Providence leading the way with micro-lofts

Providence is becoming known nationally and internationally as a cool city.

The heart of downtown is Westminster Street with dress shops, bookstores and nightclubs. But there's no room for new residents.

"There's not a single place to live down here right now. You can't rent an apartment downtown right now," said Steve Durkee of Cornish Associates.

At the same time, Durkee said the trend toward urban living is not slowing down.

"You step out on the sidewalk, you go around the corner to the coffee shop or the fabulous restaurant, or up the street to the theater," Durkee said.

The housing stock is victim to economic realities. Rents are much less than Boston, but construction costs are about the same. One solution is micro-lofts: tiny apartments that can tip a building's balance sheet to the black.

"You can get more apartments into a building, and it makes them more reasonable," Durkee said.

That's exactly how developer Evan Granoff is planning on saving one of Providence's most famous buildings: the Arcade. Built in 1828 as the country's first enclosed shopping mall, it will soon be home to the city's first collection of micro-lofts.

And while they are small - some as small as 300 square feet -- the units are designed to use every cubic inch.

"You have storage underneath. You have storage under your bed," Durkee said. "You come over and just pop this open and there you go -- a Murphy bed."

Rents start at $550 a month -- plenty affordable -- and each unit has its own heating and cooling system.

"There's a lot of efficiency, so these are going to be very inexpensive to live in," Granoff said.

There are 48 units on the top two floors, but retail space on the first floor is part of the scheme here. Initially, Granoff thought designers would live upstairs from their shops.

"I was thinking it was going to be college graduates. It was going to create a work and live environment where they could graduate from school and open up design-based businesses and they could live here," Granoff said.

Demand exceeded his estimation, and he has four times as many applications as he has apartments.

The trend toward micro-lofts is sweeping into cities all over the country.

"I don't think it's as radical anymore either. At first it seemed that way. Now it seems like this is where it's going to be. And this is why all the mayors in these others cities are trying to do these things," Granoff said.

"(New York Mayor Michael) Bloomberg is trying to get it done. Boston is calling for it. And we're actually, Providence is at the forefront. We're doing it. It's having young people staying in your cities, instead of leaving," Granoff said. "They're the ones who add the vitality. They're the ones who drive your economic activity."

Bringing an old building to life, using an even older formula.

"The whole circle is going to be live, work, play. Where you live, work and play all in one location, you don't need a car. Once you round that circle, that's going to be what Providence wants to become.

The place is planned to spring into life sometime this summer.