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R.I. leaders discussing options for saving ‘Superman’ building

The "Superman tower," the largest commercial building in Rhode Island, is completely empty.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE – The president of the Rhode Island Foundation has had “very preliminary” discussions with state leaders about saving the so-called Superman building in downtown Providence, which has been without a tenant for nearly seven years.

Neil Steinberg, who runs the foundation, said he has not been presented with a formal proposal involving the 26-story skyscraper at 111 Westminster St., but he acknowledged that one potential option would be to move the University of Rhode Island’s Providence campus into the building.

But such an arrangement would hinge on several factors, including the building owner’s willingness to sell the property. The still-emerging property deal would also require passage of a complex piece of legislation involving an estate tax that has not yet been introduced to lawmakers.


“Clearly it is a landmark and it needs to be transformed for downtown Providence," Steinberg said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

Built in 1928, the 350,000-square-foot Art Deco-style landmark is located in the heart of downtown, across the street from Kennedy Plaza, the city’s major bus hub. It is the former Industrial Trust Building, but it earned its nickname because it resembles the Daily Planet building from the “Superman” comic series.

The interior of the bank that remains empty.David L. Ryan

State and city leaders have been searching for ways to renovate and transform the building since Bank of America moved out in 2013, but lawmakers have been hesitant to support a public subsidy for its private owner, High Rock Development.

The company paid $33 million for the building in 2008, but the assessed value is now $15.5 million, according to city tax records.

Bill Fischer, a spokesman for High Rock, declined to comment.

One option that state leaders have discussed is the possibility of drafting legislation that would allow wealthy, aging Rhode Island residents to earmark their estate taxes for a specific public project, rather than moving to a state that doesn’t impose an estate tax at all.


In order to qualify, residents would also have to commit to making a substantial donation to a public project. In other words, an individual could choose to have their tax dollars set aside instead of going into the general fund, but they’d also have to make a separate investment. It’s unclear if a gift could be made prior to the person’s death.

Such an arrangement would also require the involvement of a state entity or nonprofit, like the Rhode Island Foundation. Steinberg declined to say whether the foundation would consider acquiring the “Superman” building, and those decisions would probably require layers of internal approval from his organization.

Rhode Island’s commerce secretary, Stefan Pryor, who is viewed as a key behind-the-scenes figure in “Superman” building discussions, declined to comment.

It’s unclear if the proposal that being discussed involves a single person or family, but one name that has repeatedly come up is Barbara Papitto, whose husband, Ralph Papitto, died last year.

John Tarantino, one of the state’s best-known attorneys and a trustee of the Papitto Foundation, said that Ralph Papitto made a “deliberate choice to change his residency from Florida to Rhode Island” near the end of his life even though there were “substantial adverse tax consequences.”

He declined to comment on whether Barbara Papitto wants to invest in the Superman building, but said “we are doing the best that we can to come up with ways that would have a significant, long-term, extremely positive effect” on the state.


The other piece of the discussions involves the potential tenant: the University of Rhode Island’s Providence campus. URI spokesperson Linda Acciardo said, “We are exploring potential location options, but no decisions concerning relocation have been made at this time.”

The university is searching for a new home in the city because the state is considering selling the Shepard Building on Westminster Street, which houses the university’s Providence offices and also houses the Rhode Island Department of Education.

Politicians have been promising to fill the “Superman” building for many years. Even Governor Gina Raimondo, during her first campaign for the state’s top job, aired a commercial where she vowed to save the building.

The 26-story skyscraper at 111 Westminster Street (right) is a prominent part of Providence's skyline.David L. Ryan

In recent years, Citizens Bank, PayPal, and Hasbro have all looked at the property, but no deal has been finalized. State leaders even suggested the building in their proposal to lure Amazon’s second headquarters to the state.

David Sweetser, the real estate investor who runs High Rock, has worked with preservationists and laborers to advocate for state investment to save the property. The group launched a “Save Superman” campaign in 2016, seeking support for a mixed-use development that would focus primarily on housing.

But no proposal has come up for a vote in the General Assembly, and the cost of renovating the building is now believed to be more than $75 million. Last year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the building one of its 11 most endangered places in the country.


It’s unclear if lawmakers will have an appetite for addressing the building’s future this year, but Senate president Dominick Ruggerio said he is “hopeful” a tenant can be found.

“I’m not sure it is going to happen this year, but I believe something could happen in the very near future,” Ruggerio said last month during the Globe’s Rhode Map Live event. “If we could get a state agency in there, that would be helpful, but that remains to be seen.”

Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him @danmcgowan.