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Providence’s ‘Superman’ building owners could be close to making a deal with state officials

Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor said the state’s conversations with High Rock have been going on “for months,” and have recently been occurring daily, and said they have been positive

The "Superman Building," center, stands in downtown Providence, R.I.Steven Senne/Associated Press

PROVIDENCE — It’s been nine years since Bank of America moved out of the 26-story skyscraper known as the “Superman” building, leaving the state’s tallest building vacant. But sources confirmed to the Globe Thursday that the state and the building’s owner, High Rock Development, could be “weeks away” from a deal.

High Rock, led by principal David Sweetser, reportedly submitted a plan to the state last summer that included more than 280 apartment units, with 10 percent earmarked for affordable housing. But the project would likely take more than two and a half years and cost over $200 million, sources told the Globe previously.

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Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor said the state’s conversations with High Rock have been going on “for months,” and have recently been occurring daily. He declined to confirm any specifics about the latest proposal or when a deal could be reached, but said negotiations have been positive.

During those negotiations, he said it’s the state’s priority to market-test the developer’s project budget, to ensure there are affordable housing units in the project (but would not say how many), and to make sure there are multiple sources of investment — “Not just the state, but including the state,” he told the Globe in a phone interview Thursday.

Pryor also said the state wants the owner to have skin in the game — meaning that they must put up equity.

Larry Berman, a spokesman for Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, told the Globe that Pryor told the speaker last fall that he would not seek any new appropriations from the General Assembly, but that the state could use existing tax credit programs.

A spokesman for Sweetser did not respond to inquiries from the Globe.

The “Superman” building, which is in the heart of downtown at 111 Westminster St., has had several potential tenants over the years but the deals ultimately fell through. State and city leaders had aggressively marketed the former bank and office building to local and national companies, and came close to landing PayPal and Citizens Bank, according to past reports.

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Joseph Paolino, the former mayor of Providence who owns several properties across downtown — including Hotel Beatrice next door to the “Superman” building — told the Globe that he remembers getting ready to head to the State House to make an announcement that Citizens was going to move into the building.

“And in the final hour, [the bank] pulled the plug,” said Paolino in a phone interview Wednesday. He said there’s often skepticism regarding any potential deal with the building among stakeholders because of how talks have fallen through in the past.

Prior to the pandemic, business and state leaders, including former governor Gina Raimondo, had favored an anchor tenant to go on the ground floor. But with recent data showing an increase in office space vacancy in downtown, and with companies continuing to have their employees to work from home because of the pandemic, Paolino suggested alternative solutions for that space, such as an art museum.

At one point, several years ago, he said he spoke to the owners of New York City event venue Cipriani 42nd Street, who expressed interest in duplicating their concept on the bottom floor of the “Superman” building for black tie events in downtown. But Paolino said housing above the ground level is the “right answer.”

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Michael Sabitoni, president of the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council, said despite past setbacks, he’s “fully confident” in current negotiations, which he said he was briefed on “about four weeks ago.”

“This is a mega job creator. To repurpose that building — inside and out — is a massive opportunity. It’s time to get it back online,” said Sabitoni. He also said there could be spots set aside for boutiques, a restaurant space, and an open, public-access space for functions. “That lobby is one of the nicest spaces in the state. And anyone should be able to access it,” he said.

“Not having the ‘Superman’ building as part of Providence’s skyline is like having a missing tooth,” he added.

The largest hurdle on the project has to do with the cost: High Rock bought the building for $33 million in 2008, but the assessed value is now $14.2 million, according to city tax records.

In 2013, High Rock sought $39 million in tax credits and other assistance to build apartment and retail space. But Pryor would not say what that latest conversation around state subsidies might look like. High Rock could also seek a tax stabilization agreement from the city. Theresa Agonia, a spokeswoman for Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza, said the mayor’s office has been engaged with “multiple interested parties” and continue to be part of discussions with state officials and property owners.

“Redevelopment of the building is crucial to activating Greater Kennedy Plaza as the civic heart of our city and symbolically, as Rhode Island’s skyscraper,” she said.

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Buff Chace, president and CEO of Providence-based Cornish Associates, had tried to help resurrect the “Superman” building around 2016 as a consultant for High Rock with their “Save Superman” campaign. He’s not involved with negotiations anymore, but told the Globe that revitalizing the building, alongside Kennedy Plaza and a transit center, could be the path toward economic recovery.

A tax subsidy, “is not just a giveaway to the developer. The recovery [after construction] for the next 10 years multiplies any type of investment we put in,” he said. Chace noted that there was an economic impact study done several years ago that was presented to the Senate Finance Committee and it points to the value of jobs and taxes associated with the building, and the economic impact it could have on businesses in a 1,000-foot radius.

“Having that building vacant for 10 years is really a black mark on our city that we could correct,” he said.

Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, said he has not been briefed on any proposal, but said any plan that requires legislative action will be “thoroughly reviewed” by the Senate Finance committee.

“The Superman Building is an iconic, historical structure that has sat empty for far too long,” he said in a statement. “A mixed-use development that includes a residential component could help reinvigorate Downtown Providence, helping to attract businesses and investment... It should warrant serious consideration.”

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Paolino, who has advocated for various potential deals involving the property, said it wouldn’t make sense for High Rock to get any tax breaks until the building is fixed up. During and after construction, he said the city will have a lot to gain, like collecting fees from building permits and sales taxes.

“There’s been a lot of false starts. This is a tough project that’s going to cost a quarter of a billion dollars and we should be sympathetic to the developer that takes it on,” said Paolino. “The city, state, and private sector need to come together on this. Because if we do nothing, we get nothing.”

Edward Fitzpatrick of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.