For more than 100 years, an acclaimed school known as Santa Ursula stood at the center of Ribeirao Preto, Brazil. But when the school moved to a more modern facility a couple of years ago, Almeida Junior Shopping Centers of Sao Paulo saw an opportunity to tap into a huge market in need of retail. The company bought the site, demolished the school and built the Santa Ursula urban shopping center.

The 650,000 sq. ft. mall opened last summer after challenging design, engineering and construction work. Several residential towers of up to 30 stories surround the city block that Santa Ursula inhabits.

That erased any hope of creating parking except underground, and it restricted the time in which laborers could build the mall. Nearby residences also required special lighting to keep the shopping center from intruding on private lives. But the towers made the decision to overcome these obstacles and proceed with the $45 million project an easy one.

More than 500,000 people of middle and upper incomes - about $6,000 a year, according to the developer - live within a 15-minute walk to the mall. Until Santa Ursula opened, they had to travel miles outside downtown to visit a large shopping center. In addition, about 3 million live in the region, which is about 410 miles west of Rio de Janeiro.

"The downtown location is very good because of the trend to build shopping centers in urban centers, and that's what we like to do," said Jaimes Almeida Jr., president of Almeida Junior Shopping Centers, which has constructed 198,000 sq. meters and has 130,000 sq. meters under development. "We knew exactly the Ribeirao Preto market and what the customer there needs.

"The mall features about 225,000 sq. ft. of gross leasable area on four levels. More than 150 stores, a 1,200-person food court, an eight-screen theater and a gym operate in the mall. The upscale supermarket Supermercados Gimenes Plus and the department store Lojas Riachuelo anchor the mall. Megastores include PBKids and Virtual Music, while Hering Store, Golden Bingo and Fun Station round out the entertainment.

Santa Ursula also includes several restaurants, including Chopperia Pinguim, Brazil's version of a brew pub. The mall targets a wide audience, with stores selling fashions for men, women and juniors, leather goods, jewelry and other specialty products. The mall houses a bank and a travel agency. Its U.S. presence includes McDonald's and Levi's.

Santa Ursula has a five-level, underground parking garage, which can hold 1,200 cars. The developer had to focus on designing a system that could get cars in and out as efficiently as possible during peak times, such as around the beginning and ending of movies. Constructing the garage took almost double the time it took to build the mall, Almeida says.

He is happy with the mall's performance, and Brazilian shopping habits all but ensure future success. Almeida splits the sales up between anchor and satellite stores. The mall's anchor stores are generating about $400 per sq. meter, while satellite stores are generating $550 per sq. meter. Shopping center anchor stores in Brazil generally make about $600 a sq. meter, while satellite stores generate $800 per sq. meter, Almeida says.

Creating excitement In addition to the physical challenges, the Santa Ursula site offered a bit of a psychological challenge: Its prominence demanded a structure that would become part of the city itself. Instead of the fortress-like buildings still found in many cities around the world, Santa Ursula opens itself as much as possible in an attempt to blur the boundaries between the mall and city streets.

The mall incorporates windows throughout that overlook the streets, and columns mark the primary, two-story entrance. Canopies and windows define other entrances, and large skylights are visible from all approaches to the building. Landscaping, contemporary paving patterns using hand-placed local stone and the design of the building's facade add to the pedestrian-friendly design.

According to Baltimore-based RTKL Associates Inc., which worked on the shopping center along with Paulo Dinnies of Dinnies Arquitetura in Curitiba, Brazil, Santa Ursula represents a "drive toward innovation that is a trademark of a resurgent and confident Brazil."

The exterior architecture is "crisp and dramatic," featuring extensive use of brick and aluminum bands to accentuate the building. Given that many people would view Santa Ursula from the residential towers rising above the mall, the design incorporates a clean rooftop that hides all equipment.

"This site is right smack dab in the middle of Ribeirao Preto, and it's very prominent," says Carlos Vega, an associate vice president in RTKL's Dallas office, who worked on the project. "We went to great efforts to make the building a part of the pedestrian activity on the street. One of the elements was to add large windows that look down on the street that also allow people to look into the mall. That cost us some leasable space, but we felt it was important to have that kind of link to the city street.

'No Yankee decor, thank you' Other than a few U.S. stores and some U.S.-based companies that worked on the shopping center, Santa Ursula possesses no American influence. Almeida wanted a clean, almost stark appearance instead of something cluttered with decorations or artwork on the walls and columns like those found in many U.S. malls. In fact, where RTKL could, it eliminated columns. Incorporating a lot of windows also helped RTKL fulfill Almeida's wishes.

"The Brazilian sensibilities at this market level are for a more contemporary, cleaner center," Vega says. "The climate is very hot there, so we paid a premium to do it, but because Santa Ursula is so vertical, we wanted to make sure that we had lots of natural daylight in all parts of the center. That was very important."

Long visits RTKL designed the project to incorporate two large, glass-covered atriums, or "rooms," of different character that are connected by a corridor, Vega says. One is oval-shaped, the other is larger and is elongated along one of the walls.

A skylight shaped similar to a truncated cone defines the larger of the two rooms designed to accommodate fashion shows, musical events and other retail-related promotions. The oval-shaped room also has a skylight.

Elevators that offer panoramic views and escalators that criss-cross in the middle of the center bring the connection to the city streets inside the building.

Brazil is considered a young country - the average age is in the mid-20s - and the mall has become a place where young people hang out, meet and check each other out as they ride the escalators.

The night before the mall opened, it was the site of a large, black-tie event to celebrate its completion. The next morning, Vega says, a long line of people waited to get their first look.

"They watched it go up; it was right in the middle of their neighborhood, and they couldn't wait to get in," he says. "Young people almost immediately started using the space as a gathering place. It's a very lively use of the space."

In addition, Vega says, Brazilians flock to food courts, and it's not unusual for them to spend all day in one. With that in mind, RTKL designed the mall so that patrons of the cinema have to pass through the food court twice, once on their way to a movie and then again when leaving.

Almeida outfitted the food court with Italian chairs and tables. Sofas and chairs dispersed throughout the mall also came from Italy. "The atmosphere is very interesting," Almeida says. "The majority of people who come to our undertaking like to stay and walk around the mall. The time they spend there is more or less an hour and a half. The public has a very good time."

Lighting the mall RTKL wasn't the only U.S. firm to work on the Santa Ursula project. Almeida also brought in New York-based Theo Kondos & Associates to light the building. The company concentrated on enhancing the mall's link to the city street.

"The exterior lighting was designed to attract people, to welcome them and bring them in," says Theo Kondos, who lists about 30 shopping centers in South America on his resume. "But we had to keep it low-key because of the residential buildings around there. You can't force a lighting design onto a building that reflects into somebody's living room or bedroom."

Inside the mall, he continues, the challenge was to take a shopping center that received a lot of natural daylight and transform it into a magical nighttime spot. Much of the internal lighting is recessed and reinforces the elliptical shapes of the rooms. Kondos calls it "theatrical lighting, where shoppers go in and out of highlights so that they don't feel like they're in this prison yard with lights just everywhere.

"Instead, it's more residential, but there's still a casual quality," says Kondos. "Care was taken to make it unobtrusive, but Santa Ursula still had to feel like an entertainment and shopping center."