For most pedestrian border-crossers, the complex urban landscape that spans the busy San Ysidro Port of Entry is a place to rush through on the way to other destinations.
A new study by the Urban Land Institute San Diego-Tijuana wants to offer some reasons to linger. Among its visions: a cross-border park, a welcome center, a museum of Mexican-American history, a higher education center, monumental artworks, a beer garden, improved signage, more sidewalks.
The study, known as a Technical Assistance Report, was prepared by a panel of volunteer experts — developers, architects, land-use planners, property owners — from both sides of the border who spent three days last June walking the area and brainstorming together. This is the ULI’s first bi-national study, and the goal is to not only find ways to enhance the zones that press up against the international border, but look for ways to connect them.
“People should be able to enjoy the border space,” said Diego Velasco, an architect with the M.W. Steele Group and co-chair of the nine-member panel. “It has the potential to be a really fantastic place.”
It is an area where both challenges and opportunities abound. The report, entitled “Cross-Border Visioning: An Exploration of a United Cross-Border Experience,” speaks of confusing signage, retail choices that “are limited and unexciting” and a street scene “that suffers from visual clutter and architectural ugliness.”
The report states that “currently, the border lacks an identity on both sides. There is nothing central or distinctive on either side that makes the passage from one country to another memorable or compelling.”
But it also sees the opportunity to transform these border crossing areas “into a celebration of complementary ways of life.” It maps out a series of projects, with an initial step involving the designation of key partners on both sides of the border — from local government representatives to business organizations, tourism bureaus, transit groups, nonprofits, land owners and academic institutions.
Set for public release later this year, the $50,000 report was commissioned by the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce and the Border Fusion Group, an alliance that includes private, public and academic professionals. The aim is to revitalize San Ysidro’s business district, and generate interest from the public and private sectors on both sides of the border to invest in improvements and coordinate efforts.
“There have been a lot of studies done of the border area and a lot of proposed projects,” said Velasco. “What was exciting was to bring these ideas together into one cohesive vision, to try to show all these things working together on both sides of the border and how that could look.”
The study comes as a $741 million upgrade and expansion of the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the busiest port of entry in the Western Hemisphere, nears completion. Last fiscal year, some 8.5 million pedestrian crossings northbound were counted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the port’s two pedestrian entrances, PedWest and PedEast — more than 23,000 crossings per day.
“You come out of a beautiful new facility and walk into an area that needs to be much more pleasant for the traveler,” said Jason Wells, executive director of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce.
He sees the study as a first step, and hopes it will be followed by a master plan of San Ysidro Boulevard, “so we can go block by block trying to get investors,” he said. One funding possibility, he said, could come through a federal program for designated “opportunity zones,” that would allow investors to defer or eliminate federal taxes on capital gains.
“We who live here already know what’s going on,” Wells said. “This is about merging the reality with expertise from land use and planning folks to be able to present to developers.”