Cross-border Smart Growth: An Interview with Miguel Aguirre

Miguel Aguirre is a member of TBI’s advisory council and the guest editor of TBI’s Freedom of Expression Blog for the week of January 23-27, 2017. In our interview with him, he describes his thirty-plus years of experience on the border and how he envisions the future of a cross-border region.

Can you tell us about your personal history and how it has shaped your approach to the border?
I was born 1958 in La Jolla, CA to parents who had recently arrived from different parts of Mexico and met here in English night classes.  My father, JJ Carlos, was from Obregon, Sonora, and his first job was busing tables at the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club.  He later became a popular head bartender in its Marine Room- and has lots of Hollywood celebrity stories.  My mother, Maria de Jesus, was from a small lush green village named Totolmajac where flowers were grown commercially about 100 miles southwest of Mexico City.  She would clean the ritzy homes near the Beach Club.  I remember too my dad bringing mom home tons of white shirts for her to iron and how my dad would also work extra jobs doing yard work in these beautiful large estates overlooking La Jolla, and paying us a quarter an hour to rake leaves.   

My early years growing up in La Jolla and Pacific Beach in the 60s were filled with a love of the binational culture and road trips to Tijuana, Tecate and Mexicali to visit family.  Fond memories returning home from a fun-filled time in Mexico were punctuated by long vehicle lines crossing back into the U.S. where if the lines were too long or too slow, many impatiently would honk their car horns in unison.   Dad would allow my little brother and me the joy of blasting our ‘49 Chevy deluxe convertible’s horn relentlessly.  Those were cool blasts for the young at heart.  To this day, longer than ever wait times still prompt in me a nostalgic “border-crossing-honk.” Unfortunately, no one joins me.  Weary indifference and complacency ring silent, sparking a lonely ache for a childhood past and solidarity in our region. 

As a serious athlete in high school and college, the years rolled by without visiting Mexico as often.  Upon graduating from Point Loma College in 1984, I began my commercial real estate career researching the San Ysidro community.  To my naïve surprise, I discovered for the first time the U.S. “Pedestrian” Port of Entry from Mexico.  Having grown up crossing the border always sheltered in a car contributed to somewhat of a border culture shock when I saw streaming crowds of eager pedestrian border-crossers.  Just steps from U.S. Customs was a brand new, very busy McDonald’s restaurant in a two-story commercial center known as the McDonald’s Trolley Station.  And right in front of McDonald’s was San Diego’s brand new Trolley Terminal—to this day the city’s single busiest trolley station.  McDonald’s, shops, incredible foot traffic with tons of tourists in those days, shiny new trolley cars and a pedestrian vs. vehicle port of entry…it almost felt like Disneyland.  I fell in love with this dynamic.

In 1992 my father opened a private postal, shipping and mailbox business one block south of that McDonald’s.  We would ship Mexican pottery, art and craftwork back home to tourists from all over the world.  We were located right next to the old Greyhound Bus Station in a hub of major intercity transportation arriving from throughout southwestern United States and Mexico.  The Swap Meet buses would stop here as well to pick up long lines of shoppers from Mexico.  Ever since we first opened our business there, my dad and I have been fighting for improved pedestrian mobility and equitable, socially-just community merchant operating conditions and in 2004 we finally acquired the McDonald’s Trolley Station, a National Gateway Landmark.  We had dared to dream together.

Our community has endured devastating peso devaluations, the 9/11 event in midst of the highest pedestrian border-crossing volumes ever (2001 experienced nearly 80,000 pedestrian crossings daily between San Ysidro-Tijuana), a two-year trolley expansion project in 2002 that took by eminent domain considerable private/community property (including some of ours), and from 2009 to present, the largest expansion and reconfiguration of a land port of entry in U.S. history.  We are now witnessing the demolition and reconstruction of the busiest pedestrian-crossing building on the entire U.S.-Mexican border, a project scheduled to be completed in 2019 right in front of our McDonald’s Trolley Station.

Struggles to get regional leaders to take the urban environment around the pedestrian port of entry more seriously finally led me to create The Border Fusion Group, LLC in 2014.  The mere act of crossing our border is the essence of being a North American.  One day in 2013 I asked myself, what is the “High Level Plan” for North America?  Our response was the Border Fusion Research Initiative, a strategic high level investigation focused on “Cross-Border Smart-Growth” principles and economic development planning theories and ideas. 

The Border Fusion initiative was unveiled last July, 2016 by the North American Research Partnership (NARP), a non-profit think tank that conducts applied research on how the U.S., Canada and Mexico can better position themselves for success.  NARP featured a project preview titled: Zones of Hope, Challenges & Opportunities in improving (Cross) Border Economic Micro Zones (BEMZ).  We’re working now on Phase II of this exciting and innovative research-action program and look forward to sharing more soon. 

What changes have you seen in relation to the border region during over the course of your career?
The border region, technically measured on the U.S. side as the area within sixty miles from the border and 100 miles on the Mexican side, is an abstract concept to define.  Most people on the U.S. side barely consider these large, fast-growing Mexican cities situated just a short drive away.  In San Diego County, only 10% of the population has ever even crossed the border.  And few appreciate Mexico’s economic contributions to sustaining our region’s quality of life.  The challenges of the border are most apparent and encapsulated in the visibly impacted cross-border pedestrian urban environment, an area I’ve heard some refer to as places, “where the least of us walk…”

Over the last 33 years, probably the most dramatic change affecting the border region has been the explosive growth of manufacturing industries and population in Mexican cities. These businesses and people are oriented northward and clustered up next to our ports of entry.  Only in recent years has this resulted in large scale federal and state cross-border infrastructure to serve vehicle and truck crossings. Local municipal and community infrastructure however is not designed for this overwhelming international traffic.

Today, outside of the repeat Mexican border-crosser, (who make up over 90% of the local cross-border traffic) most visitors to the Tijuana-Baja California region are increasingly healthcare, dental and medical tourists as well as outside San Diego County travelers and global sojourners that simply love Mexico.  And over 90% of airline passengers using Otay Mesa’s new CBX Cross Border Terminal Bridge to access the Tijuana Airport are from outside San Diego, principally from Los Angeles, Riverside and Orange Counties.  Incredibly, San Diego County’s population located within the border region has largely isolated itself from Mexico.

 What are the most effective strategies you have seen for creating change along the border?
Effective strategies for creating positive change will continue to be found in the developing cross-border pedestrian experience.  The tremendous success of private sector projects such as the over one million square feet of destination retail anchored by the Las Americas Premium Outlets in San Ysidro has proven the border can become a world-class destination.  There are many other private sector projects shaping the urban image and creating value-added port of entry destinations including CBX, SIMNSA-Scripps, New City Medical Plaza and the soon mixed-use ground-breaking project of Brown Field Airport’s one billion dollar expansion. 

There are also highly merited innovative proposals on the table like Dos Puertas Conference Center for binational meetings to take place “on” the border, and expanding Friendship Park for loved ones to be able to visit through a small opening in the border fence.  On the Mexican side, developers propose a large mixed-use high rise project where if the pedestrian lines are too long border-crossers can simply pull a number, shop or leisurely wait until their number is called to cross.

Just think about this, barely a year ago we only had two border crossings between San Diego and Tijuana: San Ysidro and Otay Mesa.  We now have added CBX, PED WEST next to the outlets and soon a newly-reconstructed much larger PED EAST will be re-opening.  All three are exclusively pedestrian-oriented.  The development planning of Otay II, for commercial trucks and private vehicles only one mile east of the existing Otay Mesa crossing, will take us from two to five ports of entry in the blink of an historical eye. 

Brown Field’s billion-dollar expansion will actually become the 6th new border “Air-Hub” port of entry and will provide agile, quick links to global markets.  The clustering of the CBX Terminal, Brown Field, and Tijuana’s International Airport will contribute to a binational “AEROTROPOLIS,” with an aviation-centered concentration of economic drivers that will attract high-paying jobs and global talent to both sides of the border. 

San Diego’s shortage of affordable housing and the revitalization of Tijuana’s downtown with beautiful modern high density residential towers targeting millennials from both sides of the border will contribute to an increasingly exciting binational region.  Indeed, six ports of entry, all within a short 8-mile stretch with massive cross-border infrastructure will lead to efficient destination mobility, heightened demand for services, binational cooperation and a more integrated innovation culture.  What a North American showcase we are becoming.  My respects and admiration to all those involved in making it happen.


What is the relationship between border infrastructure and border communities? How has this evolved?
On the U.S. side there is a major disconnect between the border infrastructure that sustains approximately $1.6 billion in U.S.-Mexico trade, daily, and the impoverished border communities that are increasingly overlooked.  Communities on both sides are overwhelmed by vehicle traffic resulting from commercial trade, peak-period tourism, shopping, and cross-border commuters.

Border transportation systems and political culture have evolved to move people through and away from the border as quickly as possible, greatly impacting mobility in the Mexican cities.  These systems continue to overlook the untapped economic and cultural potential presented by the cross-border “pedestrian” dynamic. 

Parochial interests oriented away from the border have historically conducted planning processes that ignore strategic cross-border economic development, people-centered infrastructure, and binational policy alignment.  It does not have to be a zero-sum game.  Border communities can and should execute a vital role as catalysts driving cross-border commerce and regional solidarity, a process that ultimately benefits our mega-region’s bottom line. 

What are the biggest challenges facing the border?
The polarized national rhetoric focused on difficult issues is drowning out the far more important comparative advantages inherent in the U.S.-Mexico border relationship.  With more global trade agreements than any other country besides Chile, Mexico is much stronger than it was 20 years ago when NAFTA was first formed and has incredible natural resources, an abundant young skilled workforce and a growing consumer class.   

In a fiercely competitive global economy, no one nation should have to stand alone when it has such peaceful cooperative neighbors, especially dealing with any global crisis.  The overwhelming billions of people in the continent of Asia, together with Russia and the Middle East, are absolutely poised to challenge western hegemony.  The U.S. needs a deepened and more meaningful relationship with Mexico as a strategic ally and critical economic partner.  I am confident these truths will win out.

The United States begins and ends at its land ports of entry, and with Mexico, these are the world’s busiest legitimate crossings.  A “patriotic urbanism” is called for, from both countries, to support security and economy.  Incorporating global best practices in our Bi-National Gateways must also seek to re-kindle a friendlier pre-9/11 era. 

Economic stakeholders, border-wide, are organizing to develop cross-border communication and strategic common narratives that can shape opinions in the heartlands of the U.S. and Mexico and you can include Canada as well.    As we begin to see trade agreements restructured under the Trump Administration a new NAFTA must better incentivize micro, small, and medium enterprises to maximize the untapped potential of our border regions.  Locally, we can and should emphasize the merits of an equitable binational relationship of “on” the border economic development. Such smart growth is shared, providing a more equitable binational benefit to Mexican cities that are oriented toward the United States.

And dare I mention the “elephant” in the room, CBP (Customs and Border Protection)?  My mother-in-law Aurora, the sweetest, most law-abiding person I’ve ever known (she once returned a wallet she found with $1,100 cash right away to some lucky young man living in La Jolla), still gets nervous and prays whenever she’s about to be inspected by the CBP.  Many of us who cross the border regularly can relate.  Most CBP officers are great people who are over-worked and underestimated.  It is a very difficult job and we must continue developing ways to partner better with federal agencies serving our communities. 

Many of us have heard President Trump’s references to “Big Beautiful Doors” in a border wall.  To that I say, “Yes, sir, Mr. President…these doors are our land ports of entry…what an opportunity to work together and we invite you, Mr. President, to come experience the San Diego-Tijuana relationship for yourself.”  I’m sure our leadership would clearly point out to him how our citizens are innovating together in a key binational region of the North American Pacific Rim, and, how Asia, not Mexico, is the great North American geopolitical and economic adversary.

How can we build a better border? (And more prosperous cross-border communities.)
Binational energy is greatest at the point of contact where our two cultures and economies first meet and come together.  Once you leave this space, or pass through into the other country and away from the border, this binational energy dissipates into societal silos.  We must create urban environments linked to ports of entry that foment a dynamic cross-border “fusion”, harnessing the energy of a multicultural community to catalyze growth in the mega-region and beyond.

How do we do this?  We must start by formulating research-based cross-border, cross-sector collaboration focused on transit-oriented economic development in the cross-border pedestrian urban environment linked to ports of entry, border-wide.  We are calling these strategic urban spaces “Cross-Border Economic Micro Zones” or C-BEMZ.

There is so much untapped potential and prosperity embedded “on” our shared border. Its planning and development must involve those who battle daily to live there and who embody the essence of being true North Americans: the border-crossers themselves.  Allowing others to define it for us is to forfeit our home field advantage.  Cross-border communities and vested stakeholders deserve more opportunities to lead the future of the binational relationship.

What do you hope the border will look like in four years?
I hope that someday the closer we get to border, the more inviting it will become as a place of gathering and meetings of the mind, like a giant binational synapse that comes alive.  Highest and best use economic development should prevail next to our ports of entry, promoting cross-cultural exploration and innovation. 

I have no doubt that strategic urban planning and economic development of the pedestrian oriented areas within comfortable walking distance of our ports of entry will emerge as the next “big idea” for improving not only perceptions of the border but broader relations between the U.S. and Mexico.  Modern bi-national gateway environments can simply “ground” a myriad of siloed efforts already underway that are seeking to bridge disparity, solve multi-sector challenges, and confront national rhetoric threatening cross-border regions.

Thirty-three years on the world’s busiest border crossing, confronting disconnected planning and political forces have forged my view that vehicle-oriented ports of entry alone are logistically and environmentally unsustainable, and do very little to improve the binational relationship.  The “San Ysidro Port of Entry of the Future” with fifty (50) total vehicle lanes–32 northbound and 18 southbound–will increase the border’s carbon footprint tremendously and have devastating health and economic impacts on the communities around it.

Cross-border concrete sprawl must be balanced with efficient cross-border pedestrian infrastructure and purposeful economic development.  My hope is that we will begin hearing terms like “Cross-Border, Smart-Growth” or “Trans-Border Urbanism” more often, and that they will become part of strategic dialogue.

There is so much possibility here. High end hotels with conference centers in strategic mixed-use high-density developments, with educational and healthcare programs linking to multi-modal transportation infrastructure: why wouldn’t we want such a “cool crossing” experience that celebrates the possibilities of a cross-border alliance?

The voices of the binational private sector and vested stakeholders must be allowed to direct the public planning processes impacting these cross-border communities.  After all, they have the real skin in the game.

Anything else you’d like to add?
The cross-border dynamic is program rich, but system poor and federal ports of entry are highly systematized, border-wide.  Due to major cultural differences in language, customs, economy, etc., a strategic cross-border program proposition must be researched and designed to speak to the concerns and goals of policymakers in Washington and Mexico City. 

The United States and Mexico must encourage and work with local vested stakeholders who have inside knowledge and expertise. We collectively have a lot to contribute and often find ourselves feeling misunderstood, fighting corruption, and being regulated to death, and this is an experience shared on both sides of the border.  Transparency in all three levels of government focused on economic micro-zones surrounding federal nodes of security, border-wide, must dominate.  For most, true security is economic security.

There is no doubt that CBP has a tough job screening border-crossers for contraband, national security threats, and immigration policy.  But a re-culturized CBP view that appreciates and recognizes that 98.5% of their inspections involve law-abiding North Americans contributing to our region’s competitiveness will improve regional solidarity.  Emblematic exciting urban environments surrounding CBP facilities would also help foster improved workforce moral and a spirit of unity with these communities.  And from a security standpoint, what involves the lowest risk inspection, trucks, vehicles or people?  Simply ask CBP.  Thank you.

About Michael Lettieri

Program Officer at the Trans-Border Institute

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