April 1, 2003
Can a shopping center act as an international border crossing?
There is a shopping mall in San Diego, California, within rock-throwing distance of Mexico. It sits on the Tijuana River—more a concrete-lined gully than a body of water—and sells CDs, clothing, and food to thousands of people a day.
The mall is made possible, as is much of San Diego’s economy, by a steady stream of people lured from adjacent Tijuana by American brand names. Immediately to the east of the mall is the San Ysidro border crossing, the busiest land border in the world. Last year 42.2 million people passed through its gates. Surveys have found that about 40 percent of all northbound crossings at San Ysidro were people intending to shop, and some shopping days can swell the southern population of the county by as much as 50 percent. The popularity of the border crossing has nothing to do with its hospitality, however. Vehicles at San Ysidro can wait hours to cross, and the pedestrian approach to the Mexican-U.S. entry passes brothels and all-night bars.
The stream of people across the border is so immense, in fact, that both cities are desperate to add another crossing. Many are looking to Otay Mesa, the country’s second-largest commercial crossing, some ten miles to the east, to relieve congestion. But a few people are looking to the mall.
Among the non-Spanish-speaking real estate professionals of the San Diego area the mall is known as the International Gateway to the Americas. To most it’s simply Las Americas. The mall’s owner, C. Samuel Marasco III, chose the term gateway for very literal reasons—his property is a former border crossing, and he built the mall with the intention of creating a footbridge from its center across the Tijuana River and into Mexico.
San Diego and Tijuana are deeply linked by both culture and commerce. The first border entity in the region was a Mexican customs post, created in 1874 to tax U.S.-bound goods. Today the Baja region of Mexico contributes enormously to San Diego’s economy—Baja residents spend as much as $3 billion there annually. Demographers are starting to treat San Diego and Tijuana as a single statistical entity. San Diego expects to grow 31 percent by 2020—to 3.8 million people; Tijuana expects nearly 2 million by then, a 73 percent increase. Marasco’s plan for Las Americas would make the mall into a caricature of the relationship between the United States and Mexico: an outlet mall-cum-border outpost selling factory seconds from a facility outfitted to process and search cross-border travelers, complete with guard dogs, lights, barbed wire, and plenty of parking.
The San Diego-Tijuana region is a paradigm of the transborder era—intermingled by economic necessity. But as the private sector continues to blur the borders between the two countries, the public sector is more intent than ever on keeping them separate. The pedestrian bridge—although it perfectly fits the tight commercial relationship between the United States and Mexico in general, and between San Diego and Tijuana in particular—stands in almost direct opposition to the trend toward tightening border control, especially after September 11. Already a 2000 research project at San Diego State University documenting the region’s “transborder culture” noted that while San Diego and Tijuana were becoming more culturally similar, their respective governments were growing increasingly insulated against that trend.
Marasco is an excitable man with a salesman’s charm. He started his real estate career as legal counsel to developer Ernest Hahn, where he learned to woo both government entities and anchor tenants. Later Marasco bought into a San Diego sports arena and sold his share at a vast markup. The mall first occurred to him when a port of entry known as the Virginia Avenue-El Chaparral announced its closure in 1994. The site was situated perfectly to host hundreds of thousands of visitors a day, and Marasco grew interested in the Tijuana neighborhoods across from it.
Marasco believes this project has both symbolic and financial value. He talks just as easily about the importance of linking Baja to California as he does about the mall’s commercial viability. In particular Avenida Revolución—Tijuana’s main drag—captured Marasco’s imagination. The street was a gambling hot spot in the 1920s, and during prohibition it became a Hollywood party refuge. In the latter half of the twentieth century the surrounding neighborhood developed a thriving economy, made up of small-scale commerce like chop shops, restaurants, and clothing merchants. “As a real estate developer, I was looking at a high volume of people and a historical reputation that had demonstrated its ability to attract both Americans and Mexicans,” Marasco says. His company, LandGrant Development, filed an application with the City of San Diego for permission to open a privately owned border crossing. And on September 11, he was at the White House awaiting word. “My application was within inches of being approved,” he sighs.
According to Marasco, there are no private border crossings between Mexico and the United States, and the bureaucratic tangle involved in creating one is incredible. Twice a year a binational commission, composed of representatives from the United States and Mexico, meets to review every official port of entry between the two nations. The commission decides on the need for new crossings, and if it finds there is one, it submits a proposal. On the American side the proposal must be unanimously accepted by 16 agencies, including the Departments of State, Defense, and the Interior; on the Mexican side an even greater number of agencies are involved.
“San Diego is the seventh-largest economy in the country,” says Elsa Saxod, binational coordinator for San Diego’s Office of Binational Affairs. “Past studies have shown that as much as $3 billion is spent here by Baja California residents each year. No one is going to deny that $3 billion into any economy is important.”
But, Saxod says, that doesn’t make the pedestrian bridge a federal priority. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a public or private bridge. The process of getting federal permission is enormously long and complicated,” she says. Saxod points out that Otay Mesa was approved under the stewardship of Reagan’s attorney general, Edwin Meese, a San Diego native. Las Americas has no such champion in the Bush White House.
There are signs of hope for Marasco’s plan. The Mexican government, which knows a closing door when it sees one, approved the plan for the bridge this past October, and Tijuana’s city council is expected to approve the land-use measure this year. The State Department has told San Diego officials that there are “no showstoppers” in the Las Americas application. But after two and a half years, the city is still waiting for a decision.
The more border crossings the better, says Hector Vanegas, director for special projects of binational planning and coordination at SANDAG, a state-funded regional planning agency. “We have 40,000 commuters a day who live in Tijuana. We need them contributing to the economy. And at least one month a year of their lives these people have to stand for two hours. That’s absurd for them. I will never be opposed to any alternative border crossing.”
But Vanegas, who crosses the border several times a week to visit relatives in Tijuana, has reservations about the project, and SANDAG seems to be favoring a plan to create a second crossing at Otay Mesa instead. “The border patrol would have to be all over the mall,” he says. “If a shoot-out starts, do I want my family between the border guards and the people shooting back?”