In many ways, Arcade Providence exemplifies how best to use a centuries-old building to reinvigorate a main street. Fully renovated to historic standards, combining small-scale retail with small-scale living, and providing a lively after-hours restaurant scene, the Arcade in Providence, RI, is a success story—and a model for reinventing both flailing downtowns and aging suburban areas alike.
Built in 1828 and designated a National Historic Landmark, the Arcade Providence is the country’s oldest indoor shopping mall. Outside, Ionic columns carved of smooth granite frame the entryways, and both ends of the block-long building are fronted by two Greek Revival-style façades that open onto bustling downtown streets. Inside, cast-iron railings wend their way up the building’s three stories, and marble walls are topped by a sprawling glass atrium.
For several decades, the building hosted a random assortment of stores along with a food court, and most people used it simply as a pedestrian thoroughfare. Underutilized and falling into disrepair, “It’s been like a diamond encased in rock,” developer Evan Granoff was quoted as saying by the New York Times, after he bought the place in 2008 with an eye to restoration.
Now, after a $10 million renovation, the building is thriving. The first floor is occupied by 14 businesses, all carefully curated. “We didn’t want national chains or things you could find anywhere else,” explains Robin Dionne, the Arcade’s director of outreach and client services. “We selected the stores based on the style, design, fashion, art that Providence is known for.” As a result, there’s an art gallery selling African wood carvings and masks, a jeweler who creates items on her in-store workbench, a New England furniture maker, and a local bicycle shop—and a waitlist of more than 300 other hopeful retailers should any current stores vacate. Three restaurants round out the offerings, using locally sourced ingredients.
On the second and third floors, there are 48 micro-apartments, all but 10 of which are less than 300 square feet and extremely affordable. Everything is tightly designed to maximize living space, with storage slotted under the built-in bed and couch, so that residents can move in with only a few boxes of belongings. Should renters feel constrained, it’s an easy walk downstairs to get their hair done, shop, or sit in the café—or wander out the Arcade doors into downtown Providence. The idea has proven so popular that more than 3,000 people are on the waitlist to move in.
Throughout the whole space, historic details remain. The apartments are marked by centuries-old storefronts, paint colors match the original hues, and worn wood floors still slide through the place. There are even hand-lettered signs on awnings and storefronts, made by a local company. “The building looks more like it should look, more like itself,” notes Dionne of the carefully executed restoration. Around the building, other such projects have been spurred into being, from the adaptive reuse of an old bank building to other new apartments—and the Arcade has helped anchor the revitalization of Providence over the past 5 years, especially in terms of residential offerings.
Yet instead of being seen as an updated antique, this project could be a model of how to use the past to move into the future. Arcade Providence mimics how thriving main streets used to look, with ground-floor stores topped by apartments. There’s no reason this model couldn’t be extended across the country, using old buildings—from empty suburban shopping malls to floundering small town spaces—to bring back walkable, livable places where people could again live, work, and shop. It’s a futuristic idea, based on centuries-old practice—and one that we might do well to reconsider.