Suit Alleges Bank of America Neglected Rhode Island Skyscraper

By MICHELLE R. SMITH | November 13, 2013

The owner of Rhode Island’s tallest building is suing Bank of America for more than $23 million, saying it neglected the Art Deco-style skyscraper, leaving behind crumbling facades and other problems when it left it vacant earlier this year.

Newton, Mass.-based developer High Rock says the 26-story building, known locally as the Superman building for its resemblance to the Daily Planet building in the old “Superman” TV show, is unrentable because of the work that must be done. Its lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Providence in July and is due for its first hearing Thursday.

Bank of America denies that it breached its lease and has countersued, saying it is High Rock that has breached the lease, and asking for attorney’s fees.

A spokesman for High Rock and its lawyer would not comment on the lawsuit. A spokesman for Bank of America and its lawyer did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

The 428-foot-tall building is the distinguishing feature on the Providence skyline and had been used as a bank since it opened in 1928, first for the Industrial Trust Co., then its successor Fleet. Fleet sold the building in 2003 to Westminster Office and agreed to lease the entire building back from the company for 10 years.

Bank of America acquired Fleet in 2004 and assumed the lease. High Rock purchased the building in 2008, and the bank’s lease term ended on April 30. By the time Bank of America left, it had been occupying only about 20 percent of the building’s nearly 350,000 square feet.

High Rock says in its lawsuit that under the terms of the lease, Bank of America and Fleet before it were responsible for keeping the building in good condition, complying with laws and codes and for making any repairs. The company says the bank ignored repeated reports that pointed out problems and repairs needed at the building.

Bank of America “adopted a purely reactive facade maintenance program that did as little as possible, as late as possible, and at as low a cost as possible,” the lawsuit says. It goes on to say the bank would put up safety staging above the street to catch falling brick and stone, then collect it in pails and store it in the building’s basement.

The bank denies the allegations.

The lawsuit also says that the bank left behind desks, furniture and other property that would fill an estimated 76 full-size tractor-trailer boxes. The bank says the lease expressly permitted it to leave furnishings behind.

High Rock has been saying for months that the building needs extensive renovations. In April, shortly after the bank moved out, it floated a plan to get $39 million in state support to redevelop the building as apartments, but lawmakers rejected the idea.

The lawsuit says repairs to the facade and windows alone would cost $14 million. It also says repairs are needed to systems including electrical, heating and air conditioning, and fire protections, as are changes to make it handicapped accessible. In addition to the $23.7 million it asks for in damages, the lawsuit asks for additional punitive and other damages that are not specified and could amount to millions more.

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