By Cheryl Hackett
Nineteenth century architect Daniel Burnham left an indelible mark on the built environment when he proclaimed, “Make no little plans.” However, today’s urban housing shortage is forcing us to think little, very little, even micro.
Millennials love micro lofts. Especially urbanites seeking housing compatible with entry-level salaries and college loan payments.
Baby Boomers like micro lofts too. These budget-friendly pied-a-terres provide access to cities’ cultural attractions.
Developers are keen on micro housing. In pricey metropolises such as Manhattan, Boston, and Washington, D.C., micro apartments fetch higher rents per square foot and boast higher occupancy rates than standard size apartments.
City officials support the tiny house movement by advocating zoning amendments that permit 200- to 400-square-foot single occupancy units.
And preservationists applaud the repurposing of underutilized landmarks into multi-functional buildings that amplify why protecting historic places truly matters.
The Micro Lofts at the Arcade Providence
In 2014 the Urban Land Institute (ULI) published a report entitled “The Macro View on Micro Units.” In the “Best Practices and Lessons Learned” section, ULI acknowledges the significance of how the historic Arcade in Providence, Rhode Island, was transformed into micro lofts. Developed by Evan Granoff and designed by Northeast Collaborative Architects (NCA), the Arcade features retail tenants on the lower floor and 48 micro units on two upper floors. Micro-unit junior one-bedrooms range in size from 225 to 450 square feet and feature full bathrooms, built-in beds, seating, and storage, as well as kitchens equipped with refrigerators, sinks, dishwashers, and microwave ovens. When residents need more space than their individual units offer, they can take advantage of a game room, a TV room, and porches. Other common amenities include on-site laundry facilities, bike storage, locked basement storage units, and a parking garage across the street. When the project was completed in 2014, rents for the micro lofts started around $550 per month.
The Arcade represents a successful example of adaptive use. Keeping young professionals and their incomes in Providence is critical for economic growth. The goal of this project demonstrates that a historic building can be reimagined to provide affordable housing for those struggling with the current real estate market. The micro lofts are located in the heart of the business district and their walkability feature eliminates tenants’ worries about commuting and paying for parking. Since the Arcade welcomed its first wave of tenants and started amassing a waiting list that exceeds 1,000 hopeful tenants, the project has garnered awards from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, American Institute of Architects, Congress for New Urbanism, Preserve Rhode Island, Providence Preservation Society, and Multi-Housing News,
Repurposing a Landmark
The Arcade’s scale is monumental. When the 50,000-square-foot structure was built in 1828, architects Russell Warren and James Bucklin designed a venture that united shops under one atrium and provided a protected walkway between two main streets. The project is notable for Ionic columns, a massive skylight that floods the space with light, and ornamental balconies. The Metropolitan Museum of Art named this Greek revival building one of the finest commercial structures in the history of American architecture. The Arcade was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 and named a National Historic Landmark in 1976. Over time, the Arcade survived a fire, hurricanes, proposed demolition, and economic downturns.
In 2008 the building closed with an uncertain fate. In 2010 Providence Preservation Society placed the building on its most endangered buildings list. Fortunately, 2011 marked a new chapter for the Arcade when the developer, Evan Granoff, announced plans to reopen the project with micro units. Financing for the $7 million project was made possible through Federal Historic Tax Credits, Rhode Island Historic Tax Credits, a Tax-Stabilization Agreement with the City and private financing with BankRI.
Transforming a shuttered landmark into a viable mixed-use project and adhering to state and federal historic tax credit guidelines presented challenges. NCA worked closely with the state historic preservation office. Original load bearing masonry walls were stabilized to the undersized stone slab footings. The 18th-century granite slabs at the side entries were reinforced with steel from the underside. New walls, doors, millwork, and windows within the existing building were custom fit to the uneven historical conditions. Interior structural columns and tin ceilings and trim were retained as much as possible.
Sustainable elements include high-efficiency gas units, double-hung windows, insulated roof that reduces the building's cooling requirements and minimizes urban heat island effect, central skylight that provides extensive daylighting, Energy Star rated appliances, dual-flush/low consumption toilets, low-flow faucets, EPA approved showerheads, and 100 percent recyclable carpet.
The adaptive use of the Arcade taught many lessons. Granoff says, "Every building is different. The Arcade is a building that can be subdivided into very small spaces and have no increase in common area. The common area of the atrium is the most important historic architectural detail of the building and cannot be changed. By making micro lofts and micro retail we turned this weakness of large common area of the building into a strength."
The project proves that healthy job markets with little available space to build new housing units make preservation and adaptive use viable. NCA’s Principal J. Michael Abbott, AIA, CNU-A says, “Young professionals prefer to live in the downtown area on their own and maintain a small housing budget rather than share a larger apartment and living expenses with roommates.” He adds, “Micro lofts succeed when located near social gathering spaces. This connectivity helps supports downtown businesses.”
Most importantly, the Arcade has been a catalyst for economic recovery in recent months. The number of unoccupied offices and apartments near the Arcade has decreased significantly. And according to Valerie Talmage executive director of Preserve Rhode Island, “PRI frequently cites the Arcade as an innovative example of adaptive use, a kind of poster child in our advocacy efforts in support of the state's Historic Tax Credit program.”
Perhaps good things do come in small packages.
After earning a bachelor and a master’s degree from Salve Regina University, Cheryl Hackett spent 25 years writing about design and styling photo shoots for many national magazines. Cheryl is the author of Newport Shingle Style (Frances Lincoln Publishers, Ltd. 2010). Today she manages media relations and communications for Northeast Collaborative Architects.