On the morning of April 12, a crowd of approximately 700 Tijuana residents, armed with placards and megaphones, shouted on the doorsteps of city hall, “¡Eco-cidio — no a la tala de arboles! ¡No al Zócalo once de julio!” The citizens group Movimiento Ciudadano en Defensa del Parque Benito Juárez (Citizens’ Movement for the Defense of Benito Juárez Park) held a rally against the proposed “Zócalo 11 de Julio,” a 900-million-peso ($76.9 million) plaza and commercial space designed for an area between the current municipal and state government buildings in the Zona Rio section of Tijuana.
“Tijuana is not Mexico.” — Raymond Chandler
The ambitious Zócalo project was put together by a group of Tijuana business leaders and academics led by Carolina Aubanel, general manager of Sintesis Television, one of the major media networks in Baja California. In 2009, after forming a board, Zócalo proponents launched an architectural design competition for a 430,000-square-foot plaza (“zócalo”), to include space for 2000 cars, an open-air theater, library, galleries, and a retail zone, among other support spaces.
The plaza was baptized by the group as Zócalo 11 de Julio (July 11, 1889, is the official founding date of the city) and described to function in a similar manner as the one in Mexico City, located in an area built by the Spanish conquistadores on top of what was the major temple of Tenochtitlan. Like in many colonial cities in Latin America, the metropolitan cathedral and the national palace surround the zócalo. According to the competition brief, many cities in Mexico have zócalo-type plazas where the public can congregate to celebrate national festivities and promote cultural tourism. Also stated in the brief, this mega project will encourage the construction of a new identity for Tijuana and renovate the image of its urban realm.
The site selected for the design of the project is public land and is currently where the Benito Juárez Park lies, between the municipal and state building and across the street from the Tijuana cathedral that is now under construction. The existing park has an estimated 1300 trees of various species and is also the site of a major public library and the state-run cultural institute (ICBC), which went through a renovation and expansion three years ago. The area was created as part of a federally funded project in the 1970s with the intention to establish a new urban center for the city, which included the Tijuana River canal and Paseo de los Héroes, a major boulevard running eastward from the San Ysidro border crossing. The plan included the relocation of financial areas and government buildings from the original downtown area, near the infamous and historic Avenida Revolución.
The budget for the construction of the Zócalo project was first estimated at 900 million pesos, but experts today say its real cost is around 1.2 billion, almost a quarter of the City of Tijuana’s annual budget.
In March 2009, the competition winner was announced: a firm by the name of Black Dog, from the city of Monterrey in the border state of Nuevo Leon, located more than 2000 kilometers east of Tijuana. Yet, before the finalist was announced, the organizers selected five semifinalists and created a website for the public to vote for their favorite design (it was not clear if those votes had any bearing on determining the winner).
The winning design includes an oversized central oval plaza that connects with Tijuana’s new cathedral to the north and extends south across the Tijuana River to connect with the Plaza Rio shopping mall. The plaza makes a final link to the west with Tijuana’s cultural center (CECUT). Under the central plaza, there is a parking facility and a series of commercial spaces, yet the renderings of the project do not illustrate any remnants of the existing Benito Juárez Park. The concrete zócalo dominates much of the project site.
“The city and the urban sphere are thus the setting of struggle; they are also, however, the stakes of that struggle.” — Henri Lefebvre
Activists for the preservation of Benito Juárez Park have been camping in the park for more than a year now. Their sentry posts are vigilant of any intent to cut down trees; they’re also on the lookout for heavy machinery threatening to begin construction of the project. Tents spread across the park hold up to eight people who form the permanent stronghold of the group; another 30 members come and go as needed to perform support tasks or participate in informing the thousands of citizens that visit city hall every day of their effort to save the park and its public spaces from private hands.
Preservationists’ two most urgent concerns are for the trees of the park and the turning over of what is now public land to private developers, which, according to the group, is being facilitated by the mayor’s office. Newly elected Tijuana mayor Carlos Bustamante is now in favor of the construction of the project; during his campaign for office he publicly stated that he was against it. Some people think that he hesitates to make up his mind because the president of the Zócalo board is his ex-wife, Carolina Aubanel.
According to the activists, the park and the rest of the block — including all existing buildings — are protected by a 1975 presidential decree stating that neither the state nor municipal governments can change the land-use ordinance established for the site. The legal council for the group has been victorious in getting an amparo (a constitutional protection) against the proposed project, but they are still wary of under-the-table dealings.
During the previous administration, a large area in front of city hall and adjacent to the park was converted into an underground parking garage that is operated by a private company. This area, until recently, was used as a public plaza where national festivities were celebrated throughout the year. Today, the parking structure has a series of low, unfinished columns that seem to be waiting to support floors above ground or a large plaza.