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MTS Lawsuit Over Doorway Creates Hassle For San Ysidro Passengers

Reported by Matthew Bowler

MTS Lawsuit Over Doorway Creates Hassle For San Ysidro Passengers

GUEST:

Amita Sharma, investigative reporter, KPBS News

Transcript

The dispute has triggered accusations of racism and raised questions about how a public agency is using its land, clout and money.

Convenience and comfort are hallmarks of smooth travel.

But the credo has taken a hit at the San Ysidro Transit Center.

Every two months, Angelica Maria Flores Dias takes the bus home from the station to Las Vegas following a visit with family in Mexico.

After buying her ticket from the second floor of the McDonald’s trolley station building, Flores would then exit the double doors at the back to the bus terminal. But the doorway was blocked this summer after the Metropolitan Transit System sued building owner Grand Central West.

“It’s not right, they have to be open,” Flores said of the double glass doors.

Now Flores has to walk down a flight of stairs, and head around the building to catch her bus.

“I’m disabled and it’s very hard to go all the way down and all the way back,” Flores said.

Scores of disabled people like Flores, seniors and children have come to rely on the doorway to go from the bus terminal behind McDonald’s to the trolley station in front. The doorway is near an elevator that helps people dodge — depending on the route they take — what can be a lengthy, jagged walk punctuated by solicitations from people offering rides.

“Not only did hundreds, if not thousands, of members of the traveling public and the public walking south across the border to Tijuana use it without any problem, but so did MTS’ own staff, including their executives,” said Grand Central West consultant Steve Padilla. “So did their own security personnel on a daily basis for years.”

MTS attorney Karen Landers said the public agency allowed the door to be built six inches away from its property more than a decade ago because Grand Central West was constructing an elevator in the back of its building and needed access. Afterward, MTS said, Grand Central agreed to put exit-only fire doors in the wall opening. Landers said MTS never signed off on a permanent doorway for travelers.

“It’s a piece of property that we own and we still have the right to decide how to use it,” Landers said.

Grand Central West partner Miguel Aguirre contends the conflict with MTS is less about a doorway and more about choking off business in his building, because the transit agency views him as a threat.

Photo by Oran Viriyincy / Flickr

A view of the San Ysidro Transit Center, Nov. 3, 2012.

MTS acquired the property around the McDonald’s building in 2003 through eminent domain for $1.3 million. For years, the goal of a community-vetted plan was to make the building a passenger hub with traveler-friendly businesses on the second floor. It would also have an elevator for the disabled that would lead them to a door at the back of the building outside to an upgraded terminal.

But Aguirre said talks with MTS fizzled. He claims agency officials then turned vengeful.

“The community deserves a voice and deserves to enjoy some of the public investment that we slated to happen there, and not have to compete with big government teaming up with big business to crush the little guys there,” Aguirre said. “They have sought to isolate us.”

Aguirre said the isolation started shortly after MTS leased the property around the McDonald’s building in late 2012 to a company called SYPS — partly owned by Greyhound — without going to bid. MTS said it has no competitive bidding requirements for leases.

The deal with SYPS required the company to provide ticket and retail booths, as well as make other improvements. MTS was supposed to receive 65 percent of the profits each year. To date, MTS has received nothing.

“It has not been a winner for MTS,” said MTS board member David Alvarez.

Landers blames the zero profit on Grand Central West and the doorway. She said the company is renting to bus carriers that would otherwise be paying rent to its own leaseholder and, ultimately, MTS.

And Grand Central West consultant Padilla believes that competition may be the true reason for the dispute. He argues MTS has switched roles. He said that it is not behaving like a public agency whose job it is to serve its constituents, not inconvenience them. Instead, he asserts the agency is acting like a private land developer.

“I think Grand Central West is simply in their way,” Padilla said. “I think they don’t have a lot of regard and respect or even understanding of the long and dignified history of that border community.”

Photo by Amita Sharma

A bathroom built by Metropolitan Transit System leaseholder SYPS at the San Ysidro Transit Center is shown, Oct. 18, 2016.

One example, Padilla cited, is the bathroom SYPS promised to build for passengers.

Drawings show the bathroom was supposed to be enclosed. But the company put the stalls in what looks like a cage and users must pay 50 cents. Padilla called the restrooms a sign of institutional racism.

“It looks like a place you’d feed the animals in a zoo,” Padilla said. “I really do believe that because this is in a border community, the attitude is very different. I don’t think they would foist this substandard facility in other parts of the county. I think it’s disrespectful. I wouldn’t want my grandmother in here using the restroom so people could see her pants around her ankles.”

MTS described the bathroom as a “valuable amenity” that was built to the same standards as some other public restrooms making it easier for security checks and maintenance.

Meanwhile, Grand Central West has countersued MTS and its leaseholder SYPS. MTS is paying for the leaseholder’s legal fees in the case.

MTS board member Alvarez said he hopes there’s a way for the door to be reopened for passengers to use freely without litigation.

“It will require negotiation,” Alvarez said.

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Photo of Amita Sharma

Amita Sharma
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs an investigative reporter for KPBS, I've helped expose political scandals and dug into intractable issues like sex trafficking. I've raised tough questions about how government treats foster kids. I've spotlighted the problem of pollution in poor neighborhoods. And I've chronicled corporate mistakes and how the public sometimes ends up paying for them.

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