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Originally published Sunday, April 7, 2013 at 8:58 AM

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Rhode Island's tallest building will soon go dark

Rhode Island's tallest building will soon be its most visible symbol of the state's long economic decline.

Associated Press

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. —

Rhode Island's tallest building will soon be its most visible symbol of the state's long economic decline.

The 26-story Art Deco-style skyscraper, known to some as the "Superman building" for its similarity to the Daily Planet headquarters in the old TV show, is losing its sole tenant this month. No one is moving in, and the building, the most distinctive feature on the Providence skyline, will no longer be fully illuminated at night, if at all, its owner says.

It's a blow for the city and the state, which had 9.4 percent unemployment in February and has had one of the worst jobless rates in the nation for years.

Nicolas Retsinas, a senior lecturer in real estate at Harvard Business School, says 111 Westminster, as the building is also known, will be "the ultimate urban pothole."

At 428 feet, or about one-third the height of the Empire State Building, it was the tallest skyscraper in New England when it opened in 1928 as the Industrial National Bank Building. It has housed a bank ever since.

That 85-year run will end when Bank of America ends its lease for the building's entire 380,000 square feet and completes its move into more modern space nearby in the coming days. The bank most recently occupied only about 20 percent of the building, says Bill Fischer, a spokesman for its owner, High Rock Development of Newton, Mass.

High Rock says it does not want to use it as offices. The building represents such a large share of downtown office space, Fischer says, that it would flood the market to do that.

Instead, High Rock wants to turn it into about 290 apartments. But the company has offered no timetable for the project or said how much it might cost. High Rock says it will need to persuade state lawmakers to revive a program that gives tax credits for rehabilitating historic buildings.

Mayor Angel Taveras says he is disappointed the skyscraper will be vacant and he will do what he can to make sure it has a productive use. But he hasn't committed himself to any specific course of action.

In the meantime, the Superman building will stand dark and empty.

That's a mistake, says Retsinas, who lives in Providence. He likens the significance of the building in Providence to the Empire State Building in New York.

"Buildings like that are also advertisements about the city. It's sending a signal to the rest of the city that we're willing to write off this building," he says. Rather than turning off the lights and letting it sit empty, Retsinas suggests a phased transition: keeping the lights on and possibly putting something in on the ground floor.

In Detroit, which is hurting much more than Providence and has many more vacant large buildings, the government has worked to find tenants for some empty properties. For example, the state moved some of its offices into General Motors' old corporate headquarters after GM moved out.

Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee last year suggested the state move employees into the Superman building, but that idea has gone nowhere.

Washington, D.C., has gone further. It taxes vacant and blighted properties at a higher rate, giving property owners a disincentive to sit on an empty building as they wait for a turnaround in the market or try to extract something such as tax breaks.

Rhode Island was once a manufacturing powerhouse and is still covered with old mill buildings, but many are vacant or have been turned into housing or office space. The state has struggled over the past 25 years or so to make the transition to a service and information economy.

The most recent attempt was a $75 million state loan guarantee handed out in 2010 to a video game company started by former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling. The company declared bankruptcy last year, leaving taxpayers on the hook.

Given that debacle, it is unclear whether lawmakers have the appetite to grant what could be tens of millions of dollars in tax credits to get the Superman building back up and running, even given its significance to the state.

Brown University sits atop the city's College Hill and overlooks the skyscraper. Mike McCormack, an architect and assistant vice president for planning at the Ivy League school, says downtown is filled with beautiful, historic buildings, but the city needs to figure out how to "reoccupy" it.

"There needs to be life on the street. People have to walk around and feel like there's energy," he says. "Then it encourages investment, it encourages entrepreneurs."

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