Photos

One of America's Oldest Shopping Malls Converts to Micro-Apartments

The Arcade Providence will offer 48 units starting at $550 a month.

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Providence Arcade, Ben Jacobsen and the Rhode Island Collection

Aside from the economic whupping of 2008–2009, a major casualty of the recession was space itself. Homeowners and businesses bled square footage, leaving behind a landscape of empty McMansions, vacated big-box stores, and now-famously abandoned shopping malls. Since then, many municipalities have been grappling with how to repopulate these spaces with more nimble, post-boom uses. Existing mall mashups pretty much stick to the public realm—like Cleveland’s indoor gardens and Vanderbilt’s health clinics—but this spring a shuttered shopping center in downtown Providence will be reborn in micro form, with two stories of micro-apartments above ground-floor micro-retail.

As nightmarish as a total mall existence sounds, this project offers Providence residents the best shot at living in a landmarked piece of architectural history they’ll probably ever have. Built in 1828 by architects James Bucklin and Russell Warren, the Greek Revival structure was the nation’s first enclosed shopping mall. It became a National Historic Landmark in 1976, but by 2010 had made the Providence Preservation Society’s 10 Most Endangered Buildings list.

Floorplan of the new micro-apartments at the Arcade mall in Providence
A model of the Arcade’s new micro-units.

(Courtesy of Evan Granoff/Arcade Providence

Working with J. Michael Abbott of Northeast Collaborative Architects, developer Evan Granoff sliced up the Arcade’s two upper floors into 48 apartments. Thirty-eight are micro—between 225 and 450 square feet—a scale that brings the new spaces closer in line with the mall’s 1828 design, according to Granoff. "It’s allowing us basically to put the building back to what it was when it was built," he told Providence Business News. "They were individual rooms that were tiny. We’re actually creating more of the streetscape [feel] that was inside."

Micro Apartments. (Courtesy of Evan Granoff/Arcade Providence)

The tenants who move into the $550 apartment-lets this spring won’t need to bring much. The units come with built-in beds, full baths, and storage, so anyone fresh from dorm life or a recession-mandated stay with family could breeze in with nothing but a new mall wardrobe, a toothbrush, and some takeout from one of the ground-floor restaurants. With no stove to speak of, micro-dwellers will have to make due with, yes, their micro-waves.

Micro Apartments. (Courtesy of Evan Granoff/Arcade Providence)

The Arcade is among the projects featured in the Museum of the City of New York’s "Making Room" exhibition. Though mall living is certainly not for everyone, the project seems to address some of the shortcomings of the micro model. Trendiness aside, tiny apartments lack viability as isolated buildings. To make any sense at all—and to keep tenants from descending into a depression we’ll call spatial affective disorder—micro-dwellings must be plugged into a livable urban grid, with decent walkability, transportation access, and nearby shops and services. A mall certainly takes care of that, and it’s car-friendly by nature (unlike some of the more ascetic proposals we’ve seen, like this potential micro-site in Denver). You could do a lot worse than an apartment with parking in downtown Providence for $550, particularly if you’re still working a recession-era McJob.

The old Arcade
Photos courtesy of the Library of Congress

This post originally appeared on Architizer, an Atlantic partner site.

About the Author

  • Lamar Anderson is a San Francisco–based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Architectural Record, ARTnews, the Hairpin, and Salon.