Greater City Providence

Providence Preservation Society statement regarding the Superman Building

Superman Building

Photo by Jef Nickerson

[box type=”note”]State from the Providence Preservation Society[/alert]

PPS’s Statement Regarding The Industrial Trust Building:

The Providence Preservation Society believes carefully considered redevelopment planning at the vacant Industrial Trust Building at 111 Westminster Street, Providence, is urgent and makes the following observations:

  • The Industrial Trust Building possesses a high degree of civic and architectural value.
  • The building is prominently located in downtown Providence, is an iconic visual statement in the Providence skyline, and its substantial bulk and idiosyncratic massing make it an important placeholder in the streetscape of one of the three main east/west thoroughfares in the City.
  • Given the very large scale of the building, its vacancy is a material drain on the fragile economy of downtown Providence and, by extension, on the economic vitality of the entire State.
  • The Industrial Trust Building is situated in Providence’s Financial District where recent private sector
    development evidences the beginnings of an economic renaissance. A vacant 111 Westminster Street places this renaissance in jeopardy.
  • For over 25 years, the Providence Preservation Society has participated in and sometimes initiated strategic conversations to facilitate challenging development projects in historic properties, particularly those large in scale. PPS has deep experience in this area of historic preservation planning and economic development and offers its assistance in moving the project to reality.
  • We well understand that development projects in historic buildings in Providence, especially those of a large scale, have required a public /private partnership in order to make them financially feasible. These subsidies have come in many forms. PPS offers no specific advice at this time as to the exact nature of any particular public role in the financing for redevelopment of this very important building.
  • Trustees believe that moving forward to create a vibrant, economically sound plan for the Industrial Trust Building is critical.

Continuing Engagement on The Future of The Industrial Trust Building:

The Providence Preservation Society is keenly interested in the future of 111 Westminster Street for the reasons outlined above. The organization intends to proceed with a high level of engagement in planning for the property’s re-use. It offers its expertise in preservation planning and development to the building owner and his development team, to the City of Providence, and to the State of Rhode Island and its agents. We look forward to tailoring the ways in which this engagement might take place to the particular circumstances of the property and its ownership. Our organization acknowledges that this may be the most critical development challenge currently facing any historic building in Providence, and one of the most important to resolve.

Greater City Providence

Promoting the smart urban growth of the Greater Providence region.


  • No subsidies, no public/private partnership, no public financing.

    Put the money towards the streetcar. And make sure it is not so halfassed that you can say “If you just miss it, you will get to the other end sooner by walking”.

    If they can not redevelop the building with a streetcar going past the front door, someone who can will buy it.

    Just another word from your friendly radical socialist, reminding everyone what government does best, what the market does best, and how they work best together.

  • PPS has long been pro-developer biased. Its board membership and funding have reflected that. Recall that most recently it failed to oppose the awful proposed Gilbane project on Thayer Street, which included the unprecedented pro-development rezoning of Thayer Street (for future development projects by Brown and others) and the demolition of nine historic structures. While many of PPS’ members are sincerely pro-historic preservation, its board and executive directors have often acted quietly as a trojan horse for developers. Beware.

  • Yeah, public support for this should be contingent on the apartments being a mix of working and middle class spaces. Otherwise it seems like the argument is that “we’re all in this together” except where ut concerbs housing people. A decent public transit expenditure would be better, as a platform that us truly public but also aids business. I second that. Seems like the superman bldg’s biggest problem is the perception that its lack of parking is a problem. A trolley into olneyville, pawtucket, and s. cranston/south side would fix that.

  • Sorry I don’t see what a streetcar between the Thayer St tunnel and RI Hospital has to do wth the Superman building, as that route has almost no commuter base and is already well served by the Route 1 -42 buses. On the other hand, a successful overall transit system can connect the Superman building and all downtown with almost every destination, but RIPTA’s chances have been crippled by the abundance of “free” (that is, subsidized) parking given to every state employee, URI-Providence student, Projo employee etc etc. For example, did you catch DHS wants to relocate 150 employees downtown but wants 300 parking spots leased with it. No wonder Ripta limps along, as the movers and shakers too often regard our bus and commuter rail system (Providence’s one transporation advantage over the suburbs) as a problem rather than an opportunity for Providence.
    Historic tax credits have been successful in redeveloping various mill buildings around the state and it should not be disregarded with respect to redevelopment of this historic building too.

  • I would venture to guess that most of the people in power who make those decisions, like DHS, etc., drive and rarely if ever use mass transit. Further it’s likely that most of them live in the suburbs or if they live in the city, live in outlying areas where the housing stock is effectively suburban or auto-centric in character.

    As for the streetcar Barry, I disagree. The streetcar shouldn’t be viewed as an only for Providence or only for Downtown or only for Brown or only for the Hospitals system. The very suburbanites that dominate the city and state governments and the business community “the deciders” would never under any circumstances set foot on the #1 or the #42 buses, no matter how frequent or convenient the service. Besides business doesn’t function on a 20-minute bus schedule as is the case with the #1 and #42 routes, but rather on 5- to 10-minute schedules. The deciders would at least entertain taking a streetcar rather than driving, to circulate throughout the downtown region, as would the other 50,000 or 60,000 people that live, work, or study within walking distance of the proposed streetcar route.

    Why are companies going to Boston? The answer is that they’re really going to Cambridge not Boston and the reasons why are a young workforce, proximity to universities, and the Red Line.

    The largest employment area in the Rhode Island is the Downtown/College Hill/South Providence (DCS) district. It’s too big to walk. So if a majority of the population won’t take the bus, we probably need all those downtown surface parking lots and a lot more, excuse the pun, when they develop the 195 land. The DCS corridor as defined by the proposed streetcar route is 2 1/2-miles long. The boom area in Boston (or actuality in Cambridge) is 4-miles long. The four Red Line stops in Cambridge between Porter and Kendall Squares have an office vacancy rate of between 2.1% and 6.7%. Beyond that area in Boston it jumps to 15.6% to 16.8% and in the other direction at Alewife it’s 17.1%. The Cambridge boom would not be happening if there was no Red Line.

    Part of the streetcar proposal is about encouraging development and more importantly jobs, which Rhode Island is in desperate need of. Whether it’s the 195 land or 111 Westminster without what is perceived to be a world-class transit system, which sorry to say even though it’s good RIPTA’s buses are not, the Providence area needs high-quality rail transit region-wide. That will reassure developers and investors to come to the city. Buses don’t do that.

    The Core Connector Study was a good first step. A second study needs to be conducted immediately to analyze what routes the streetcar or light rail should extend to. The routes can be along streets or in separate right-of-ways. The inner ring cities and towns of Pawtucket, Central Falls, East Providence, North Providence, Johnston, Cranston, and Warwick all need to be included as part of the study and as destinations.

    To build a 5,000-space parking garage would cost roughly $120-million or about the same as what it would cost to build the proposed Core Connector streetcar route. Why are companies coming to Providence? The answer is because it has a young workforce and proximity to universities and other institutions, but there are far fewer companies or startups coming here than there should be. A major reason why they’re not coming is because the city/region lacks frequent rail mass transit. If the peer cities of Charlotte, Portland, Salt Lake City, and New Orleans can do it, why can’t Providence?

  • It’s funny that you should mention a 5,000 space parking garage – is it not the case that several hundred spaces worth of excess parking in the Jewelry District would be paved in lieu of the Streetcar? Or, looking at it from another angle, that constructing the streetcar would prevent the creation of several hundred parking spaces?

    If that’s the case, you need to find out how many parking spaces would go in instead of the streetcar and subtract the cost of that parking from the streetcar’s price tag to find out the real price of the streetcar.

    I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it came out less than zero.

  • Many in the Providence area who urge use of public transit for others will not use it themselves. For example, Brown University always claimed publicly that it was in favor of mass transit, but quietly fought for years to allow increased employee and other staff vehicle all-day parking on College Hill. With the recent horrible deal between the city and Brown, Brown finally got those parking “rights” for hundreds of additional Brown vehicles.

  • I half agree with Peter and Andrew that a streetcar system would help Superman building and downtown generally but not the one being planned. Its not big enough to do much to serve a commuter base and also help redevelop underutilized areas (which is the layout of the Portland streetcar success.) . It also probably cannot be funded as its base of support is so narrow, it excites nobody except streetcar fans and some planners hoping for grants. What is needed is a well thought out greater vision which can be sold to the public. Indeed, other cities had to do that to get the voter approval to pay for it (usually a small increase in sales taxes) and we can do that too, indeed I don’t see much alternative to getting anything funded.

    I do disagree that we should basically give up on getting middle class people to use buses, as that attitude would doom our transit system, which will be dominated by buses for some time to come no matter what, and downtown Providence will suffer for it. I also disagree with Bill about blaming Brown. They are the rare employer that actually puts up $$, paying for Upass rides for all its students, faculty, and staff, resulting in pretty good ridership around Brown including on the 1 – 42 lines that Peter doesn’t think much of. Employers that provide “free” (aka subsidized) parking and no transit benefit (such as URI-Providence, the State of RI) are the ones that should be criticized first, not Brown.

    As for the jewelry district, in spite of there already having half of it area for parking, and Ryan’s comment on its “excess parking,” last night the Providence Zoning Board would not grant a variance to a builder who wants to put up a 6 story building there – 5 floors with 30 apartments and commercial on the ground floor, one level of underground parking. The variance sought was for 13 less parking spaces than required under zoning (they had room for 16 spots instead of the required 29.) Five neighbors objected (including thre heads of the neighborhood association, Children’s museum) claiming parking ws too tight in the area. The Board suggested 2 underground levels (but too wet) or using the ground floor for parking (but not allowed) and they finally put off a decision. So the chance for a major private development in the area is in doubt because the great god of parking requires 13 more spots. No wonder nothing gets built, transit cannot succeed, and Providence struggles!

  • It is also delicious that the majority (all?) of the JDA members live in housing that does not meet minimum parking on site because it is historic renovation without room for parking on site. Classic case of ‘I’ve got mine, none for you.’

  • It’s not that I don’t think much of the 1/42, also I’ve ridden on both.

    The glaring question is how do we get middle- and upper-middle class people, who are mostly from the suburbs or as transit agencies often refer to them as “choice riders,” which is really a code phase for middle- and upper-middle class white people, to take the bus or transit?

    One way is with any kind of rail, because rail is considered neutral from an socio-economic standpoint. Another should be the rapid bus or BRT. Next year we’ll see if the new R-Line is better at attracting those choice riders who refuse to ride buses today, because they associate buses with a less advantaged population.

    When RIPTA implements the COA schedule and route improvements, the excuse that the bus takes too or is too infrequent should be dramatically reduced. If the 1/42 (soon to be 1) were upgraded to a Rapid Bus status, specifically as it pertains to scheduling (at least every 10-minutes weekdays) and if the route were shifted to follow the proposed Core Connector route, the majority of the Downtown, College Hill, and South Providence area, where most of the employment is, would be well served from a mass transit standpoint.

    Unfortunately it has been repeatedly proven in many other American cities that development doesn’t significantly increase when the only mass transit mode are buses. Growth and job creation is explosive when streetcars, light rail, or subways are introduced to an area.

    We really need a second study. This system should be planned for Providence and it’s adjacent communities.

  • What’s going to get the minimum parking requirement lifted?

    Probably some kind of big, signature project that promises to move a lot of people between places, especially since the legislation to fund such a project could have a repeal of the parking minimums in the area of the streetcar attached to it.

    But, actually, since I’ve got the R-Line on the brain and am feeling saucy, let me run this by you guys:

    What about turning the R-Line into a streetcar? Maybe that would gain more traction than the Core Connector streetcar?

  • It could in part, besides Providence, an R streetcar would engage Pawtucket and Cranston, and perhaps Warwick (if the line were extended to Edgewood or Pawtuxet). It also could be extended further north to Central Falls. A connection to Johnston, North Providence, and East Providence could be another line. Centerdale, Fruit Hill, and Mount Pleasant are under freeway-ed, so they would benefit the most and probably should be first.

    Though using the R corridor wouldn’t help as much with interconnecting the Downtown employment/education region as it misses College Hill, the 195 land, the Jewelry District and the Hospitals or about 25,000 people from the core region.

  • Jef, I am disappointed at your broadside against the JDA. If a new development is unable to provide the quantity of legislated parking in the building, then any overflow would likely go onto surface parking. I would not support parking space quantity relief in that scenario either although I abhor surface parking lots.

    As for cityWALK, it is outlined as a connector between / among Fox Point, the Jewelry District, and Upper South Providence / Elmwood. It is clearly stated in the materials I have seen that it seeks “equal access to urban assets.” For instance, compare the India Point Park pedestrian bridge to the Clifford Street or Point Street i-95 bridges and see where the investment has NOT gone. cityWALK is the only proposed investment that would provide dedicated and higher quality pedestrian and bicycle access from the southside (which was tragically cut off from the water and downtown by 95) to the new developments and economy of the waterfront and Jewelry District.

    The “haves” get more. The “have nots” don’t. My sense is that you really don’t support this inequality.

  • Ada–

    And what, exactly, is the problem with “overflow” in existing, underutilized parking infrastructure instead of building more parking infrastructure? Especially if they pay market rate for parking? We’re not talking about a developer saving money by “exploiting” vast common goods here. We’re talking about higher density utilization of space for the right kind of uses that may cause some people to buy parking at market rates in the vast surrounding private infrastructure. So what?

    If a developer thinks they can sell the housing without additional parking, why would we want to build even more? The folks buying or renting will factor in the cost of available parking when choosing to live there.

  • This might be considered radical or subversive, but there should be no parking minimums Downtown at all. The entire city would be better off with them as well. If there’s a parking shortage, the market will find a way to provide it. It just won’t be free.

    1. Streets are for cars. Park them there, not off-street. Save the yards for gardens and vacant parcels for buildings.
    2. If off-street, park in structured parking to eliminate the blight of surface parking.

    1. I agree with Jim, no minimum parking requirements. Until this is legislated, however, there should be no leniency until development interests recognize (and citizens push for policy change) that no minimum parking requirements is good policy. Why require parking spaces at all ?
    2. Any solution (or zoning ruling) that encourages cars to surface parking is bad policy, in my opinion.

    Thanks for listening.

  • No, streets aren’t for cars. That’s the kind of thinking that got us into this mess to begin with. Streets are for people.

    A lane of parking spaces and parking meters could be put to better use as wider sidewalks, transit-only lanes (future streetcar tracks?), bicycle lanes/cycletracks – even parklets or other greenspace. There are a million different – and better – uses for the sides of our streets than parking cars. If we’re going to advocate for less surface parking, then let’s advocate for less surface parking – both on and off street. They are equally detrimental to our cities.

  • Jef, A little surprised by your comment on JDA members and parking.

    Many of the JDA members represent District businesses… and live elsewhere (probably in the dreaded suburbs). Of the members who do live here, I’d guess well over half have access to parking. The loft conversions were done under whatever the old zoning used to require for parking — probably none. And, as one comment says, people who are considering living in the District, factor parking costs into the decision.

    In comments to the board, the JDA cited an article in the Zoning Code that provides a clear-cut solution to the new building’s parking issue: 706.4 – Off-Site Parking: Off-street parking requirements may be provided on a separate lot from the lot containing the use for which parking is required…

    The JDA is not trying to stop the project; on the contrary, the JDA is all for more mixed use in the District.

    By the way, the JDA President didn’t comment at the Zoning Board session.

    But the basic issue, unsaid, is that all those surface parking lots, many of which get padlocked at night and on weekends, are just that: parked lots waiting for the happy day when a developer comes by with pockets bulging with cash to put up a building. That’s why the parking requirement in the code. When all the lots vanish under new buildings, the cars have to go someplace. All the well-reasoned arguments about the merits and logic of mass transport can’t change this silly country’s insistence on the freedom from having to wait for a bus.

  • ‘The cars have to go someplace”

    Yeah, exactly. someplace besides a walkable mixed use neighborhood, which you can not have if there is plenty of parking and driving.

    “…can’t change this silly country’s insistence on the freedom from having to wait for a bus.”

    True enough, but a growing fraction of the population is insisting on freedom from having to drive everywhere they need to go. They vote with their feet and dollars to bid up the cost of housing in cities where this is feasible. More would do it here if we let them.

  • A neighborhood association testifying against a lessening of parking minimums is officially telling the government that they want to maintain said minimums. We will never reduce our parking minimums if neighborhood associations are telling the government they want them.

    Yes, people factor in the cost of maintaining a car in the Jewelry District, but if the JDA is forcing developers to meet arbitrary parking minimums, then the JDA is helping to perpetuate our national obsession with the automobile. Forcing a developer to provide parking lessens the cost to the potential residents, which helps tip their decision towards having a car.

    If parking minimums were removed, the market would figure out what parking is actually needed. If surface lot owners saw a demand for overnight and weekend parking, and they felt they could make money on it, they’d respond. Or someone would build a garage. Or residents would reconsider car ownership. The Jewelry District is littered with Zipcars, is within walking (or quick RIPTA) distance of all of our major employment centers, not far from the train station…

    If someone wants a car, the proposed building is within spitting distance of the Coro Garage.

    Car ownership rates are dropping, but we’re still insisting on building a city from the past where car ownership rates were on a steady rise. When the surface lots get built out, the cars do not necessarily have to go anywhere, if we build a city that doesn’t require its residents to own a car, and makes it difficult to do so, then we have the opportunity for many of the cars to just go away.

  • “But the basic issue, unsaid, is that all those surface parking lots, many of which get padlocked at night and on weekends, are just that: parked lots waiting for the happy day when a developer comes by with pockets bulging with cash to put up a building. That’s why the parking requirement in the code. When all the lots vanish under new buildings, the cars have to go someplace.”

    Economics 101. At some point that space is more valuable as structures, but the reduction in surface lots will also make parking more scarce. Two things happen then: 1) mode shift if we have an actual transit system that operates in the area (critical) as the cost of car ownership and parking exceeds whatever perceived convenience exists for those who still want to drive; 2) Existing surface lots would be more valuable as garages that charge more for parking to make up for the capital costs of building a structure.

    Of course, the reality is that if we build a mixed-use neighborhood with well-connected transit the rest of the dense urban area we’ll see mostly mode shift as car ownership and use to access the space will make very little sense.

  • If the State is not going to commit to High Rock so they can kickstart this project, then I’d really like to see the governor/mayor appoint a steward for the building to work directly with High Rock to coordinate a series of studies to determine viable options. Mainly, what portion of the redevelopment will be earmarked for structural/mechanical/systems, and what portion would be aesthetics. I think if these numbers were made public, we’d see a lot more interest from potential tenants and maybe that would help with the financing and “selling of the project to the public”. I’m mainly thinking a boutique hotel to take up the lower 5-7 floors. This would be a nice financial commitment for 25% of the project.

    Maybe the public would be more supportive of the modest tax stabilization requests from High Rock (post project support too, by the way… nothing before it gets its C.O.) if there was an “anchor” commercial tenant(s). It would be great to see a luxury/boutique hotel operator and maybe a retail/restaurant/cafe announce partnerships with High Rock. The public, and especially people who work in downtown, would see a plan to clean up Kennedy Plaza and turn the lights on in the most iconic property in the state. Maybe the support High Rock could be given could be oriented on the mechanical/systems of the building, and not on the entirety of the project. Maybe High Rock can do this development floor by floor after the systems are brought to code. There must be more of a public look at the cost allocation/breakdown, along with the technical limitations of a piecemeal approach.

    Second, why not sell some condo-tel units in the building as part of that potential boutique hotel to help finance the redevelopment? These units would be very valuable and would have all the concierge and property services/amenities of the hotel. Their value would obviously higher after there was full occupancy, but they would be highly desireable with the best views in the state. Of course, Gina would have to remove the vacation home/second home tax for people who wanted to invest in this project.

    Third, why not write/sell development investment certificates to retail investors/depositors in R.I. While there certainly are Rhode Islanders that are totally against change and private sector financial support, there are tons of people that want to see the lights turned back on. Give us the opportunity to purchase a 5% investment note that matures in 5-10 years… that can be the extra reduction in the WCC (weighted cost of capital) that could push this project from a maybe to a yes in terms of feasibility.

    Fourth, as always… require that the universities/colleges pay their fair share in property taxes and reinvest into projects that will secure the tax base for our future…and restore hope that Providence will someday have property tax normalization.

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