|AIArchitect - July, 1996|
THE SAN DIEGO-TIJUANA CONTRAST
|By E. Crichton Singleton, F.A.I.A.|
San Diego is a vibrant and exciting city of conventions and downtown activity, posh suburbs and an elegant urban park, great weather, and a gorgeous sea-shore. If this tourist mecca can come to grips with the international community-building that her Mexican sibling so desperately needs, the result will set a standard by which many of us will measure our own metropolitan success.
Downtown San Diego
Writing in the March 1977 AIA Journa1, Editor James Britton II was copious in his praise of then-mayor Pete Wilson, who coined the phrase "America's finest city" and then convinced San Diegans that it was true. But Britton lamented that "urban design in San Diego is as yet mostly rhetoric.... [Downtown] is now avoided by most people simply because they don't need it.... Only a grand design revamping the whole downtown could make it attractive enough to hold its own against the unreasonable tendency of people to gather in more convenient centers.... San Diego has a freeway system that is extremely convenient and comparatively free of jams, so far. Perhaps that is why there is little interest in mass transit."
What a change has been wrought in the intervening 19 years! A recent four-day weekend in this southernmost California metropolis introduced me to a trolley that has combined with some of the most impressive downtown development in the nation. Horton Plaza is an 11-year-old shopping and entertainment center knit into the fabric of some magnificent old buildings in an exuberance of color and form and a mixture of tenants that would be the envy of most urban cores: from Nordstrom to a bunch of local stores and eateries gathered along a rakish, multilevel, multicolored composition by architect Jon Jerde and designer/colorist Deborah Sussman that preserves some of San Diego's finest old commercial structures.
The spillover of this success is the renewal of the Gaslight District, an "old town" development that has injected several blocks of two- and three-story and taller 19th-century buildings with new restaurants and nightclubs in a density that can only be sustained by the proximate availability of the bright red San Diego trolley. which links suburbs to the center with dependable, clean. safe. cheap. and attractive public transit.
As a convention venue, San Diego is one of the stars, and the downtown renewal is a strong partner in this success. Architect Arthur Erickson's very successful convention center, built on the bay only seven years ago, is flanked by prosperous hotels and is already planning a doubling of space.
Even downtown housing has begun to proliferate. Some high-income condominiums appear to have jumped the gun in the market, with some financial failures, but now old warehouses are being converted to lofts, and numerous new apartments are being developed to respond to a demand for downtown accessibility.
Close to this downtown success lies the I, 400-acre Balboa Park, one of the nation's largest urban parks, set amid a series of canyons and boasting a picturesque museum and cultural complex designed by Bertram Goodhue in 1915. Also located there is the world-famous San Diego Zoo, the sole reason for thousands to visit the city.
Just beyond Balboa Park lies North Park, a neighborhood of low-rise apartments and tiny "Craftsman" bungalows, many less than 1,200 square feet, about the size of today's low-income housing models, but on a path toward property value increase and reinvestment. Community workshops are supported by a 1988 voter initiative to establish a regional growth management study and the city's adoption in 1992 of transit-oriented design guidelines, both of which rely on mixed use, a balance of jobs and housing, and design solutions that encourage alternatives to driving.
One major civic decision that San Diego seems unable to resolve is the future of its airport, one of the closest big city airports in the nation, with the twin problems inherent in that advantage: noise that encumbers adjacent development and a restriction to smaller planes.
The resolve splits over two potential relocation options:
Miramar Naval Air Station (of Top Gun fame and a long-shot candidate for decommissioning) and expanding the Tijuana Airport at Mesa de Otay, both of which are within 20 miles of downtown. And then there are those who prefer the convenience of such a close-in airport, opposing any relocation plan.
Lying next to San Diego Bay and next to the decommissioned Naval Training Center (not to be confused with Miramar), this real estate offers a prime development site. Add the wild idea of a new channel connecting San Diego Bay with Mission Bay (Seaworld's location) to the north, along undeveloped bottom land, and there begins to form a picture of a huge project, suggesting enhanced boating opportunities and escalating property values.
Tijuana: NAFTA boomtown
And what of Tijuana, the sailors' entertainment center, now that decommissioning has hit the Navy installations? Take the trolley only 20 miles south of downtown to the border station at San Ysidro for a very different experience.
One in every five TV sets in the world was assembled in Tijuana. The city's population has grown to at least 1.5 million, although some claim it to be twice that. This wide divergence demonstrates the social factor that places these two communities in stark contrast: living conditions in Tijuana are so deplorable and the transient nature of the residents so predominant that taking a dependable count of the population of Tijuana is impossible.
Take a tour of the "colonias" and you will see a level of degradation comparable to any across the world. Freeways are nonexistent; major arteries are jammed with every conceivable conveyance; paved collector streets climb the mesas at precarious grades and give way to rutted dirt tracks that meander off into groups of the most makeshift of dwellings. When it rains these lanes are impassible, and without sewers the unregulated septic systems disgorge raw human waste back down the mesa's gullies in a deluge of public health problems.
Low wages, unfair labor practices, and unregulated work and environmental conditions all are reported to exist. The challenge becomes how, in a metropolitan area that spans this international border, can people of goodwill improve the plight of those who are more and more a part of the San Diego economy.
San Diego Urban Design Coordinator Michael Stepner echoes urban researchers Kevin Lynch and Donald Appleyard's 1974 study pointing out that San Diego and Tijuana are one urban entity, unique among U.S./ Mexico border towns in that each is a viable economic center nearly comparable in size and mutually dependent.
University of California sociologist and San Diego Dialog Executive Director Charles Nathansan backs up Stepners position with data shoving that the overwhelming purpose for
Tijuanans' border crossings is shopping. resulting in -annual expenditures of $28 billion and netting over $125 million in sales taxes to the State of California and local government units in 1992. And of the 4 million monthly - border crossings in San Diego County in 1996, 96 percent were legal entries.
So this is not a simple case of charity; it is good business. As the Tijuana economy continues to prosper, the impact on San Diego will grow, building a market that is worthy for the community to pursue.
With public- and private-sector representatives on both sides of the border, Nathansan is working to build a dialogue aimed at raising awareness and seeking new approaches to address the existing disparity. The federal government and all of us concerned about the success of NAFFA would do well to observe and learn from this initiative, which could help other U.S. cities deal with their own societal disparities.
So go to San Diego for the marvelous weather, the seashore, the resurgence of downtown, the convenience of the trolley, and the zoo. But don't miss the other side of San Diego: Tijuana, the future economic partner whose current difficulties will give way to success as the world economy continues to grow and shape the San Diego metropolitan area and the rest of the U.S.
Kite Singleton of Kansas City, Missouri, recently took part in the Regional/Urban Design Committees meeting in San Diego.