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Alicia Jimenez drove a golf cart along a weathered stretch of San Ysidro Boulevard last week, picking up trash and trimming overgrown shrubbery along the way.
She had just emerged from the shadow of the Interstate 805 overpass, which separates east and west San Ysidro Boulevard, but also serves as a second dividing line of sorts in this community of 28,000 people just north of San Diego’s border with Mexico.
Along West San Ysidro Boulevard, abandoned storefronts, vacant car lots and struggling businesses pock the landscape. Few pedestrians roam the sidewalks. But just to the east, on the side of the freeway closer to the international border, business booms at the dozens of currency exchanges, pawn shops and fast food restaurants that make up the busy commercial district.
“It’s lonelier over here,” Jimenez said a few minutes after crossing into the more desolate western stretch of town, which she does several times a month as a maintenance worker for the San Ysidro Business Association.
Israel Adato, president of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce, described the community’s stark contrasts another way. “It’s like East and West Germany,” he said.
The neighborhood now has an opportunity to set the stage for dramatic changes on its main thoroughfare.
The city of San Diego is in the beginning stages of updating San Ysidro’s community plan, which dictates land use in the neighborhood and spells out the types of housing and businesses that can fill it. In San Ysidro, community advocates and business representatives see the process as the best opportunity to revive the western stretch of San Ysidro Boulevard. Its fate has been intimately tied up with the history of commerce in one of the world’s busiest border regions.
Business leaders want to eliminate a restriction that, 20 years ago, placed limits on the types of businesses that can open along West San Ysidro Boulevard, confining most of the neighborhood’s tourist-serving businesses to the zone near the border. They want the community plan to allow any type of business, from currency exchanges to big box stores, in any of the neighborhood’s commercial areas.
But a small group of community-oriented advocates fear a green light on free-for-all business development could revive some of the problems that originally led residents to demand restrictions on growth in the border community two decades ago. They agree that more needs to be done to promote business growth, but believe restrictions on certain types of businesses are important to maintain neighborhood character in residential areas.
Both sides expect commercial growth along San Ysidro Boulevard to be one of the most prominent, and possibly contentious, issues that will surface during the community plan update, which will address many aspects of planning in San Ysidro, like transportation, walkability and open space.
In the 1980s, San Ysidro residents watched with astonishment as currency exchanges, pawn shops and other financial institutions took over much of San Ysidro’s retail space, as money exchanging proliferated. Instability in Mexico’s economy left its currency in constant flux, making it more valuable on some day than on others, and making currency exchanges a lucrative business.
The growth of those sectors was especially prominent along East San Ysidro Boulevard, but residents feared their trickle west.
A local nonprofit, Casa Familiar, organized residents to gain seats on the community planning group, which advises the city on neighborhood planning and had been dominated by the business community. In 1990, the last time San Ysidro’s community plan was updated, they succeeded in restricting tourist-serving businesses to the east side of Interstate 805, an area called the International Gateway.
“We created the International Gateway to pull all the tourist-oriented activity to where it needed to be — near the tourist areas,” said Michael Freedman, a member of the San Ysidro Community Planning Group. “You needed to reduce traffic and other impacts in the areas where people lived.”
The goal was to preserve West San Ysidro Boulevard, now so desolate, for community-oriented businesses.
But Freedman, who’s a former member of the local Chamber of Commerce, said the decision was a mistake. It imposed strict limits on the types of businesses that were allowed west of the freeway, and jammed much of San Ysidro’s commerce into the International Gateway, a small area on the east.
West San Ysidro Boulevard once bustled with foot traffic from Mexicans who crossed the border to buy American goods they couldn’t find in Tijuana. But in the mid-1990s, as Mexico liberalized its trade policies to allow greater import of U.S. goods, Mexicans had less need to cross to buy blue jeans or electronics in San Ysidro.
Heightened border security after 2001 made crossing the border to shop even less appealing. West San Ysidro Boulevard began a steady decline. In the decades before then, retail clothing, furniture and electronics shops were common. The construction of a massive retail outlet mall, the Las Americas shopping center, last decade diverted much of the foot traffic to the other side of San Ysidro.
Last week, Jimenez, who has lived in San Ysidro for more than 20 years, said she doubted West San Ysidro Boulevard could be revived as she picked up an empty bottle and placed it in a black plastic bag.
The business community disagrees. What’s needed, they say, is to remove the development restriction and let market forces to take over, allowing business owners and investors to provide the types of services the community needs without limiting the types of stores like big boxes or pawn shops.
David Flores, an architect and community advocate who works for Casa Familiar and whose studio is one of the few shining gems of West San Ysidro Boulevard, said he and other advocates are nervous that such liberal development policies could open up a Pandora’s box.
“They’re right. It is limiting,” Flores said of the land-use restriction. “However, we just don’t want to see another person sitting in a 2,000-square-foot building behind bulletproof glass exchanging money. How are we going to get other types of businesses to invest in San Ysidro? That’s the challenge.”
Instead, Flores said, the community would be better served by expanding the types of business allowed there while recruiting business representatives to focus on providing services for an area that is also a community of residents.
“There’s part of me that believes that having such a diverse zone would bring in a good mix of businesses. But for the most part, if there isn’t a unified vision to shoot for, then we can’t create a sense of place,” he said.
The challenges for community-oriented advocates like Casa Familiar to mobilize residents for their vision were evident at a meeting hosted by the city’s planning department last week. Although 93 percent of San Ysidro’s population of 28,000 is Latino — many low-income, and many transplants from the other side of the border — the interpreter on hand to translate the proceedings into Spanish wasn’t needed.
Business representatives were present in larger numbers.
“Everybody wants one thing, a better San Ysidro,” said Adato of the Chamber of Commerce. “Because San Ysidro, being separated by three cities from San Diego, is forgotten about. We think we can improve it by instituting the laws of supply and demand.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Michael Freedman as member of the local Chamber of Commerce. He is a former member. We regret the error.