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Finding A Suitor For Superman And Riverfront Development Top Rhode Island's CRE Wish List

Providence leaders and developers say their city’s current building boom is something they haven’t seen in decades, but the quest to find a tenant for its iconic Superman Building remains their kryptonite.

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza

“111 Westminster is a building often associated with a caped crusader,” Rhode Island Secretary of Commerce Stefan Pryor said Thursday at Bisnow’s Providence State of the Market event. “It is the kind of development that will be significant for the entire Northeast.”

The Superman Building, the tallest building in Providence at 111 Westminster St., has sat vacant since 2013 after losing Bank of America as a tenant. Proposals for the 428-foot, 380K SF tower have included an all-office configuration and even demolition to make way for a new Hasbro headquarters. But Pryor said the 19K to 20K SF floor plates on the building’s lower floors are ideal for corporate use to pair with a mixed-use repurposing on the floors above. Superman, it seems, is staying put.

The city and state governments are looking for tenants to jump-start its redevelopment, and both are confident they will eventually find the right fit. 

Kite Architects principal Christine West, Providence Department of Planning and Development Director Bonnie Nickerson, Rhode Island Secretary of Commerce Stefan Pryor and CBRE Senior Vice President Alden Anderson

Despite national criticism of the Ocean State as a place to do business, Pryor and other panelists Wednesday said the economic development underway in Providence is unprecedented and causing more cranes to dot the skyline. 

“I’m mayor of the country’s premier medium-sized city,” Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza said. “What we’re witnessing now is something we haven’t seen in a generation.”

With more than $500M in construction underway in Providence, Elorza said he viewed the public sector’s role as a partner to private industry and the creator of an environment that encourages more investment from the private sector. One such partnership will be officially announced in coming weeks when the city reveals its commercial development plan for the banks of the Woonasquatucket River.

The city’s Woonasquatucket Vision Plan is a 20-year master plan that will guide development along the river from the Olneyville neighborhood to the Providence Place Mall downtown. The city is investing $6M in 2018 to begin a process to transform the banks of the river into something like San Antonio’s River Walk. The city will encourage developers to build projects to face the river instead of nearby roads, and Elorza is optimistic based on how much development is already underway in Rhode Island’s capital city.

Vision Properties President Rick Shaffer and Cornish Associates Managing Partner Buff Chace

“It’s the most construction we’ve seen in at least 30 years,” he said. “People are moving into the city, people are visiting the city, and people are investing in the city.”

City and state business incentives and zoning changes have been key factors in the flurry of new development. In the past three years, 30 companies have announced plans to either expand within or relocate to Rhode Island, including Virgin Pulse, Priceline and Fidelity subsidiary eMoney Advisor. 

The state’s Rebuild Rhode Island Tax Credit can fund up to 20% of a project’s total cost while the Rhode Island Qualified Jobs Incentive Act can wipe out lease costs in certain circumstances by refunding income tax generated by newly created jobs, Pryor said.

Vision Properties President Rick Shaffer, Cornish Associates Managing Partner Buff Chace, ZDS Managing Principal Eric Zuena, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, M&T Realty Capital Corp. Vice President and Managing Director Daniel Kerner and BOND Brothers Director Bo Koloski

Kite Architects principal Christine West said zoning changes the city made in late 2014 were also vital in driving new construction and redevelopment. The removal of density restrictions allowed smaller apartments to be built, enabling a wider range of price points. Providence’s change to a market-based parking system also enabled land in the city’s Jewelry District to be developed when it previously wasn’t due to parking requirements. 

“I feel like that has been the secret sauce that has unlocked just about every crane in the sky,” West said. 

One aspect of Providence life panelists did not see eye to eye on was the city’s relationship with Boston. Providence Department of Planning and Development Director Bonnie Nickerson said she viewed Boston and Providence as having a regional economy that needs an improved transit link with greater frequency. Providing one would enhance Rhode Island’s appeal as an affordable alternative to Boston’s notoriously high cost of living. 

Kite Architects principal Christine West

While many agreed with Nickerson on improving the Massachusetts and Rhode Island rail network, not everyone felt the need for Providence to become Boston’s bedmate. 

“N-O. No. I think we’re lucky to have each other, but I don’t think I’ve been in Boston for over a decade,” Cornish Associates Managing Partner Buff Chase said with a laugh while highlighting Providence’s restaurants and other cultural offerings. 

Elorza agreed with Chase that Providence has plenty going for it in the cultural department thanks to institutions like the Rhode Island School of Design and the WaterFire arts organization, but he also saw merit to working with neighboring big cities like Boston and New York City. 

Massachusetts and Rhode Island already work together in the renewable energy realm with Rhode Island being the site of the first commercial offshore wind farm nearly 4 miles off the coast of Block Island. Pryor sees that relationship continuing with Massachusetts as Rhode Island’s northern neighbor pursues its own wind farms. But he still thinks his state has enough in the development pipeline to flourish on its own. 

“I do think there will be a day soon where Boston considers itself part of Greater Providence,” Pryor joked.