With the exception of the Pirelli Tower and the stellar Torre Velasca by the architectural firm BBPR, both built in 1958, most buildings peter out at eight stories against an underwhelming canvas of hazy, gray sky. But necks are now craning for the new vertical shock in town: a spire of glass and steel shooting brazenly from the top of the Unicredit Tower, a 231-meter, or 758-foot, skyscraper that is the tallest building in Italy.
The building, part of a three-structure bank campus that houses 4,000 employees, opened officially in December. Love it or hate it — and in this image-conscious town, packed with award-winning architects and industrial designers, the jury is split. But aesthetics aside, the spire serves as a giant symbolic flag pole, clearly marking the spot of Milan’s newest, largest, most expensive and most ambitious real estate development.
Dubbed Porta Nuova, the 400,000 square meters, or almost 99 acres, of land sits snugly south of the Garibaldi train station, north of Corso Como and stretching eastward to the Piazza della Repubblica. With more than €2 billion, or $2.67 billion, poured into the area, it has been transformed from a derelict, no-man’s-land of odd buildings and empty lots into a glossy, manicured public oasis with 30 new residential and commercial skyscrapers, a giant park, an underground Esselunga supermarket and direct access to high-speed trains to Paris and London.
It also is shaping up to be a major slice of retail heaven. Maison Martin Margiela, Dsquared2 and Costume National are just three of the fashion brands that will be opening stores within the area in coming months while Galleries Lafayette and PPR, owner of luxury labels like Gucci, Stella McCartney, Saint Laurent Paris and Alexander McQueen, are rumored to be in negotiations for shop spaces.
“Retail-wise, there’s been a major gap in Milan,” said Manfredi Catella, chief executive of Hines Italia, the real-estate development company that has overseen the purchase, construction and subdivision of this complex site for well over a decade. “There’s Montenapoleone and then no other vibrant neighborhoods where you have an integration of entertainment, life, restaurants and shopping.”
Ten years ago, part of this immense property was earmarked for “Citta della Moda,” Nicola Trussardi’s utopian proposal to consolidate Milan’s fashion designers, companies and their seasonal shows in one neat and tidy neighborhood. That romantic idea crumbled with Mr. Trussardi’s death in 1999. Since then, fiercely independent designers like Miuccia Prada, Giorgio Armani and Stefano Gabbana and Domenico Dolce all have constructed ambitious private show spaces in separate corners of the city for the exclusive use of their own brands.
Now, the fashion flies have started swarming to the area, this time lured by the enticing perfume of a new consumer opportunity. While the project has created 75,000 square meters of new residential space, Porta Nuova also offers 25,000 square meters of retail opportunity.
“I first learned about the project two years ago, and I started to fall a little bit in love with it,” said Renzo Rosso, chief executive of Only the Brave, the holding group for Diesel and other major brands, and the first fashion entrepreneur to buy real estate in Porta Nuova. “I must confess that now, I am very much in love with it. It’s the first time the city has inserted something brand new and modern into its historic center. There is nothing else like it in Milan.”
The city’s tony center, the Golden Quadrilateral, is a compact area, catering overwhelmingly to tourists looking for Italian luxury labels. Italians, however, have had their pocketbooks stretched especially thin in the last 18 months, and tend to patronize the more affordable mass-market shops that fill Milan’s Galleria and Corso Emanuele.
Porta Nuova is expected to present an alternate luxury pole, where tourists, like Chinese with cash in their pockets, can spend a day shopping, walking and lunching along nearby Corso Como.
Mr. Rosso confirmed that stores for Margiela and Dsquared2 would open before June on Via Vincenzo Capelli, the pedestrian street that links the top of Corso Como with the Piazza Gae Aulenti, where the UniCredit Tower stands. He also bought additional property in the area and said he was mulling options for the other brands he controls.
“I see it as a contemporary approach for high-end fashion brands,” he said, clarifying that Diesel, his denim label, was not being planned as part of the Porta Nuova mix. But another brand he controls, “Marni, could work very well there too,” he added.
Via Vincenzo Capelli is expected to house 13 retail stores, one of which will be a 250-square-meter Costume National boutique, set to open this spring.
“Milan really needed another pole,” said Carlo Capasa, the label’s chief executive. “New York has uptown and downtown, Paris has Faubourg Saint-Honoré and Avenue Montaigne, but Milan has been stuck in the center for too long.”
Retailers all agree that the new area’s greatest asset is its open space. Large piazzas, modern buildings, sweeping pedestrian paths and parks now being developed make this a giant pie ready to be sliced and served.
“The number of top brands who have come to us in the last two months is amazing,” said Mr. Catella, the Hines Italia chief executive. “I took Giorgio Armani to the site just before Christmas and his eyes were sparkling.” (A representative for Mr. Armani said the designer had no comment.)
“I’ve been here for 22 years and there were a lot of hard years,” said Carla Sozzani, owner of the famed Corso Como boutique that sits just south of the development. “For me, it’s great to see everything opened, clean, and organized. At night, there are so many more people walking on the street and it’s no longer the scary ladies of the night.”
A walk through the area, even though most of the stores have not opened yet, confirms her observations. There are lots of pedestrians, some of whom probably used to avoid the area.
The developer linked four areas that previously had been isolated from one another: Corso Como, the Piazza della Repubblica, Brera and the Garibaldi train station — or “Frankenstein,” as Mr. Catella jokingly refers to the neighborhood.
“The body was not alive,” he said. “You had some legs and arms, but no heart. We didn’t have to invent anything, we just had to connect.”
By focusing on urban renewal goals, rather than a “Citta della Moda,” a giant web for foot traffic has suddenly emerged. The project has also been a magnet for other big real estate projects in the vicinity. A new Eataly food emporium in the former Teatro Smeraldo and a new Feltrinelli headquarters, designed by Herzog & de Meuron. soon will flank the Piazza XXV Aprile, an area just south of Porta Nuova that is piggybacking on its neighbor’s renewed prospects.
“If you declare this as a fashion village you will fail,” Mr. Catella said, reflecting back on his company’s experiences. “But if you create the best new neighborhood and most livable place in town, then everyone will come.”