COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

In Santiago, Chile: When Public Spaces Come First, both City and Developer Win

Craig Raphael
Feb 4, 2009
Dec 14, 2017

Despite being in one of Santiago’s most important neighborhoods and anchored by one of the busiest train and bus stations in the city, the Las Condes plazas and commercial galleries had become a place to pass through as quickly as possible. After the galleries were built in the 1980s, they steadily lost customers to the city’s shopping malls and became desolate and forbidding.  Compounding the problem was an unfortunate design flaw, a surfeit of entrances that made the space – especially in its increasingly empty state – vulnerable to muggers. Eventually, most of the foot traffic in the underpass was there merely to hurry through on their way to or from the Escuela Militar metro stop.

Marcello Corbo and Rodrigo Jullian, co-founders of Urban Development, saw this well-located space as a major opportunity for both the city and their company. Metro Escuela Militar was the most important transit hub in northeast Santiago, carrying up to 4.5 million people every month. With a few changes, they decided, the underpass and surrounding public spaces could be transformed from a transitional space into a destination in its own right for people living and working nearby, and a “place for pause” for commuters. Their vision was to invest in the public spaces and, through doing that, make the retail feasible.

Over the following five years, Urban Development forged alliances with the city government, Metro, the Ministry of Transportation and the community to make those changes and realize SubCentro’s potential. “The municipality owned the surface space, the Ministry of Transportation was in charge of the bus transportation and the transit design,” Mr. Corbo said, “so involving all of them was the only way to do it. They all had to be a part of the project, and align all their interests into a common goal.” The project, therefore, became an exceptionally collaborative one: the municipality of Las Condes created new plazas, and taxi stops; the Ministry of Transportation modified the street design and created new bus stops; the Metro leased the galleries to Urban Development; and Urban Development found the vendors, rented out the stalls, reduced and improved access points, and created a private team (“SubCentro Las Condes”) to manage the site.

In 2005, Mr. Corbo invited PPS to Santiago to look at the site and hold a workshop with the design team and city partners. PPS developed a series of design and management recommendations and principles for the team to follow through the process.

The redesign made a huge impact with some relatively small changes, like letting in more light to make the underpasses feel safer and more welcoming, changing the park design into a plaza surface to promote more public uses, and replacing the barriers between businesses with glass panels to create a feeling of continuity and openness.  The resulting effect was akin to an old-fashioned marketplace, blurring the distinction between inside and out, and between private and public.

Much of the project’s success, however, had little to do with the physical renovation, and more to do with the way Urban Development developed its relationship with the community, first during the planning stage and now through management presence. One of their first moves was to solicit the neighborhood’s opinions in an online survey, to help determine the best mix of tenants for the new SubCentro – while at the same time, giving the public a stake in the project and making them feel invited and represented.

And since the galleries opened in March 2008, SubCentro Las Condes has kept the community involved with creative outreach strategies. Prize giveaways generate buzz, and staff members and promoters mill around the galleries, chatting and interacting with visitors. The SubCentro team has also approached the space’s design as an ongoing, interactive process. After attending PPS’s How Tow Turn a Place Around training course, the management team has been experimenting with different assortments and arrangements of those amenities -- moving around benches and sofas, for example, and observing how people actually use the space. This March, they will start holding a “Feria” (farmer’s market) three days a week, to attract those in the community as well as daily commuters.

SubCentro is an exemplar of a private-public partnership creating a thriving public space. It sets a new standard for public space creativity that would be difficult for a more narrowly focused municipal or government agency to replicate. When asked how they were able to bring these institutions on board with their vision, Mr. Corbo stressed the importance of persevering, listening to each institution’s concerns, and being willing to adapt his plans in response -- and underlying it all, a “belief in a common good.”

SubCentro’s success is proof of how mutually beneficial such an arrangement can be once those factors fall into place. The developers harness the profits from the foot traffic generated by the metro center and the successful public spaces; the retail, in turn, attracts more people, infusing the space with life and generating revenue that can be put towards maintenance and upkeep. And, recognizing that foot traffic is good for business, Mr. Corbo’s team is working to make the Metro Escuela Militar more pedestrian-friendly. In doing so, they are helping turn the neighborhood into a poster child for transit-oriented development (TOD): attracting further density and a greater mix of uses.  

SubCentro may be an unusual case at the moment, but if Mr. Corbo has his way, it will soon be less so. There is no reason, he says, that the positive synergies that brought SubCentro to life could not occur elsewhere. And he is in talks with the Metro to prove it: “We’re in conversation for developing a formula for other stations,” he said.

Based on an interview conducted by Andres Ramirez.

Craig Raphael
Craig Raphael
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