c.2013 New York Times News Service

c.2013 New York Times News Service

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — This city’s skyline has long been defined by the Superman building, so named by most everybody in Rhode Island because the 26-story skyscraper closely resembles the Daily Planet building that Superman leapt over in the 1950s television series.

Officially called the Industrial National Bank Building, the 428-foot skyscraper in downtown Providence is the city’s tallest building and a wonderful example of Art Deco architecture, with geometric friezes and a staggered facade that narrows to a lantern light on top.

That light has shone brightly in Rhode Island’s capital city since 1927, when the bank was built, but these days a different type of spotlight reflects off the Superman building. For the first time in its long history it is vacant, and with no new tenants on the horizon, its future has become a source of concern.

The owner of the building, High Rock Development of Massachusetts, which bought the skyscraper in 2008 for $33.2 million, wants to convert most of its 441,000 square feet into 280 rental apartments. Under High Rock’s redevelopment plan, put forward this year, 35,000 square feet of the lower floors and street level would be reserved for retail and office use. “We know that residential conversion is the highest and best use,” said Bill Fischer, a spokesman for High Rock Development’s president and general manager, David Sweetser.

But High Rock cannot afford the immense redevelopment project without significant financial help from the city and state, Fischer said. Specifically, High Rock says it needs $75 million in public funds to help convert the building: $39 million from the state, $10 million to $15 million from the city and $21 million more from the federal government in the form of tax credits for historic buildings.

But the answer from Rhode Island taxpayers has been a resounding no. The state’s residents are still bristling over the bankruptcy last year of 38 Studios, a video game company started by the former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, which received a $75 million state guaranteed loan. As a result, Rhode Islanders are responsible for more than $100 million.

While elected officials say they cherish the landmark skyscraper, they also acknowledge that they simply cannot ask taxpayers to shoulder the cost of redeveloping it.

“A city is more than just one building,” said Angel Taveras, Providence’s mayor.

That said, the mayor called it an “important, symbolic building” and pledged that the city would do what it reasonably could to help rescue what’s left of Superman’s legacy in this town.