A micro-loft unit in the newly renovated Arcade Providence, in Providence, R.I.
PHOTO: Ben Jacobsen

When the Arcade in Providence, R.I., was constructed in the city’s downtown in 1828, it made headlines. The building represented the country’s first enclosed mall, modeled after historic European arcades, though without traditional upper-level residences. Its front and back Greek Revival façades with granite steps, ionic columns, and 182-foot-long glass conservatory skylight above an atrium made the Arcade a visually distinguished landmark.

The Arcade before its renovation.
PHOTO: Courtesy Northeast Collaborative Architects 

Yet, the 53,440-square-foot, three-story design proved problematic as a business magnet, with its small first-level footprint and no elevators or escalators to the upper levels. Surrounding retailers eventually relocated to suburban malls. The Arcade lost tenants. Placement on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 didn’t help, nor did a renovation in 1978. Even one developer’s attempt to model a food court after Boston’s Quincy Market drew traffic only during lunch hours.

But as the city’s economy changed to a knowledge-based hub to reflect growth at three nearby educational institutions—Brown University, Rhode Island School of Design, and Johnson & Wales University—more students sought affordable housing. Old retail buildings such as Gladding’s department store became lofts.

Developer Evan Granoff, a Providence native and managing member of 130 Westminster Street Associates, who had transformed other downtown historic properties, purchased the Arcade in 2005 and renamed it The Arcade Providence. “Everybody who’s grown up here has a memory connected with it,” he says. Nevertheless, he, too, couldn’t rent second- and third-floor space and closed the building in 2008. A year later, the Providence Preservation Society placed the building on its list of the 10 most-endangered properties.

After Granoff learned about tiny Asian apartments—prior to former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s push for micro units—he and area architect J. Michael Abbott, principal at Northeast Collaborative Architects (NCA), hit on an idea. “We listened to the building, which dictated small units because of its configuration with the atrium,” says Abbott. And they imagined two prime audiences: students who couldn’t afford large units, and local start-up retailers seeking affordable incubators with a garage across the street.

The development's newly designed first floor features single- and double-level retail shops and restaurants beneath the building's 48 micro lofts.
PHOTO: Ben Jacobsen

The two top floors consist of 48 apartments ranging in size from 225 to 600 square feet. Interiors are modeled after boats, with built-in furnishings to minimize clutter and microwaves rather than bigger ranges. Rents range from $550 to $1,700 a month. The first level houses 17 one-of-a-kind retailers and, deliberately, only three selling food, including a coffee and whiskey bar.

Granoff’s firm invested more than $7 million to take the building back to its roots after the 1978 changes by uncovering 250 bricked-over windows, replacing wood floors with period-style tile, and adding façades to shops, plus bringing it up to current codes. Space was set aside for residents to socialize and park bicycles, since many don’t own cars. The project, which started leasing to retailers last October and to residents in December, is almost fully occupied, with a waiting list.

Even Charles Brent Runyon, new executive director of the Providence Preservation Society, who relocated from Georgia three months ago, was out of luck. Runyon sees the transformation as a unique model. “It adds to the vibrancy of downtown, where the average age now is 27,” he says.

Mayor Angel Traveras agrees. “The conversion of the building into micro lofts and independently owned retail shops puts Providence at the cutting edge of two urban trends: a desire among many professionals to live and work in the heart of their city, and a determination on the part of elected officials, developers, and community advocates to preserve our historical architecture and reinvent our 19th- and 20th-century infrastructure with 21st-century economic and cultural activities.” Outside pundits also applaud the iconic redo: The AIA’s Rhode Island chapter honored the adaptation with a merit award in historic preservation last year.

PHOTO: Ben Jacobsen

Lessons Learned
Every project offers insight; here’s what other developers can take from The Arcade Providence:

  • Stay on top of trends: If you build a unique product that reflects the current economy and demographics, they’ll come.
  • Understand building codes: Because the building hadn’t been renovated since 1978 and never was used for residences, many changes were required. A new smoke exhaust and sprinkler system were installed. Where they could, the developer and architect sought variances—a total of 28, from handrail heights to cantilevered exterior granite steps.
  • Use tax credits: In this case, federal and state credits, plus a tax stabilization agreement from the city, helped.
  • Don’t expect perfection: Many old features at the Arcade couldn’t be changed, which adds to the charm of its uneven floors, crooked columns, and undulating walkways.