Retail Express

A historic rail hub in Madrid becomes a runaway hit with commuters and shoppers when retail and entertainment components are integrated.
August 11, 2010

In the heart of Madrid's historic area, where the Principe Pio transit station has been in operation for 125 years, finding land suitable for redevelopment is virtually impossible. Located in a residential neighborhood only 100 meters from the Royal Palace and other tourist attractions that date back to the 17th century, the station serves 73 million people a year with two regional train lines, two subway lines, and one of the city's largest bus stations.

As much as the area offered in history and culture, it lacked shopping, dining, and entertainment options for transit users, tourists, and residents. That is, until Renfe, the Spanish public rail authority, held a competition to renovate the station and integrate retail and leisure components into underused parts of the 79,804-sm site.

Riofisa, the local development firm that won the competition, hired the London office of architecture firm RTKL Associates to infuse the transit hub with 410,000 sf of retail and entertainment space. "There were all of these people walking back and forth on a property that was completely empty," says RTKL VP Jorge Beroiz, AIA. Riofisa's Fernando Sánchez de las Matas calls the station site the "best space for a commercial center in Madrid."

Constructed while the station remained in operation, the $130 million project was completed last November. It is drawing 60,000 visitors a month and is 100% leased at rates 20% above the city average, making it "one of the most successful commercial projects in Spain," says de las Matas. The project is a finalist in the shopping centers category in this month's MIPIM awards, which honor international real estate projects.

Principe Pio is comprised of four primary parts. The first, the old train station, was fully restored to its original appearance; at the same time, three levels of retail and restaurant space were added to it. The second component is a new building for retail and a nine-screen cineplex.

The third element, a glass-domed atrium, connects the old terminal to the new building; it has become the development's new main entrance and circulation area. Finally, three levels of underground parking are provided for 840 vehicles.

In all, Principe Pio now takes in more than 70 high-end retail shops, 15,000 sf of restaurants, a 4,500-sf anchor department store (Zara), and a 15,000-sf Warner Brothers cinema.

Tracks make way for retail

The central question posed by the project was straightforward, says RTKL Beroiz: "Is it a train station or a retail center? They have very different aesthetics." The train station, he notes, is essentially a civic building, serious and formal, and the rail authority wanted a very traditional approach to the expression of the building. On the other hand, RTKL's client, Riofisa, wanted a vibrant, "very in-your-face type of project" for the retail and leisure center, says Beroiz.

Adding yet another layer of complexity, due to the historic nature of the train station, the Building Team also had to win approvals from the historic preservation group, Spanish Heritage.

RTKL's solution was to restore the existing structure and take a contemporary approach with the new elements of the project. The existing station, a two-story classically styled building constructed in 1933, fronted two linear railroad platforms that date to 1880s; these were covered by skylit canopies.

Restoration work, such as cornice repair, was conducted on the exterior of the front building, but the condition of the original brick made it impossible to be fully restored. Instead, the building was painted a red brick color to evoke its original building material. Restored ship windows on the outside facade provide views into and out of the retail shops on the first level and the restaurants on the second level.

The most dramatic change to the existing station took place under its main canopy, where the team "built a new building inside an old building," says de las Matas. Train tracks beneath the canopy were removed and consolidated under the station's shorter secondary canopy to make way for a multi-level retail space designed in a modern vernacular of steel and glass. The linear mall stretches the length of the main canopy, with stores and restaurants on either side of the pavilion. Enclosing the main canopy in glass preserved the station's original aesthetics, says de las Matas.

Before the canopy could be restored and enclosed, however, the engineers had to devise a way to allow excavation and construction of the area underneath it to provide for a level of below-grade retail space and three levels of underground parking. Bilbao-based Idom engineers suspended the canopy in place by segmenting the main columns and temporarily diverting the load through a special gantry. Once the below-grade construction was completed, the columns were rebuilt and the gantry removed. "Seeing all that metal in the air was incredible," RTKL's Beroiz.

The project initially met with resistance from some local residents who feared the crowds the retail might bring, but five months into its new life as a transit and retail development, Principe Pio has enlivened the station and spurred renovation among area hotels and other businesses, says Beroiz. And a 2,000-seat performance theater now in design by another Building Team is scheduled to open on the site of the complex in two years.

The retail stores in the development have also had something of a windfall from their unique location. Due to their tie-in to the train station, they are permitted to stay open on Sunday, when, by law, other retail centers in Madrid must be closed.

Ironically, the Building Team seems to have miscalculated how people would use the complex. Statistics show that 6–9% of rail commuters are taking the time to shop and dine at the facility, which is considerably higher than expected, says Beroiz. Conversely, except on Saturdays, only one of the parking three levels is used. "We thought there was not going to be enough parking, but they all come by train," says de las Matas.