Of all the places in which you would expect a doctor to live, a shopping mall might well be close to last on the list. But emergency physician Naz Karim calls the Providence Arcade home. Indeed, on a typical day she walks the balcony of the mall’s third story – lit by the atrium’s glass ceiling – with keys jingling in her hand.
Since the mall’s construction in 1828, its owners have always found it hard to keep the top two floors occupied by retailers. Karim is therefore lucky that someone stepped in to change all that. Developer Evan Granoff bought the indoor mall – America’s oldest – when it was in a less-than-prosperous state, and he knew that the operation would need a complete overhaul to turn a profit. However, he also still wanted to retain the building’s historical legacy. “People talk about saving historical buildings, but often the only way to save them is to make them economically viable,” he said in an interview with FairCompanies.
Granoff realized that the mall struggled because the people of Providence didn’t want more commercial retail space. What they did want, on the other hand, was the opportunity to live in the thick of the city’s downtown area. There is extremely high demand for residential space in central Providence, according to Granoff, so transforming the mall into living space made a lot of sense.
Now Granoff could have knocked down walls and turned the mall’s old units into spacious modern loft spaces – a generic idea of high-price downtown living – and yet the developer had a different plan. Instead of following a clichéd design, he decided to transform the mall’s top two vacant floors into 48 micro-lofts.
Karim lives in one of these micro-lofts – a space that measures in at a mere 225 square feet. In fact, it has only slightly more square footage than a typical garage. Nevertheless, when she unlocks her door and walks immediately into her living room, the small seating area, kitchen and bedroom all flow into one another, while the bathroom has a pocket door for privacy.
“It’s pretty small, but it’s really all you need for one person,” she says as she walks from the door to the kitchen in less than ten strides in a video made for FairCompanies. The L-shaped countertop houses a dishwasher below and a microwave above. And Karim says she doesn’t miss having a stovetop or oven; soups and frozen meals suffice for a doctor who’s scarcely at home anyway.
In Karim’s bedroom, her mattress sits on built-in drawers full of jackets, scrubs and other items of clothing. She admits, too, that it’s a struggle to store everything in the closet. “The key is to keep it small,” she said. “You can’t have a massive wardrobe.”
For Granoff, as well, keeping it small has been the key. Of the building’s 48 units, 19 are micro-sized like Karim’s, and they’ve become hot-ticket rentals in the downtown area. The building’s larger units – still oven-less and, at 400 square feet apiece, small by traditional standards – were the last to go to renters. “Everyone wanted the [smaller ones],” he explained.
Sharon Kinnier also lives in the building, though her tiny apartment is a home away from home. She travels to Providence to work in a lab, where she formulates organic recipes for soaps and other beauty products that she sells. And while her unit’s floorplan matches that of Karim’s, the space may not be as lived in. Take, for example, her less-than-frequent use of the dishwasher. “I’ve never used the dishwasher because I’ve never had enough dishes dirty to actually put in [it],” she said in the same FairCompanies video.
Still, Kinnier’s unit shows just how functional you have to be to make a tiny living space work. Her desk folds down so that she can use it to work in her bedroom nook or she can position it in the living room as a kitchen table. Her ottomans, meanwhile, double as extra seating and have TV trays beneath the cushions to hold casual dinners or drinks.
Kinnier only spends part of her life in Providence, so the convenience of having a mall literally at her feet isn’t lost on her. For one, she’s a regular at Livi’s Pockets, a quick-service eatery on the mall’s main floor. Granoff promises, however, that his tenants will never see chain retailers in the mall.
Instead, he believes boutique shops will be a driving force for the building’s commercial success. He rents most of the storefronts to local fashion retailers and artistic designers. And in many cases, up-and-coming artisans join forces to open shops as cost-effective outlets through which to sell their creations.
The living spaces, too, make a much smaller dent in renters’ budgets than typical apartments in the heart of downtown Providence would do, let alone in such an historic building. For example, Karim and Kinnier’s extra-small rentals each come with a $750 price tag that’s far more reasonable than the average apartment in the neighborhood. Karim estimates that typical properties in the area would each cost her between $1,200 and $2,000 each month. And for someone who will regularly travel to Rwanda to practice medicine, it’s just not worth it.
Interestingly, Granoff had to find a loophole in the building codes in order to make these budget-friendly units possible. The city has a minimum size requirement for rental units – and, needless to say, 225 square feet comes in below the mark.
That’s why he registered the building as a rooming house instead. By Providence standards, a rooming house is made up of rooms that each measure at least 80 square feet. The rooms cannot have cooking facilities, however, which is why there are no ovens or stoves. Luckily, then, microwaves are allowed, so Granoff’s tenants have one way to prepare hot meals.
That said, neither Karim nor Kinnier have any complaints about the amenities or the size of their rentals. But – in case tenants want to stretch their legs – the building also has a common area with couches and televisions. Plus, there are laundry facilities, since each of the 225-square-foot lofts has no room to squeeze in its own washer-dryer.
Meanwhile, there’s always the mall if the lounge area isn’t enough entertainment for one evening. Kinnier says the place bustles on Friday nights and her loft actually gets a bit noisy from all of the foot traffic. She has even seen marching bands and a troupe of acrobats make their way through the promenade.
This buzz is, moreover, all part of the building’s charm, especially for someone like Kinnier who only spends a few days there each month. The short time that she spends there has also quickly taught her about simpler living. “This makes you prioritize what it is that you really need to live a comfortable life,” she explained.
Granoff, meanwhile, has learned that his instincts were right about how to redevelop the nation’s oldest mall. “I think that this might be the formula that actually makes the building work,” he said. “It feeds off the infrastructure that exists downtown much more effectively than just a pure retail play did.”
And as he watches the once-empty space fill with people again, he can’t help but reflect on the building’s history. The micro-lofts have, he reckons, given it more purpose than it ever had before. “I don’t think the building has ever had so much life in its almost 200 years,” he said.