TOWER OF POWER The Industrial Trust Building is the most distinctive part of the city's modest skyline. [Photo by Richard McCaffrey]
THE VIEW FROM THE TOP
Have you ever been to the top of the Industrial Trust Building? We haven't.
Providence is a town that hoards its aerial views. If you're looking out a window hundreds of feet above over the city right now, you're likely living in a penthouse of the Westin, wearing a silk suit in corporate office, or schmoozing a high-priced fundraiser in the Biltmore ballroom.
But what if we turned the top of the Industrial Trust Building into an Empire State Building-style observation deck? Guests would pay a modest admission fee for an elevator ride to the top, then walk around the building's top floor — or perhaps a fenced-in area around its iconic lantern — where they plunk coins into binoculars to peer out over the domes of College Hill and the sparkling waters of Narragansett Bay.
Given the hoards of schoolchildren that would flock there for field trips, this would also be the logical place for the comprehensive Providence history museum that doesn't currently exist. Assemble a committee; knock on doors at the Rhode Island Historical Society, the city and state archives, the city's universities; scrape together some of the leftovers for the planned Heritage Harbor Museum. And who says we can't come up with the definitive, badass collection of Providence artifacts? It could be home to Roger Williams's original deed for the purchase of proto-Providence, a display of precision tools manufactured by Brown & Sharpe, one of Buddy Cianci's toupees . . . the list is endless.
There would also be rotating exhibitions, of course — the first being a history of the Industrial Trust Building itself, complete with blueprints, a gallery of artwork inspired by the building, and a detailed debunking of why the building was never designed to dock dirigibles. (That cabin-like structure tacked on to the top of the building was likely a boozy clubhouse for the Industrial Trust's president, Mack Woodward says.)
Of course, when visitors finish up at the museum, they're going to be hungry. So why not set aside a couple of the building's top floors for food and drink? One spot could be a high-end oyster and champagne joint where dudes go to propose to their girlfriends; another, a café dedicated to Providence's best Liberian, Laotian, Cambodian, Dominican, Italian, and Portuguese dishes; another, a low-key coffee shop with views to make you almost choke on your croissant.
USE YOUR IMAGINATION
Possibilities get a bit wild when you're talking about 300,000-some-odd square feet of empty office space in the middle of a city. Turkish baths. Indoor dog parks. A laser tag facility. We've heard them all. And owners of the Industrial Trust could hear them all, too, if they take a cue from New York City MoMa's PS1 museum in Queens, which holds an annual "Young Architects Program" competition where hungry designers submit proposals for structures to be built in the complex's outdoor spaces. The winners' visions of community hammocks, "kaleidoscopic patterns of color created by sunlight filtering through an array of translucent, tinted Mylar petals that resemble blossoming flowers of stained glass," structures made from undulating PVC tubing, and walls made of spinning electric fans have all come to life on museum grounds in recent years. Summer 2013's winner — "Party Wall" — is a porous creation made from wood, steel, and polyester pouches of water. With a little funding, the Industrial Trust could make one of its floors a similar revolving spatial laboratory.
Aside from that, we're not opposed to a few lofts and apartments on certain floors of the building. But shouldn't we figure out where people are going to work before we give them a place to live?
This is the kind of urban development chicken-or-egg query that could be batted around a classroom if any — or every — one of Providence's colleges was given a floor in the Industrial Trust. The prospect of thousands of Brown, RIC, RISD, PC, Johnson & Wales, URI, and Roger Williams students bouncing off of each other — a veritable mosh pit of intellectual capital — might be just the kind of thing to lure deep-pocketed clients like Facebook or Google into the building's other floors.
Brian McGuirk, a sales manager at the local financial services startup Andera, helps us picture the scene.
"Imagine if [the local startup accelerator] Betaspring's offices and alumni companies were in the same building as a RISD Industrial Design lab, a Brown nanotech research lab . . . and researchers from Brown Med School," he writes, via email. "Imagine people from all those groups eating in a cafeteria run by Johnson & Wales culinary students and professionals, eating food sourced from Farm Fresh RI."
The founders of the PVD Lady Project would also eye an Industrial Trust suite for their currently nonexistent headquarters. A chunk of office space downtown would give them a permanent space for their bimonthly summits where local CEOs tell their stories and young women entrepreneurs swap ideas, they say. With a bit more space, they could also offer low-rent open office spaces to help get some of those businesswomen rolling.
Oh, and could we arrange for a rooftop pool?
It isn't just the observation deck we could borrow from the Empire State Building, it's the building's multi-million dollar sustainability retrofit program — one of its highest-profile projects since construction of the building itself. We wouldn't be stealing the idea. The folks at the ESB want to share their project so badly that they've freely published online hundreds of pages of plans, presentations, and slideshows detailing how they overhauled windows, rearranged offices to increase natural light, installed insulation behind radiators to lock in heat, and other measures. "If the only place we succeed is the Empire State Building, we've failed," Dana Schneider, VP of the firm that managed the retrofit — NYC's Jones Lang LaSalle — tells us.
An Industrial Trust sustainability retrofit wouldn't please the planet, and it wouldn't just create the PR boon of the decade (the Empire State's retrofit has been featured in Forbes, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and on MSNBC and CNN). It also makes good business sense.
"If there's [air conditioning] chillers in this building that are 30 years old and they're breaking and there's a $4 million budget to replace them," Schneider says, "we could spend $4.4 million and replace them with a much more efficient system that saves $100,000 a year." This particular sustainable investment pays for itself in four years, she says.
But why stop at a retrofit? One of the more radical folks we spoke to — Greg Gerritt, founder of ProsperityforRI.com and a self-described "full-time troublemaker" — describes a full-on green overhaul.
First, we sheath the building in lightweight photovoltaic solar panels, then we use the power to run a fully integrated vertical farm inside the building, he says.
"Cities are going to have to grow much more of their own food," he says. So why not harvest lettuce, spinach, and tomatoes right in the heart of Downcity? While we're at it, let's toss in a few mega-tanks to hold an urban tilapia farm.
If there's any room left over, Gerritt says, feel free to fling the building's doors open to squatters
This, he says, would be the most honest and self-effacing use available.
"Let's admit that we are a post-industrial society of great inequality and make it easier for people to live downtown who don't have a lot of resources," he says. "I've been in places like Chicago where people are squatting in abandoned factories. Why not abandoned office buildings?"
The building could be theirs, too.
Got ideas? Share them with me email@example.com. And find me on Twitter @phileil.