Tijuana 2097, by Tijuana artist Charles Glaubitz
  • Tijuana 2097, by Tijuana artist Charles Glaubitz
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Tijuana’s planning; from North–South or Bottom–Up

On June 26, the Hotel Ticuán, located on 8th and Constitución Avenue in downtown Tijuana, was host of the Urban Land Institute San Diego/Tijuana presentation of the “Downtown Tijuana, B.C. Mexico Revitalization Concept Plan.”

The presentation was organized by the Tijuana business community — in particular, the CDT (Tijuana Council on Economic Development) — and presented by the ULI Technical Assistance Panel (TAP).

The hotel is next to the vacant lot where the Tijuana jail and fire station (also known as “La Ocho”) used to sit; it was demolished on a December night in 2011 against the will of many civic associations who where fighting for its survival as a historic building.

The presentation ceremony on June 26 was initiated with words from Tijuana mayor Carlos Bustamante, who mentioned the importance of the concept plan and assured the crowd that this was something that then–San Diego mayor Bob Filner would back up; yet, Mr. Filner was not present to corroborate. Bustamante left the presentation immediately after his opening remarks. He may have had a full agenda that day or just wanted to avoid the heated comments some members of the audience made regarding the destruction of “La Ocho.”

The concept plan was presented by Greg Shannon, Tijuana TAP chair and president of Sedona Pacific Corporation, which has been credited for the development of the area around Petco Park and the Mercado del Barrio in Barrio Logan, among other projects around San Diego County.

The Plan

The TAP presentation began with statistics on the future of labor, housing demand, population, and income distribution in Tijuana through the year 2025. All the data were compiled by the Mexico City consulting firm Softec, describing the growth of Tijuana from 1.8 million to 2.7 million in 15 years — a 52 percent increase. Yet, according to Dr. Tito Alegria, urban researcher at the COLEF Border Think Tank, the numbers are not consistent with the Conapo (National Council on Population) office, which estimates only an 18 percent increase — 1,965,719 in 15 years. This discrepancy in population growth plays a misleading role in the estimate of housing and new jobs projected by the plan.

Based on Softec population-growth numbers, the TAP made a case for the demand for housing, specifically within a study area covering 27 blocks of downtown Tijuana. By creating concept plans for two sites, the catalyst block “land use that would serve to catalyze or encourage development within the Study Area,” and the demonstration block, a mixed-use block scheme with townhome and mid-rise apartments (20 stories) around central courtyards, are a simulation of Cerdà’s 1860 plan for Barcelona, yet with changing densities as one moves around the block.

The plan envisions an urban vertical fantasy for developers and, contrariwise, an unaffordable vision for the projected new population that will most probably inhabit the east side of the city and not downtown to work in the manufacturing plants earning 100 dollars a week.

Okay, but let’s be a little optimistic and say people like myself — the transborder tijuanenses, roughly 8 percent of the population — can afford with our San Diego wages one of those hip lofts on the 20th floor on Avenida Revolución. Not likely, since this sector of the population does not seem to be increasing due to the strict immigration laws to obtain working visas in the U.S.

Urbanism for the rest of us

The celebrated urbanist Kevin Lynch once said that Tijuana and San Diego “could be the center of a large international region, a vital meeting point of two living cultures.” And vital the center of Tijuana has become in the past two years, not due to large investments or the construction of high-rise towers, but by the determination of a few local and young investors who have decided to redevelop old buildings with restaurants, start-up companies, art galleries, and two-story loft apartments. This “acupuncture” method of slow yet incremental development was overlooked by the ULI’s assessment-team concept plan.

Teddy Cruz, San Diego architect and UCSD professor known for his bottom-up attitude of urbanism, also made a visit to Tijuana the same week in June as part of Mayor Filner’s office to “incubate” new ideas in city development. Cruz, accompanied by Mario Lopez, director of the then newly formed Office of Bi-National Affairs, presented to a group of young architects, many of whom are responsible for retrofitting abandoned buildings downtown.

Cruz gave a provocative talk on how other Latin American cities, such as Bogotá and Medellín in Colombia, have rethought urban development through community involvement with government agencies, an innovative and successful strategy that has brought infrastructure and cultural institutions to low-income neighborhoods as well as the development of the Transmilenio articulated bus system, well known worldwide for its efficiency and affordability.

Most of the examples illustrated by Cruz were in some way subsidized by the countries’ local and federal governments, which moved large amounts of public funds to neighborhoods in need of major development. This is a hard act to follow for Tijuana, since the city is known for its market urbanism, and the authorities most of the time sell public land to private investors who do what they wish with it. It seemed, then, that the ULI was targeting the correct audience: the landowners of downtown. Cruz presented a more slow-paced community-engaged approach, but to the wrong constituents and in a city where government is still struggling to pay for basic services in the growing peripheral communities.

Both presentations were positive in that they alluded to the ideas presented by Kevin Lynch’s report, “Temporary Paradise,” back in 1974 and could be the beginning of a new dialogue across the two border cities. On the other hand, neither the academic nor business-sector proposal seems to be hitting the ground running. In the meantime, the young, intrepid, creative tijuanenses are still choosing the best acupuncture spots for the stimulation of downtown.

“Tijuana Makes Me Happy," Rafa Saavedra (1967–2013)

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