(Photo: Northeast Collaborative Architects/Facebook)

The Oldest Mall in America Is Now a Hotbed of Tiny-House Living

Apartments in the formerly shuttered Arcade Providence in Rhode Island run 225 square feet, but renters are snapping up spaces.
Sep 25, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

With just a few clicks of a mouse or track pad, a modern shopping “trip” can be complete—no fighting for a parking spot at the mall and no messy, crowded dressing rooms. But thanks to the convenience of online retailing, over the last decade the death knell has been sounding for traditional shopping malls.

(Photo: Courtesy of NCArchitects.com)

But if a savvy idea for repurposing America’s shopping centers goes mainstream, perhaps those spaces are set to see a renaissance. The bustling stores that used to grace the oldest enclosed mall in America, the Arcade Providence in Providence, R.I., have been transformed into mixed-use housing: shops on the ground floor and micro-apartments on the top two levels.

The Arcade was built in 1828, and like many malls struggling after the recent economic crash, the building, which is in Providence’s downtown, closed in 2008.

“It had become economically obsolete,” J. Michael Abbott, a principal at Northeast Collaborative Architects, told Curbed. “When it was a full shopping center of all three floors, it just wasn’t working. Shops were opening and closing all the time.”

No new enclosed malls have been constructed in America since 2006, and nearly half of the nation’s existing malls are expected to go out of business within 10 years. Sites such as Dead Malls provide a macabre glance at the closed and decaying brick-and-mortar stores of yesteryear, taking with them the memories of generations of teenagers who wandered the buildings to shop and socialize.

Gutting the Rhode Island property wasn’t an option—the building was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976. Enter developer Evan Granoff, who has spearheaded micro-housing projects in space-cramped cities such as Boston and San Francisco.

Granoff bought the mall, set aside the ground floor for retail, and set about transforming the top two floors.

Each of the new 38 micro-apartments, which began welcoming tenants in early 2014, is 225 to 300 square feet—they take their design inspiration from shipping containers. Despite their minuscule size, the spaces come with the basics: a bathroom, a bedroom, storage, and a tiny kitchen (a mini-fridge and microwave are included, but there’s no oven or stove). A handful of 900-square-foot apartments are available for folks who want a bit more breathing room. The building also comes with amenities, including a game room and laundry facilities.

A prospective tenant can expect to fork over a minimum of $550 per month for the tiny quarters. If it sounds a little crazy to pay that much for such a small space, get ready to be surprised: There’s a waiting list 4,000 people long.

“The level of interest at times has become almost unmanageable,” Robin Dionne, the Arcade’s director of outreach and client relations, told the New York Daily News.

Dionne said that current residents range from young academics to retirees. The affordability has attracted many residents to the repurposed mall.

According to a 2012 report from Out of Reach, Rhode Island is the 17th-most-expensive rental market in America. Someone earning minimum wage would “have to work 96 hours per week, 52 weeks per year, in order to afford a two bedroom apartment in Rhode Island,” according to the report. From that perspective, the micro-apartments at the repurposed mall are a steal.

Abbott told Curbed he sees the optimal residents for the mini apartments as “young kinds that just graduated.” Essentially, folks who “are at the bottom end of the totem pole and don’t have that dining room set that Grandma gave them. They travel really light. They might have a bike and two suitcases.”

Given that description, the spaces aren’t for everyone. But as interest in pared-down, tiny-house living grows and malls keep dying off, a mixed model like the Providence Arcade might be a win-win solution worth replicating.