The Case-Mead Building, erected in 1859 and one of my favorite buildings downtown, is joining downtown’s microloft bandwagon. The building is still fondly known by some as Paolino World Headquarters, though the Paolino family’s property development company moved out to the nearby Fleet Center not long after Paolino père’s passing in 2012.
I recently ran into Paolino fils emerging from the building onto Dorrance Street, and I congratulated him for his recent purchase of the Tilden-Thurber Building (1895). After Paolino informed the group he was with that he had asked my advice on architecture often in the past, I remarked how rarely he had followed that advice. “You chose the colors for this building,” he replied, pointing up at the Case-Mead. Frankly, I don’t recall choosing those colors. They are splendid. But any colors would have improved the monochrome mustardly color that had been flaking off of its façades for years.
For years, Paolino and his father vied with Johnson & Wales University in the popular imagination as owner of virtually all the buildings still standing in downtown. The Paolinos demolished the Hoppin Homestead Building (1878), early homes to both RISD and Bryant College. It was torn down in 1978. No major old downtown buildings were razed after that until 2005, which saw the demise of the Providence Bank Building (1929, 1950) and in 2007 the Police & Fire Headquarters (1940). That was a remarkable stretch of preservation success. In the late 1980s, Paolino presided as mayor over the merciful demolition of Westminster Mall – as Westminster Street had been known since 1964 after it became one of the nation’s first and perhaps its ugliest pedestrian mall, which saw many of its beautiful buildings sheathed in faux modernist façades. After Paolino let cars back on the street, property owners started removing the faux façades, and a host of old buildings have since been turned into apartment complexes by Buff Chace, bringing a liveliness to downtown that had been absent since the late 1960s.
But that brings me back to the point from which I have strayed. The proposed 44 microloft apartments in the Case-Mead Building would be sized at 275 square feet and rent at from $900 to $1,200 a month. As at the Arcade (1828), which now serves as the local model for microloft housing, retail would continue on the ground floor. Next door, the Union Trust Bank Building (1901) is being transformed into apartments. Up Westminster, the Old Journal Building (1906) recently sold for $1.8 million and its neighbor, the Kresge Building, an Art Deco built in 1920 that still boasts its Casual Corner marquee, went in the same deal for $533,000. Both could end up hosting apartments. Even farther up Westminster, the Lapham Building (1904), an L-shaped building that cuddles Tilden-Thurber in its crook, is also being transformed into apartments.
Of course, the Industrial Trust (“Superman”) Building (1928) sits vacant, crying out to be filled with apartments, possibly including microlofts. Neither it nor the projects mentioned above would be financially viable without city and state help. That’s because while the cost of construction is as high here as in Boston, the rents here are half as much as in Boston. That’s a huge and unyielding bar to the incentive to redevelop. The buyer of the Old Journal Building, William Thibeault of Boston, told the Journal back in April that it would easily fetch up to $50 million were it located in the Hub.
Today’s Journal has an editorial, “Tough math for Superman building,” on the fate of the Industrial Trust that maps out with considerable intelligence the judgment that citizens must make in deciding whether that (or any) development project is a worthy candidate for government assistance. The historic tax credits that were revived as part of the new RebuildRI program were the most powerful economic development program in the state’s history until they were cancelled in 2008. Without them, Mayor Cianci’s bowling balls might still be hurtling down Westminster Street. Downtown’s revival shows what kind of return such spending can bring. Now it seems to be continuing at full throttle, and that is a good thing, not just for developers and property owners but for all Rhode Islanders.