RENEWAL For Granoff, small is beautiful
Once upon a time, Providence's Westminster Arcade represented a novel idea: an indoor shopping mall where customers could find a variety of merchants under one roof. But that was in the 1820s, long before the Mall of America, Mallrats, mall cops, mall food, mall concerts, and a literary style dubbed "shopping mall realism." So what is Evan Granoff — head of 130 Westminster Street Associates, the group spearheading the Arcade's re-development — talking about when he says, "It's not easy . . . being a pioneer"? Well, he's talking about making America's oldest mall micro.
"Micro-retail, micro-retail, micro-retail," he says, standing on the first floor of the Arcade and pointing to color-coded spaces on a nearby floor plan. "All this is micro-retail." With power drills whining, hammers thunking, and a fine mist of sawdust intermittently falling from above, he explains how micro-retailers are different from the chain stores at a traditional mall. Sized under 400 square feet, the 16 units on the Arcade's ground floor are about half the size of most of Providence's retail spaces — and smaller than many of the spaces that existed in the old Arcade.
He whisks me around the first floor of the building — past the future entrance for the building's bike garage (the first in Providence, he says), past a former pizza joint with a dust-covered oven marked "SAVE" still inside, and into a bare retail unit near the Westminster Street entrance. Daylight pours in from a pair of newly installed windows on the unit's back wall — two of the 170 Granoff has installed along the sides of the Arcade. Monthly rent for a retail space like this is $1000, he says. Add a security deposit and some cash for distinctive decoration, and a typical business can start for less than $5000. "That's incredibly empowering," he says. He won't divulge specific vendor names (those will be rolled out one by one, starting next month), but a space like this might include an artisan furniture designer or an Internet-based jeweler venturing into brick-and-mortar business for the first time.
And when they open their doors, these stores will have an added boost: a live-in customer base, thanks to Arcade 2.0's other new concept: "micro-loft" apartments on the building's second and third floors. Starting at 225 square feet, the units are geared toward young professionals, locals who commute to Boston, and anyone with an itch for a $550/month pied-à-terre in one of Providence's most iconic buildings.
The apartments — 48, in total — seem a radical idea, at first glance. But when Granoff's plans for a skyscraper next door fell through and the "Superman" building across the street remained under-populated, it seemed unlikely that the immediate environs would provide enough foot traffic to sustain an all-retail Arcade.
Now, the building's former galleries and clothing boutiques shops have been re-designed and equipped with refrigerators, dishwashers, flat-screen TVs, and other fixtures. "This is like a cruise ship or a boat cabin, where everything is being built into the unit," Granoff says, proudly flipping down a Murphy bed from one of the walls. If you moved into the unit, you could bring your clothes and nothing else. "It's totally ready to roll," he says.