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Monday, Oct. 27, 2008 | From this spot in the middle of two giants, nestled in the gap impressed between San Diego and Tijuana by an international border, San Ysidro has seen and fought dissonance and dissection for many of its 99 years. A remote neighborhood of the city of San Diego separated from downtown by four other cities, San Ysidro has been cleaved again and again by freeways carrying traffic to and from the Mexican border.

The bellowed issues of San Diego and Tijuana, and the border itself, have often drowned out the cries of San Ysidro’s 27,000 residents. A history of fights between residents and businesses, between social service advocates and commercial interests, left a mash of ideas and voices in cacophony trying to explain to a slew of government agencies what they wanted to see in their neighborhood.

Meanwhile, the community’s interests were caught in a unique tug of war between agencies ranging from the city of San Diego to transit bureaus to federal departments.

Into that discordance, a young architect named David Flores came in 2000 to live and work. And in the last eight years, he has become a translator, an educator, a peacemaker, a dreamer and a promoter of the thoughts and perspectives of the people of San Ysidro — the architect of a community conversation, one trying to bring order and understanding to chaos.

His most prominent effort came in 2004 when the federal General Services Administration announced plans to dramatically expand the port of entry in San Ysidro. The impacts to his neighborhood were daunting.

The proposal swallowed acres of developable land. It didn’t mention the economic or environment impacts on either side of the border. The beefed-up checkpoint seemed certain to increase the unfriendliness already inherent in the border-crossing process. The plan sought to increase efficiency for the border checkers, without a stated priority on safety and efficiency for the people using the crossing on a daily basis to shop or work on the other side.

San Ysidro’s ability to live by and thrive on its proximity to the border hung in the balance.

Flores studied the GSA’s four potential plans and brought community members, social service workers and business owners together for brainstorming sessions. He compiled piles of ideas and concerns, and applied for grants to hold even more seminars for residents to learn about what the new border would look like. Flores and other community members assembled as a Smart Border Coalition, which decided San Ysidro needed to tell the GSA and the dozens of agencies with irons in this fire what it would need under any scenario.

Flores’ workshops struck down symbols of the interests in San Ysidro that had warred for so many years, sometimes without anyone remembering why they were fighting to begin with. He struck a partnership with Jason Wells, executive director of the neighborhood’s Chamber of Commerce. Wells took plans to lobby governments here and in Mexico; Flores continued to work through the design process with the community.

Flores sees San Ysidro from multiple angles. Flores had joined Casa Familiar, a major San Ysidro social services agency, on an architecture fellowship in 2001, where he first worked to help the community figure out how it will look in the future. But it wasn’t just his on-the-clock work for Casa Familiar that thrust Flores into the middle of every planning issue in San Ysidro in the last few years. He won a seat on the community planning board and has been its chairman since 2004.

Through the border expansion workshops, Flores corralled the community perspective into some main themes for more thought and design: pedestrian movement and safety, an organized hub for buses and trolleys, a bridge deck for commerce, environmental concerns and connections to Mexico. With local architect and border-region advocate Teddy Cruz, he drew a version of the border checkpoint that reflected all they’d heard from newly informed community members. He’s recently commissioned a study on the health and hazardous impacts of being a pedestrian who uses the border every day.

Previous Casa efforts to address potential border expansions were only deconstructive. The group had quashed a couple of iterations of an expansion plan before Flores got there. The agency’s president, Andrea Skorepa, said the border renovation was the kind of thing the community didn’t know what it wanted, but they’d know the right plan when they saw it.

Flores had the skills to help the community see it. He, as planning group president, led a charge to analyze the government’s proposals and invoke a broad coalition of interests to examine the problems with the GSA proposals and what the community wanted instead.

What had been a token checkbox for the federal government — obtain community approval and consensus — became a years-long process of drafts, revisions and listening to the people of San Ysidro.

“We told GSA, ‘Guess what? You have to be concerned,’” Flores said.

And so San Ysidro took the GSA’s plans to stamp a rectangular 15-acre expansion to the existing port of entry — the busiest land border in the world — and convinced the GSA to cut in half the footprint of the expansion project, leaving San Ysidro with more land to develop and draw tax revenue from. The community pressed the government to think about and help plan the space around the border checkpoint, which is a step the GSA doesn’t usually take.

And now, as the first phase of construction on the project looms near, a variety of people associated with the project see Flores’ work as key in helping them collectively visualize the community’s desire for the checkpoint.

“San Ysidro has a long history of being seriously divided,” Wells, the chamber of commerce director, said. “And for a long time, we have given our elected officials an excuse to do nothing here.”

Wells said Flores’ transportation and planning and design knowledge made him invaluable in the community.

“He’s the guy who says, ‘From a 30,000-foot level, how will it work?’” he said. “He really gets piecing together, unifying things that had been pieced apart.”

Ramon Riesgo, senior project engineer for the GSA, said the community was comfortable listening to Flores’ voice. He described the government’s plans to the community, and in turn carried the community perspective back to the GSA, fulfilling a crucial role, Riesgo said.

And in his work with Casa, Flores had for several years already been helping convey the principles of design to this community, one that had just a basic understanding of them, said Cruz, a professor at University of California, San Diego, who has focused his study on the border region and on San Ysidro in particular. Cruz worked with Flores on several projects.

And Flores’ didn’t just teach the design of buildings and streets — he shaped and designed the conversation about issues, Cruz said.

“He became a hinge across politicians, developers and the community, and that to me became the most important,” he said. “He became the choreographer of many seers of power.”

The community that had trouble speaking together with one voice had found someone to help it see and design its future. In the process it had also finally found a way to push back against the external forces that had been shaping the community.

A Virtual Convening

In August, we began a year-long series and special partnership between voiceofsandiego.org and the San Diego Foundation.

Every day we read and write stories about things that are going wrong in the San Diego region. We read about problems in the housing market. We find out about unaffordable transportation, problems with parks and the environment. We learn about fraud, malfeasance or apathy.

This is important. But it’s not all that is happening in San Diego. In communities all across the county, people are joining together to improve their corner of San Diego. They’re creating housing solutions. They are repairing public spaces. They’re figuring out how to make their communities more livable, more accessible and more prosperous.

The San Diego Foundation is sponsoring the year-long effort by voiceofsandiego.org reporters to find and tell the stories of these people. The writers will learn what particular problems the residents faced and how they decided to confront those challenges. What tools did they use? How did they work with governments, businesses and their neighbors to find solutions? And how did they succeed?

This is the essence of the stories: Residents facing a challenge in their neighborhood and overcoming it to create a better place for them and their fellow citizens.

In addition, we will invite the people we encounter not only to submit to interviews for our stories, but to discuss with our readers what they have done and how they did it. The package — the stories, videos, audio and forums — is meant to share optimism and assumptions. In other words, we want to create more of a collective understanding not only of what is wrong with some of our neighborhoods, but what can be done about it and what has worked for people right next door.

Two months ago, as we started to prepare, we asked you to tell us your stories. We were flooded with excellent ideas. But we can’t do this for the whole year without more of your suggestions.

Please look at your own community and see if any of what we’ve just talked about sounds familiar. Have you or some of your neighbors tackled problems (and solved them) in a way that could provide a model and hope for others in the region?

If so, please, send your stories to andrew.donohue@voiceofsandiego.org and we’ll consider them for the ongoing series.

But most importantly, keep your eye out for these stories over the coming year and perhaps we can all learn not only about our problems but ways to solve them too.

voiceofsandiego.org staff

Flores is fascinated with design and community planning in the border region. He was born in Ciudad Juárez, a city separated from El Paso, Texas, by the international border. He lived there and went to English immersion school until he was 10 and his family moved to Los Angeles. He moved to New Mexico, then back to L.A. He dropped out of aerospace engineering school at Northrop University to pursue architecture and design classes.

Eventually, he graduated from the University of Arizona in Tucson. He moved to San Ysidro in 2000 to pursue a Frederick P. Rose Architecture Fellowship, which he began in 2001. The fellowship pairs for three years an architecture graduate with an agency trying to develop affordable housing and establish cohesive development in low-income neighborhoods. Katie Swenson directs the fellowship and said she often cites Flores’ work in San Ysidro as a model for an ideal outcome of the partnership.

Flores first began to draw together the unlikely coalition for a plan to redevelop San Ysidro’s center several years ago. One of his first tasks at the start of his fellowship was to help Casa develop its proposal for a new initiative in the city of San Diego: the City of Villages plan that would inspire older neighborhoods to revitalize their community main streets, welcome more residential density closer to mass transportation, and unite residents and business owners within the smaller communities in San Diego.

Casa wanted to see San Ysidro selected as one of the pilot villages to kick start the initiative. But the group wasn’t the only one submitting a proposal. The San Ysidro business association also suggested a plan for the redevelopment. The City Council member’s office told the community they’d have to present one plan.

Flores codified the pilot village plan under the name Mi Pueblo. He launched the Sin Limites workshops, helping the community to understand urban planning concepts and practical issues for their livelihood as participants in a community. He made and introduced a board game that challenged residents to plan a block, placing wooden houses and trees and stores along the streets to teach density and open space planning, to demystify some planning clichés and pull people out of entrenched thought processes, without just asking them to sit through a PowerPoint presentation.

Leaders learned there was nothing too sophisticated to talk about with the community.

Political support has dwindled for pushing the pilot villages forward. But even though the Mi Pueblo project hasn’t taken off the way the community dreamed it would, Flores has helped the community to find a harmonious way of deciding what happens next there.

“I think we understand that the city is acting like the city does, which is a bureaucracy,” Flores said.

Still, the pilot village proposal gave San Ysidro a foundation for its growth, an agreed-upon blueprint for its future. Flores designed and managed construction for the Casitas de las Florecitas, eight brightly colored homes sold at restricted prices to low- and moderate-income families in the community.

Flores came in with a fresh perspective, Skorepa said, to address some vacuums that had been created for the social services and business sides.

“It’s not that he’s scared of conflict, but he’d rather find a much more pacific way of doing it,” she said.

Indeed, Flores became a translator, and not just between English and the Spanish he first spoke. He reduced the ideas of design to their essential building blocks, and engaged the community into taking those blocks and moving them around to envision how they wanted San Ysidro to grow. His fellowship ended in 2004, but Flores has remained for four more years.

He renovated a 1927 building on West San Ysidro Boulevard as a couple of apartments upstairs and The Front downstairs, a design center that houses his office and space for displaying plans and holding workshops. With Casa, Flores rescued that building, a Louis Gill design that was once the first dry goods store in town, from its former use as a smog shop. He inserted himself into the middle of a main drag in the community as a resource for business owners and residents. The building became a physical reminder that design matters in San Ysidro.

Flores himself seems to personify his work in San Ysidro. His office in The Front is contemporary, designed with clean lines and simple furniture. He peers through modern glasses at the plans for the new border checkpoint. At his office on a recent morning, he wished two workers a good morning in Spanish before switching back into English to describe the need for consolidated, organized transit plans at the border. He’s even-tempered and composed even in tense arguments, say the people who’ve stared down discussion tables with him. And as he’s issued the call to San Ysidro residents to engage in the future of their own community, Flores himself has blurred the line between his work and his steering of the planning board.

In a vital test, even the GSA, which Flores has opposed in some discussions on the border checkpoint’s future, recognizes his work.

“He’s definitely a person — a young guy — that wants to work and wants to do the right thing,” Riesgo, the GSA engineer said. “People like us should be listening more to him.”

Flores doesn’t think he’ll ever practice straight architecture, plans for buildings without the community development element. He and his wife just welcomed their first baby, and they live close by in Chula Vista. He champions art and cultural expression in San Ysidro and is part of planning the community’s centennial celebration for 2009.

“I’m looking at bigger issues than if I would have just stayed in architecture,” he said. “This is a community that, for a long time, felt the neglect of other places. It’s a community taking its future development in its own hands”

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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