look to NYC’s Union Square, or any other WF in Boston for that matter) can be integrated somewhere. They require a smaller footprint than other suburban prototypes. And yes, a pharmacy. I take the trek to CVS at Prov Place after work. The walk is daunting, but worth it. I find what I need at CVS and have been shopping there for years at other locations. I almost always avoid Walgreens. But that’s a personal reason.

    This is welcoming news. Though, this hinges on whether the state will reinstate the historic preservation tax credits or not. Hopefully, this type of project will be a push in the right direction to get those credits back.

  • The psychological impact of having the tallest building in your state being empty is incentive enough for this project to move forward

  • Typically the population needed to support a supermarket is 18,000 to 20,000 at a minimum, 40,000 to 60,000 is often preferred. Currently downtown’s population is in the 5,000 range. With the Arcade, the Gas Co. buildings, added student housing and potentially Superman the population might creep up towards 6,000. Short bus connections to immediately adjacent neighborhoods like College and Federal Hills others have the potential to expand the collective downtown population.

    For a substantial market or supermarket to succeed downtown it would have to be like nothing else in the region, completely distinctive to draw customer base from adjacent neighborhoods, daytime office workers, visitors and tourists, besides downtown residents. There are a few examples from other cities that might be a model for Providence.

    Eatily at Madison Square in New York might be a good example for the Superman bank lobby, though a Providence version wouldn’t have to be themed Italian like Eatily. Eatily in located on the ground floor of early 20th century office building, which similar to the Bank of America lobby that has extremely high ceilings and ornate details. The space is packed by a series of specialty high-end food shops and restaurants. There is ample seating from casual to more formal dining within this large space. Eatily is extremely popular and draws from more than the local Chelsea neighborhood.

    Pike Street market in Seattle might be another. Though Pike Street is more of a traditional public market with fewer opportunities to sit and eat and a majority of the space is dedicated to non-food retail shops more geared to the tourist trade. Quincy Market in Boston is another successful example that more people might be familiar with.

    A Providence downtown market could be eclectic with a mix of ethnic food shops and restaurants representing the diverse population of the city. An indoor farmer’s market could be located in it as well.

  • If we centered a market along Route 95 in one of the many vacant lots on the Downtown or west side of the highway, then the center of population for that market would include the underserved Federal Hill and West Side areas as well as being accessible by bus from the South Side. This would greatly increase the population served by the market. While it would not be a couple blocks from the residential core establishing itself on Westminster, if it were on the Washington Spine, residents could easily hop a bus back into the Downtown with their groceries. Places like Gourmet Heaven or expanded selection at a CVS or Walgreens would continue to serve residents daily needs.

  • Jef, I didn’t think of that. The West/South Sides are underserved, where the East Side is over served. Rather than wasting downtown land on a single-story big-box supermarket, decking over one of the 95 blocks between the West Side and Downtown, similar to the market built over the Mass Pike in Newton could allow for more dense development Downtown.

    If not food, would it make sense for the Superman bank lobby to become a mixed retail center to reinforce what’s been started on Westminster Street and what will soon develop in the Arcade on ground floor?

  • The key to a Downcity/West Side grocery is making it urban, i.e. attractive to bus riders and pedestrians and cyclists. While Downcity residents (and RISD students, etc.) can and do ride the 99 bus to Whole Foods on North Main, it is a pedestrian nightmare, having to make your way across the parking lot, then across North Main itself for the return trip.

  • Maybe it’s a crazy idea and would probably be too expensive given the slope of the streets, but as an example, if the Route 95 block between Broadway and Atwells were infilled with a market, it would have the potential to start breaking down the 95-DMZ reintegrating the two neighborhoods. There could be pedestrian frontage along Atwells or Broadway or both. For those that drive, maybe parking could be put on the roof. Even a small market requires a large footprint at least a full block, if not a couple blocks combined together. With all the surface parking downtown, it still might be difficult to find a large enough parcel.

  • If we’re going to start dismantling the wall created by 95, I think a much better place to start would be the spaghetti bowl interchange at Exit 22. In my opinion, it’s a pretty significant obstacle for pedestrian and vehicular access to the mall as well (as the train station, and both should really be considered a singular unit) from most of Federal Hill.

    Burying or shrinking the interchange would make an excellent catalyst for a future downgrade of at least part of the 6-10 Connector into an extension of Memorial Boulevard, and I would expect that the relevant portion of Atwells and Broadway for Peter’s infill proposal could also be re-aligned in the process to make putting something down there more viable. We could also make vehicular access to the mall’s two garages and the train station garage much easier (perhaps even at the “expense” of easy access direct to city streets, which, in turn, would hopefully encourage people to park and get out of their cars.)

    Speaking of the garages, any parking demands generated by flipping the Superman building to residential or building a nearby urban market can just as easily be met by expanding those garages. They’re there already, after all, and adding one or two new levels of parking to the garages you already have is certainly easier (and preferable!) than building a new garage would be. I don’t think it’ll be very long at all before the parking issue gets raised by someone once the proposal for residential use gains traction – this would be the best way to head that fight off at the pass.

  • Parking for Superman could be in the Arcade Garage? A lot of people seem to forget about it being there, I know that I did… the garage terminates the pedestrian axis from Kennedy Plaza that runs through Superman and the Arcade itself.

  • Providence might be better off with less parking! That would mean less traffic, less congestion, a more pleasant experience for pedestrians and bicyclists, and it might give the transit systems a better chance to succeed, all that attracting those more interested in a first class urban experience than in driving around everywhere. Cambridge, Berkeley and a few other places have had some success in limiting parking, while cities like Providence are failing as they can never compete with the suburbs for easy, convenient, free parking, maybe its better to offer an urban experience that the suburbs cannot.

  • An insolvent, overtaxed state being asked to prop up a politically-connected developer in an insolvent city. The next 38 Studios? Maybe we could fix Providence’s tax policies so that private projects could be self-supporting. And is there any demand for such apartments?

  • For the last seven or eight years during the worst of the recession, the occupancy rate for Downcity apartments has consistently hovered around 97-99% and the areas rents are the highest in the city. Between the Arcade and the Gas Company buildings, another 120+ units will soon hit the market. Downcity rents are high, but nothing like Boston or Manhattan.

    I don’t know about the Boston market, but New York had created a tax abatement program (421a), which lowered property taxes for an extended time period following a project’s completion. 421a has been in large part responsible for New York’s residential construction boom(s).

    Recently, the city effectively ended the program. New projects that hadn’t constructed foundations before the 2007 cutoff date would no longer be eligible. In the run-up to the economic downturn, in Manhattan alone something on the order of 250 projects and another 250 in the boroughs succeeded in constructing foundations prior to the 421a deadline. Hence a lot of blue plywood fences lining sidewalks concealing “holes-in-the-ground.”

    Today if you go to New York it looks like there’s a new construction boom starting again. The difference is that new residential projects are being built on existing certified 421a sites. The 421a abatement was money in the bank insuring that today’s development would happen.

    The Superman building was built for one tenant. Besides having dated office floor plates, it would be difficult to break up the building for multiple office tenants. At $250 to $300 per square foot construction costs, it’s unlikely that it would be feasible to convert the 350,000 square foot building into apartments. If a Downcity 1-bedroom apartment could be rented for $3,500-$4,000 per month or a 1-bedroom condo could sell for $1- to $1.5 million, then perhaps a developer could convert a building without any government help. If it were difficult to build residential without government help in New York, why would it be easier in Providence?

    Unlike 38 Studios, whether it’s the city or state or both, they would have a real estate asset as collateral instead of a few computers and desk cubicles. Does Downcity need another 250 to 300 apartments? The Arcade and the Gas Company buildings will be the test long before any tax deal or construction would be started on the Superman.

  • If I wanted to move downtown, that would be the building I’d want to move into. But I’d want the unit with the trolley car on my terrace.

  • Peter, have you been reading my Twitter feed? Points I’ve made (and strongly agree with you):

    1) Tax deal is not the same thing as a loan with bond holders.

    2) A building is collateral that has way more value than video game IP.

    3) The key question is whether we consider that building to be a part of the infrastructure and build environment of the city that has substantial impact on the value and quality of the surrounding area.

    4) The key is conversion for multi-tenancy, because the key problem now is the high expense of changing the use of the space at all and lack of flexibility.

    5) Conversion should be done with an eye toward maximum flexibility in use and lowering costs of any future conversions or anticipated needs. That’s what makes this an infrastructure conversation. We need the space to be viable for 100 years whatever makes the most sense to be in that space and to have the flexibility to fill that space in various ways (or operate without 100% occupancy from a rent perspective).

    6) It should not go condo or ownership because that will severely limit the ability to be flexible in the future, even if it makes the costs of conversions and upgrades more diffuse.

    7) There is a serious cost to doing nothing. Ignoring that not taking action incurs a huge cost is a failure to evaluate any proposal properly (this is another difference with 38 Studios where inaction did not necessarily result in a cost).

    8) Just as there is a serious cost of doing nothing, well beyond an empty building, the benefits are diffuse and mostly through externalities. Not taking into account potential spillover benefits is a similar failure to 7.

  • I guess PPS should add The Superman Building to its most endangered list:

    In the best of all possible worlds, Providence’s iconic Superman Building would be revived as housing that would add downtown residents and reduce the amount of prime office space. Yet Providence Mayor Angel Taveras isn’t ruling out the possibility that the structure might have to be leveled.

  • To give Mayor Taveras the benefit of the doubt, let’s assume that he’s posturing to pressure the General Assembly to approve the tax credits. But, “putting everything on the table . . . to take it down and put something else up,” would not be demonstrating the best leadership. That’s a lot of real estate taxes to put on the table.

    Besides the land costs and adding the demolition costs, who in the world would build something “else” on that site, especially, when there’s an empty lot diagonally across the street, the 110 Westminster site? If someone was interested in constructing a new building in Providence, I’m sure that the family of Jeremiah O’Connor III, the deceased previous developer, would be thrilled to sell the “110” lot.

    If High Rock Westminster Street LLC can’t afford to redevelop the building and doesn’t like paying real estate taxes on the building—then just sell it. There are plenty of Qatari and Chinese investors looking for US real estate opportunities.

    Supposedly, Providence is to get an EB5 Visa designation and office fairly soon. That would be one way to attract foreign investment. If the residential conversion model isn’t working so well for High Rock, they should consider a hotel or mixed hotel-residential project, since the return on investment for a hotel is higher than residential.

  • It is very strange that Gina has not made any real public effort to spearhead the redevelopment of the Superman Building. Clearly, the only way to do it is to break it up into manageable pieces in both square feet and time. Create an 8-10 year plan with partners for each component.

    Floors 1-2: Retail Space and Exterior, 2020-22
    Floors 3-8: Full Plate (Modern) Office Space, 2022-24
    Floors 9-15: Luxury Hotel, 2024-26
    Floors 16-26: Luxury Apartments & Penthouses, 2026-28

    Since the exterior is a public safety issue and eyesore, all exterior improvements could be done with a State grant. The City provides all commercial tenants a tax stabilization agreement for 20 years, but all for-sale apartments/condos would be subject to property tax. The property taxes would be earmarked to pay back the State grant.

    Light up the building with colorful lighting that can be seen for miles around. Showcase it. This rehab and rebirth and be done in nibbles so it is not such a daunting task. Once there are retail, office, and a hotel anchor tenant … these apartments and penthouses will sell themselves.

  • While it is feasible to develop the building in phases, and what will likely end up happening eventually; the exterior would need to be addressed, all windows replaced, and new mechanical systems for the entire building would need to be done before any phased development can take place inside it. You can’t do those key components in phases and those items are where the big money needs to be spent.

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