By Beryl Forman
The City of San Diego’s 700 block of East San Ysidro Boulevard is likely the most integral property to activate the San Diego/Tijuana Bi-national Border Region, as high level economic dialogue between the U.S. and Mexico unfolds. This block is not only home to the world’s busiest pedestrian border crossing, but also San Diego’s most heavily traveled trolley station, by far.
With up to three hours delay at the border nearly every day, and 7 billion dollars a year lost in economic productivity due to border delays, a grand opportunity lies ahead for this strategically located property. In order to realize this potential, it is important to understand some of the current issues and proposed plans for this site.
San Diego’s MTS Blue Line trolley currently takes the highest priority. When the trolley arrives every five minutes during peak hours, everything else comes to a halt. This includes thousands of cars seeking parking, cross-border passenger pick-up and drop-off, and tens of thousands of pedestrians crossing the streets traversing back and forth from Tijuana. Enormous numbers of buses, cars, trolleys, bicyclists and pedestrians pass through this block day in and day out, and yet, there is nothing that celebrates this rights passage aside from a customs agent “man”as Arlo Guthrie puts it, who sanctions one’s entry.
That is why one of the property owners of the 700 block has been crafting an ambitious proposal for a Bi-National Multi-Modal Transit Center. A native San Diegan, Miguel Aguirre graduated from Point Loma Nazarene in 1984 and began his commercial real estate career at the San Diego-Tijuana border. He immediately began positioning himself to one day acquire the McDonald’s Trolley Station, a world-famous landmark building at the pedestrian port of entry. By 2004, the property was his.
It is rare to find someone as committed and passionate about our bi-national region as Mr. Aguirre. He believes that in order to more meaningfully integrate U.S. and Mexico , the redevelopment of the 700 block must incorporate far more than just an expanded trolley and bus station.
In 2003, the Metropolitan Transit Development Board took by eminent domain portions of several private properties on the 700 block in order to expand their one track trolley station to a two-track terminal with a pedestrian plaza and two separate bus terminals; one for metro service and the other for out of town busing currently located behind the McDonald’s Trolley Station.
Now SANDAG, our regional planning agency, is proposing redevelopment of the whole 700 block of E. San Ysidro Blvd for nothing more than trolley and bus terminal expansion, yet again. Within such a constrained area bound by Mexico, Interstate 5, freight rail and the community of San Ysidro, Mr. Aguirre states at-grade trolley expansion will further conflict with pedestrians and does not see the SANDAG plan as the highest and best use of this geopolitically important bi-national gateway.
Aguirre states three major changes are needed: First and foremost, trolley arrival into the San Ysidro Pedestrian Port of Entry vicinity must be above-grade in order to avoid at-grade pedestrian conflicts, similar to the design of Fashion Valley and Qualcomm Stadium’s trolley stations. The reconstruction of the tracks is highly supported by the people of San Ysidro, because it currently acts as a physical divide in the community. Mr. Aguirre highlights how new federal pedestrian bridges and ramps over I-5 leading into Mexico are already way above grade.
Secondly, a functional project must link with this massive above-grade infrastructure recently constructed. Pedestrians should not have to endure steep long ramps and stairs in order to avoid cars, buses, trolleys. Many are laden with luggage and goods purchased during a long day of shopping or a hard day’s work. Any visit to this area will also reveal children and the elderly dodging trolleys and vehicles.
Thirdly, various modes of transit, e.g. metro bus, inter-city bus, trolley, taxis, jitneys, shuttles, and vehicles, including abundant parking, must have their own separate terminals in an organized multi-modal destination that eliminates confusion and disorder, as has occurred in world class cities such as Union Station in Washington D.C. and New York City’s Grand Central Station.
He foresees passengers exiting the platform and strolling through an International Transit Center to get the full experience of the world’s busiest border, with views of the U.S. to the north, Mexico to the south and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Unique commercial venues, museums, entertainment halls, restaurants, cafes and live entertainment will be the core elements of what Miguel calls ‘La Gran Central de San Ysidro’.
Old Town represents early San Diego-Mexico history, but in order to witness our true Mexican heritage and culture, tourists will have the opportunity to experience the vibrancy of contemporary Mexican culture in what is soon to become the most renowned international border town in the world. From La Gran Central de San Ysidro, people will simply traverse an elevated pedestrian promenade and enter into Mexico.
Fortunately, our politicians have returned to a state of affairs where our bi-national interests are beginning to align, as ambitious North American Trade Competitiveness agendas take center stage. If a project like Mr. Aguirre’s is well embraced, it could soon become a reality. In April of 2014, Mr. Aguirre took his grand vision to Mexico City to introduce it to members of an elite delegation of San Diego-Tijuana representatives promoting our Mega Region.
He traveled alongside San Diego’s Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Council President Todd Gloria, Director of San Diego’s Chamber of Commerce Jerry Sanders, County Supervisor Greg Cox and many other international esteemed business leaders and politicians involved with our Cali- Baja Mega Region. His major goal: introducing how La Gran Central de San Ysidro can showcase the economic interests of both countries. Aguirre likes to translate an old saying, “its about the economy, tonto-tonto.”