The ICSC Blog

An ‘arresting’ mall at former prison in Uruguay

Mall landlords are always looking for ways to detain their customers just a little longer. Uruguay’s Punta Carretas Shopping, housed in a former prison in Montevideo, appears to be quite good at it: This year the 18-year-old shopping center is embarking on its third expansion.

In fact its owners, a partnership of Uruguayan investors operating under the name Alian S.A., appear to be more successful at holding onto their guests than the former owners were: Last year marked the 40th anniversary of the escape of 111 prisoners, which earned it a place in Guinness World Records for the largest prison breakout ever. The prison finally closed in 1986, after an uprising.

Begun in 1895, the building boasted 400 cells. Today it has 215 stores.

“The mall is a perfect example of a fusion of antiquity and new, with the architectural patrimony playing a major role while simultaneously interacting with 21st century’s minimalist architecture,” said architect María Elena Silveira, who is in charge of maintaining the mall’s architectural integrity.

There are no tour guides or plaques to inform the 1.2 million visitors each month of the mall’s turbulent past, and there is nothing even to mark the location of the 150-foot-long tunnel that the escapees dug to a local house.

But signs of its majestic past abound nevertheless, starting with the imposing 33-foot-high stone wall, nearly five feet thick in places, which surrounded the prison and now forms part of the mall itself. Outside the mall parts of the wall rise to about 65 feet high and go as deep as 16 feet underground. The original main entrance remains too, with its clock tower and bell.

The combination of historic design and modern retailing makes Punta Carretas Shopping a crowd-puller and the main shopping destination for the city’s affluent. The mall is located in one of Montevideo’s most coveted residential locations, Punta Carretas, close to the coast and to the city’s premier golfing club.

That is why its owners jumped at the chance to buy the 6.3-acre site from the government when the prison got relocated. Hired to undertake the design was the late Argentinean architect Juan Carlos López, whose firm had converted several historic buildings into malls in Buenos Aires, including Alto Palermo Shopping, Galerías Pacífico and Patio Bullrich.

It was a major undertaking to preserve and convert the building into a mall, says Argentinean architect Aldo Volpe, who worked with the López firm at the time and now has his own design company in Argentina. The modern additions are deliberately plain, to highlight the more stylized original architecture, he says.

Since opening in 1994 with roughly 150,000 square feet of gross leasable area, the three-level mall has undergone two expansions and doubled its GLA. In January work began on a third expansion that calls for the relocation of the existing supermarket to a new building fronting the mall. This will add nearly 54,000 square feet of retail space to Punta Carretas plus three levels of underground parking. The vacated grocery store space will accommodate 35 new stores, says Mauricio Oppenheimer, the mall’s general manager.

Landing retailers for the new space should not be challenging for Punta Carretas or, for that matter, for the rest of Uruguay’s malls. Management consulting firm A.T. Kearney included Uruguay in its most recent list of 30 emerging markets ripe for retail expansion based on population size (about 3.3 million), country risk, current retail market and wealth.

Last year Punta Carretas marked its best year for sales, a performance that executives tie to Uruguay’s strong economic growth over the past two years, as well as that of neighboring Argentina and Brazil, both of which are major markets for Uruguay’s exports and a main source of tourism. Uruguay’s GDP grew 8.5 percent in 2010 and 5.7 percent last year, according to Uruguay’s central bank.

Despite warnings that the international financial crisis may slow the region’s growth this year, executives are confident that any such problems will remain outside the thick walls of Punta Carretas — they are projecting a 5 percent sales increase, bettering the expected 4.1 percent expansion of the national GDP. — María Bird Picó

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