Public Works: Reviving Urban Heritage With Condos and Commerce
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Public Works: Reviving Urban Heritage With Condos and Commerce

How shops and residences have brought a shuttered 185-year-old Rhode Island shopping mall back to life.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

The interior of the Providence Arcade. Photo by Nicholas Millard, courtesy of Arcade Providence.

America’s first-ever shopping mall, once presumed dead and gone, has been revived as Rhode Island’s hottest new residential and commercial spot.

The Providence Arcade opened in 1828, surviving hurricanes and hard times before being shuttered in 2008. The National Historic Landmark site spent the next three years at the top of the Providence Preservation Society’s “Most Endangered Properties” list.

But owner Evan Granoff held on to the property, and in 2012 announced a plan to convert the arcade into mixed-use commercial and residential space, with shops on the first floor and 48 apartment units on the second and third floors.

The first few shops opened in October 2013, and the apartment began to fill up earlier this year. In September the New York Daily News reported that 4,000 and counting were on the waiting list to live in the arcade’s “micro-lofts”—one-bedroom spaces of 82 and 91 square metres that start at $550 (USD) per month and are marketed primarily to recent university grads.

Toronto, of course, is no stranger to resurrecting old spaces with mixed-use development. The Queen’s Quay Terminal Warehouse opened in February 1927 as an eight-storey, 300,000-square-metre docking area and storage facility for dry goods and perishables coming into Toronto Harbour. Over the years the warehouse would also be used by food and pharmaceutical manufacturers, and as offices by major corporations.

In 1975 the federal government bought the warehouse as part of a plan to develop 92 acres of Toronto’s central waterfront. Eight years and $60 million later, the warehouse had been renovated to include retail, condos, and offices. Four storeys were added to the existing structure, and the complex was rechristened the Queen’s Quay Terminal.

Today, a one-bedroom condo at the Terminal rents for a minimum of $2,000 per month, and sells for at least half a million dollars. And that’s not the only time Toronto has experimented with mixed-use revitalization. More recently, similar developments have saved faded industrial centres in the Distillery District and Liberty Village.

And a growing number of new developments are being built as commercial and residential complexes from the off. Indeed, the Toronto Star reports that one in five development projects in 2013 was mixed-use, as developers look to create communities where residents can “live, work, and play” all in one place.

It’s an ideal arrangement for young people who want to be where the action is and elderly people who don’t want to travel long distances to do their shopping. And if allowing businesses to occupy ground-floor units allows us to preserve heritage architecture, so much the better. If only our rents were at Providence Arcade rates.