A fresh pulpo (octopus) tostada is exotic enough to take anyone’s palette on a journey. I recently had the opportunity to join a group of 15 young land use professionals from San Diego for a day of discovery and delight in our sister city, Tijuana, Mexico, on a hot, dry August afternoon. It begins with the new pedestrian crossing in San Ysidro, which is as sterile and contrasting to the vibrant life beyond as it gets. The long walk down the crossing feels like a transformation, one that is deeply experiential. Once on ‘the other side’, it is clear that a revitalization is underway. There dust in the air from all the construction, as a new wave of entrepreneurs look to transform this young city through creative mixed-use projects, design and cuisine.
1. Projects that break down barriers
One new project that is ahead of the curve with its location is Estación Federal by Miguel Marshall with Centro Ventures. It is nestled in between the two new pedestrian crossings in the district Federal. Acting like a welcome gateway, his humble community-oriented project is taking on a life of its own. The primary use is housing for the middle class. Some of the residents include San Diegans who decide to call this home because they are priced out from the southern California housing. The cross-cultural influences are real. The project is paired with a co-working space, art, a barbershop, a gourmet coffee shop, a bike shop and soon a Taproom that will feature the craft beer movement from San Diego and Baja California Norte. Symbolically, the taproom will be a place where there are no walls and locals from both sides of the border can come and share their passion for the craft movement together. The immediate proximity to the border and to downtown Tijuana is what makes this unique and appealing. The community that calls this project home can live with one foot on each side of the border by walking across ‘la frontera’ within minutes. And this community is growing, Marshall’s project is completely leased out as he looks to expand.
2. Architecture & Design are setting the way
Located in the heart of downtown Tijuana on the corner Revolution Ave. (the tourist street) and Calle Coahuila (the red light district) in a repurposed building is the brainchild of Jorge Gracia and his Partners, La Escuela Libre de Arquitectura (ELA). This new architecture school shares a space with Gracia Studio, Jorge Gracia’s architecture office. ELA is Gracia’s way of revitalizing the city because he believes that it starts with the next generation by having them take ownership of the urban transformation. The accredited architecture program strives to bridge the gap between academia and practice by exposing the students to real projects under construction on a weekly basis. Gracia believes that the school is much bigger than the building that houses it. “The city is our laboratory” he explained as he shared the story of a class being taught on a public bus. Gracia’s personal work with Gracia Studio features a collection of innovative projects that bring international recognition to the region such as his hotel project in El Valle de Guadalupe , Encuentro Guadalupe, and more recently the boutique hotel, One Bunk in downtown Tijuana that he designed in collaboration with Greg Strangman, LWP Group. One Bunk is one flight of stairs and a world away from the hustle of Revolution Ave. The hotel is an escape, a blend of authentic minimalism paired with carefully curated artifacts, art and furniture. One Bunk is also conveniently located directly above one of the great new restaurants in the region, La Justina by chef Chad White.
3. A Culinary revolution in amazing environments
The highlight of the trip was without a doubt the dinner at Telefónica Gastro Park created by Enrique “Ejival” Jiminez & Antonio Gamboa, who joined us for dinner. This place is really something else. It is somewhat hidden on an unassuming portion of Blvd. Agua Caliente next to an auto repair shop, the Gastro Park is half indoors in a repurposed warehouse and half outdoors with a large terrace filled with gourmet foodtrucks. In the heart of the project is an elevated deck that is connected to the food trucks by a bleacher style staircase. It was here that we had a chance to absorb and discuss all we had seen throughout this unique day as we indulged in cold Mexican microbrew and feasted on fresh octopus tostadas among other street delicacies for over three hours as the sun descended over the hill. As we perched on the giant stairs overlooking the array of gourmet food trucks below and the hills of Tijuana in the background, I couldn’t help but wonder if something like this could exist on the other side of the border. We could try it in San Diego but the answer would be no. No, because the cultures are different, the people are different and the grit that also gives Tijuana some of its character would not be the same. And for all those reasons the food would not taste the same. This is a truly unique experience that embodies the heart and soul of the city. I hope to be back soon.
Less than an hour after leaving Telefónica, I was in my own bed having caught two Ubers in two different countries and walking across “the world’s busiest border.” For all the negative press surrounding drug related violence in the city over the past decade, it felt very comforting to experience so much positive energy and see projects being led by a young demographic who love their city and want to make a difference. The revitalization in Tijuana is just getting started, exciting times lie ahead.
Full Credits for leading the tour go to Rammy Cortez, partner of Hub Spoke Communities and Greg Strangman, founder of the LWP group. The tour was part of the Urban Land Institute San Diego/ Tijuana Young Leader Partnership Forum group program.