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Building A Cross-Border District

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Only here can you find entrepreneurs in San Diego and Tijuana who are working to build a bigger and better-designed cross-border region.

Show transcript

Miguel Marshall can see the future.

Music

Ok, he can’t see the future, but he definitely sees a future. And it’s a future he’s sort of obsessed with.

Miguel’s future includes a nice, design-centric place built especially for the cross-border crowd. He wants to call it the “Crossborder District” and have it start right at the border wall.

The space at the border has evolved in response to the wall as a transit zone that people enter and exit as fast as possible.

But, of course, lots of people get stuck in the line here, which is why the space right up against the mexican side of the wall is packed with chatzky shops, pharmacies and other cheap touristy things catering to those trapped in long border waits.

For a lot of people, this area is not a particularly pleasant place to be.

But Miguel sees the Crossborder District as a way to reclaim the border space, transforming it from a congested, militarized zone built for tourists just passing quickly through into a place where people will want to stay and enjoy awhile. He wants to smooth out the transition from one side of the border to the other by bringing Tijuana’s creative, cosmopolitan culture closer to the wall.

And, as a young entrepreneur and startup-type guy, Miguel has actually done some things to get closer to the Crossborder District he imagines.

Just steps away from the port of entry, his development company has built what he considers a pilot project that shows what the crossborder district can look like.

Not everything Miguel has done or proposed has worked out, though. In fact, he’s been involved with a few failed cross-border projects, some that might’ve survived had he done them now instead of years ago. Even so, Miguel refuses to wait.

Miguel Marshal First Recording Clip 1 (05:46 - 5:55)
We knew that we were early. But we knew that if we weren't early, nothing was gonna happen. So we need it to be early.

So, Miguel keeps plowing ahead. A dreamer-turned-developer of actual buildings and businesses, he is creating spaces tailor-made for the cross-border future he envisions. And he’s not alone in his efforts.

I’m Alan Lilienthal, and you’re listening to Only Here, a KPBS podcast about the place where San Diego and Tijuana meet.

Today, a story about cross-border builders.

Only Here can you find entrepreneurs in San Diego and Tijuana who are working to build a bigger, and better-designed cross-border culture.

More after the break.

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Nat sound clip 2 : Miguel yeah, so we’re in the local plaza…..

Miguel Marshall is sitting at a table in the middle of the large outdoor patio of Estacion Federal, a two-story building his development company bought, remodeled and filled with sleek airbnbs, a bar, cafe, restaurants, an art gallery and offices.

Miguel Marshal First Recording Clip 3 (25:32 - 25:47)
Miguel: so the idea is to do, have a movement the entire time in the neighborhood. So, so during the morning we have coffee. During the afternoon we have food and during the night we have drinks. So, so that sort of brings exactly, give it this space alive.

The mixed-use building is just steps away from the border fence.

Natsound: walking from mall to mexico

Seriously, you can park a few hundred feet away in San Ysidro, walk through PedWest -- a pedestrian crossing built in 2016 that sits less than a mile west of the main port of entry -- and be at Estacion Federal within minutes.

Natsound: walking from mall to mexico

Miguel sees the location as the project’s biggest selling point.

Miguel Marshal First Recording Clip 4 (20:43 - 21:45)
Miguel: we were attracted to it because of the proximity - cut this part out - to the border. Yeah. To ped west mostly. And so if we go back four years from now, there wasn't a, uh, a strategy. nobody really knew what was going to happen here. But I had a master plan. -- -cut this out ----- Which is, which is, which is public. Yeah. But somebody said to me, knew that I was looking for a property and they send me the master plan and they're like, hey, the kid, like, take over like look over the spaces and what's happening in this area. And I was like walking around and just, uh, saw a for lease or for sale or whatever you want, like said. And so he calls them and we negotiated.

Miguel and his wife run two of the businesses in the building. A cafe,

Natsound: cafe noise

and, in January, they opened a new cocktail bar called Cereus where the tagline is….

Miguel Marshal First Recording Clip 5 (29:47 - 29:49)
A neighborhood bar serving both sides of the border.

Natsound: bar shaker

Music bump

When Miguel’s development company first bought the broken-down building here in Colonia Federal a few years ago, he saw it as becoming the poster child for the future Crossborder District he envisions.

He’s turned the building into an enclave for young, cross-bord er people like himself -- folks he calls “crossborder’ers” -- that’s his word, not mine.

Because Miguel wants to prove that a Crossborder District could work and grow into a special place like no other in the world.

Miguel Marshall on Crossborder lifestyle clip 6 (02:10 - 2:42)
Miguel: bringing the cultures together and, and, and, and, and just creating this new type of third world or space, um, it, it just makes it, uh, something that, that you have to live to understand. So it's uh, the food, the art, the music, uh, the, the, the, the whole region as a whole, as a, as a, as a, as an, as an entire space or universe. It just makes it, uh, something really wonderful that, that I don't think you get to see in a lot of places in the world
Miguel Marshall on Crossborder lifestyle clip 7 (03:13 - 3:40)
And when, when I'm here and I'm in, I'm in certain places like here in Estacion Federal, and I get to see so much, so many diaper diverse communities, uh, being in a single space, it just makes me feel that, that, that the future is, is it's prominent and that there's this type of lifestyle it's going to be, uh, an it thing. I think so. So that's, that's why I'm passionate about it
Miguel Marshall on Crossborder lifestyle clip 8 (11:39 - 12:19)
I do see that vibrancy more and more and, and people, um, understanding it more and more and, and so, so as I said, like first to come for a beer and Tacos and then you come for dinner and then you stay in and, and sometimes those become investors, business partners, they do startups, they do projects. They, they, they, they do art. Uh, and so, so a lot of that just, it just, it just integrating more and more. It's it's and snowball effect. So it's just growing, growing, growing in it, a want. I don't see it stopping. Uh, if Trump didn't stop it, no one will, no one will. Yeah.
Miguel Marshall on Crossborder lifestyle clip 9 (13:24)
Miguel: United Cross border states of America.

But what’s it really like being sooooooooooooooooo close to the border wall? Is it an environment that people really want to experience? Miguel says mostly it’s easy to forget that the border fence is just a few hundred feet away. But lately with the Central American migrant crisis in full swing, there have been a few tense moments.

Miguel Marshal First Recording Clip 9.5 (41:26 - 42:26)
Miguel: the only time I was sort of scared when was, when was when, uh, when, when, when the Honduran crisis happened and there were tanks throwing, uh, like, like, yeah, no, boom, eh, like tears. No Sun mass, one Latina and like plans, they were, there were tanks throwing blanks, uh, exploding blanks. Yeah. Making the noise, boom, boom. You, you heard them from here and the windows in the boom. They, they, they rattled. Yeah. And that's the end. You had a lot of helicopters coming like close. You even saw them in Mexican territory. Uh, so, so, so yeah, that's the only time I've sort of guide to weirded out. But from that, uh, everything is mostly normal dose. There's a lot of, as you hear noise and and, and movement in and things happening. But uh, nothing bad. Nothing bad.

Miguel’s cross-border obsession is rooted in his upbringing. His dad grew up in the U.S., and his mom grew up in Mexicali and Tijuana, so the family spent time on both sides of the border. His own name is symbolic of that cross-border life -- Miguel is Mexican, and Marshal is American.

Miguel’s dad died young. That’s part of why he’s so focused on building a bigger cross-border culture. It’s his way of keeping his dad’s memory alive.

Miguel often talks up the perks of being a “crossborder’er” to anyone who’ll listen. He says the obvious advantage, of course, is money. It’s a lot less expensive to live in Tijuana, and if you work in San Diego, where you get paid in dollars instead of pesos, you get a lot more bang for your buck. He says it’s also a lot less expensive to start a business in Mexico if you have American money behind it.

But Miguel likes to talk up the less obvious benefits, too. He says living a cross-border lifestyle opens your mind to new ideas, new “life hacks” as he likes to call them, plus, he says the lifestyle expands your personal network by essentially doubling your rolodex.

Of course, crossing the border can be stressful. There are thousands of students and professionals who cross it for school and work every single day. The lines are long and navigating the bureaucracy isn’t fun. But being able to cross every few days, or weeks -- Miguel says that’s the sweet spot. And he’s picturing a future where urban and environmentally minded professionals can live a cross-border life without a car and the hassle of the driving line; instead taking advantage of the public transit opportunities clustered at the border.

Miguel’s plan, though, hasn’t panned out exactly the way he thought it would. He’s had to pivot.

Music bump

See, Miguel first pictured people renting the apartments in Estacion Federal and using Ped West to walk to the trolley and bus stops at the border to get to their jobs in the U.S. He pictured young creatives filling the apartments -- people who could work from home in Tijuana sometimes, and easily cross into the U.S. to get to their offices when they need to.

Buuuuuut hat didn’t happen. So, instead, he turned most of the apartments into short-term vacation rentals through airbnb.

The pivot worked. The rentals are almost always filled by international visitors.

Miguel Marshal First Recording Clip 10 (26:34 - 26:55)
Miguel: so at the beginning I used Craiglist yeah. At the beginning, uh, right now, uh, with Airbnb, we're just, uh, on Airbnb and we have nice pictures and nice reviews and, and, and right now, yeah, this is becoming more of a hospitality thing then, then, uh, then, then a, then a long term place to stay.

The commercial spaces have also proved to be harder to fill than Miguel anticipated.

So far, he hasn’t found a ton of entrepreneurs willing to open a business right next to the border wall.

Miguel and his wife decided to step up and open the cafe themselves. They wanted to prove to people that the Cross Border District concept works.

Miguel did eventually get a businessman to buy into the idea of opening the binational bar at Estacion Federal, but that deal fell apart. So, he pivoted again, and he and his wife took that retail space over, too.

Miguel Marshal First Recording Clip 11 (28:15 - 28:56)
Miguel: we lost like a year. I was all messed up. He didn't finish construction. It was pretty bad. Um, experience and, and, and so in the retail side of just been like a, I want to do the anchors myself and then bring people to, to like the anchor being the bar concept kind of. Exactly. And then bring people, uh, around like Kokopeli who is a, a really well known Taqueria and, uh, Johnny's pizza and just bring them to the table and, and, and make the, and make this space, um, a common area. Yeah. And, and, and a place for people to come.

Giani of Giani' Pizza, by the way, is Miguel’s brother. So yeah, he’s still working hard to sell local entrepreneurs outside of his family on his vision of this bintational space.

Despite the challenges, it seems to be working. People from both Tijuana and San Diego are showing up to Estacion Federal.
Miguel Marshal First Recording Clip 12 (26:15 - 26:27)
Miguel: so we've had always a mixture, always has been, or 50, 50, or 60, 40, but it was, it has always have a big element of, of, uh, of people, uh, from, from the US

Miguel’s efforts to build a more robust binational culture at the border are getting international attention.

He was recently featured in the New York Times, and he presented at an event for the World Economic Forum, the big-time international organization that extends invitations to some of the world’s most lauded thought leaders.

And Miguel’s neighbors right here in Tijuana also seem to appreciate the work he’s doing.

But of course, anytime new development happens, concerns about gentrification, or pricing people out come up.

And those concerns are especially prevalent when you talk about building space in Tijuana with the express purpose of attracting people from San Diego. Catering to people who make waaay more money is one of the fastest ways to make real estate prices shoot up.

Music bump

But Miguel says he’s made an effort to make sure his neighbors are onboard with what he’s doing.

Miguel Marshal First Recording Clip 13 (23:42 - 24:28)
Miguel: we, uh, we decided to involve community in our, in our design, do some participatory design with the space. And so, um, we, we held a neighborhood meeting, uh, which is crazy for developers to do. Uh, we, we held a meeting with them and told him, hey, so this is our idea, this is what we want to do. And, uh, some twitches we did on the project. We had a, uh, a laundromat, which was going to be inside and we shifted outside. And so it's, it's outside and serves people from, from the neighborhood and in our, in our, also our tenants. So, so I was one and um, and they were like, they wanted a coffee shop. And so that's how the idea came up.

Despite his best efforts, there has been some backlash from a few artists who used to live in the building before Miguel took it over.

See, Estacion Federal has a long history of housing creative folks like famed Tijuana artist Marcos Ramirez Erre. Art students from UC San Diego used to run an experimental gallery and residency space in the building, and a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego lived in a big apartment in the building for years.

Even our own Only Here producer Kinsee Morlan lived in the building years ago. She paid just $250 bucks for an apartment there, and now that same space rents for $25 a night -- that’s $750 a month.

Because of the building’s history and comments from some of those artists, Miguel says he felt compelled to include a gallery in the building’s new iteration. He also subsidizes an artist residency program by using money made from the short-term rentals.

Clip 14
And my other theory is that, In mexico, gentrification takes a little more time to catch on. Because development is not so organized as it is in the U.S. over here, it’s me and for the past four years no one has come in and done a project similar to mine next to me ...gentrification is different, at least in Tijuana.

He’s right. Gentrification is slower here. But still, some neighbors worry that Miguel’s project will, over time, price people out and change the character of this small neighborhood that sits in the shadow of the border fence.

Artist Jim Platel told me his big concern when it comes to Estacion Federal is how expensive the food, drinks and rentals are. He says most people who live and work in Tijuana can’t afford any of it.

Jim Artist clip 1 (14:51)
I think it's just pretentious as a place. Sure. I mean, I, I know people like to go to nice places and dress up, but, um, some of the artists community that I know, um, um, go there and it's like, you know, the new place to be seen and all that kind of thing. And that's just not my thing.
Jim artist clip 2 (18:42)
It's not catering to the Colonia as much as it is to other outsiders.

But another neighbor, freelance photographer Carlos Moreno, says while he too worries about rising rents in Colonia Federal, he’s happy that places like Estacion Federal are putting Tijuana on the map for food, art and culture rather than drugs and violence.

He says he thinks people who may still be too timid to cross deeper into the city might be more willing to try Estacion Federal since it’s just steps away from the border crossing.

Carlos Clip 1 (13:05)
Carlos: now it's like an actual real space for people to come in and like consume and spend their money, spend time and you know, I guess have a small taste of the city, but not leaving far away from the border.
Carlos Clip 2 (14:35)
Carlos: there's so much opportunity here and so many things that I feel people still don't appreciate or know about the city. And I think it's a good thing that people are starting to look at the city, uh, in a positive light. You know, besides all the migration and all the violence that you hear in the news. Also all these great things happening in the city. They have always happened, but I feel now they're being shown more.

Music bump

Estacion Federal isn’t Miguel’s first foray into building a space meant to cater to a binational crowd.

More on that when we come back. Stick around.

Midroll Ad

Miguel Marshall’s first big effort to boost the binational culture in the border region came years ago.

Music bump

He and his partners got a lease on the iconic brick bus station building right on Avenida Revolucion, the main thoroughfare in downtown Tijuana. They envisioned it as a place where tech companies in San Diego, the Bay Area and other parts of California would lease space for the Tijuana programmers they’d hire.

The past, present and future of Revolucion is a future episode in-and-of itself -- we are working on it.

But, in short, this street has gone through a cultural resurgence in recent years.

That resurgence is being led by Tijuanenses who are building bars and restaurants meant mostly for locals instead of tourists.

Miguel and his partners were part of that movement back when it was first getting going.

In 2014, they remodeled a big bus station building on Revolucion into a vibrant coworking space with an onsite art gallery and other amenities.

Miguel Marshal First Recording Clip 15 (01:28 - 1:52)
…. We wanted to transform the vision of, uh, making a, uh, a space which was oriented towards tourism and try to orient it towards creative and, um, entrepreneurial work.
Miguel Marshal First Recording Clip 16 (04:31 - 5:30)
and everybody had to sort of reinvent themselves during 2008, 2010 and we had to go to a place that the bad guys wouldn't go. And, and it was like those dive bars that sort of made it secure. Uh, but, but, but I've seen that Tijuana has, uh, after that, um, do you want to just start it to evolve? Ceaser's restaurant opened and then, uh, we saw it, we thought, well, there's food, there's party, there's food, but there's no work spaces, so, so let's bring in an idea of a work space and, and, and so we know it's going to take time to catch on. But it really sparked a lot of people's, uh, insight into what, what it could be that street.

Right now, Revolucion is taking off. About a half dozen large developments are underway.

But back then, Miguel was a leeeeetle too early. The coworking space did attract tech clients from the U.S. like Uber, buuuuut it didn’t last long.

Miguel Marshal First Recording Clip 17 (05:46 - 5:55)
Miguel: Yeah, it was a little too early. Uh, and we knew, we knew that we were early, but we knew that if we weren't early, nothing was gonna happen. So we need it to be early.

The building the coworking space was in was bought and torn down not long after the project opened. So that dream died.

Miguel has also played a role in a proposal for a new binational bike lane at the border that never came to be. And he was part of a project that turned federal land near the river by the border fence into an urban farm that employed hundreds of homeless migrants. That project collapsed when the federal government told them to get off the land.

Those past projects were pretty idealistic. But he says they were as much about rebranding Tijuana and reclaiming its reputation as they were about actually succeeding.

During the short lifespan of the coworking space, people did take notice.

Miguel Marshal First Recording Clip 18 (15:54 - 16:22)
Miguel: yeah, we were featured in CNN, uh, saying that it was a, Tijuana from sin city, to tech technology hub. And that was for me, like the whole reason we did it and that happened two months before we sold the contract. So, so it was like we, the, the effort accomplished, like change the perceptions. Right, exactly. Which was on our top list building community and change perceptions.

Miguel’s development company is currently giving downtown Tijuana another go. They’re working on a project called Nook Hotels on Sixth and Constitución. It’s a 17-room hotel with a bar, restaurant, taproom and other retail space.

Miguel says the Crossborder District he imagines starts right at the border, but stretches all the way into downtown Tijuana, following the longtime route of tourists down Revolucion and continuing on to the edge of the Xolos soccer stadium about 5 miles away from the border fence.

Music bump

Just down the street from Miguel’s downtown hotel is another new-ish project geared toward the binational crowd and this possible future Crossborder District. It’s a very design-centric collection of airbnbs called One Bunk Tijuana.

Greg Strangman Clip 19 (04:04 - 4:33)
Greg: at least where we are today with one bunk Tijuana, we believed in repurposing the old hotel Lafayette into a, a boutique hospitality or a combination hotel brand that would be able to serve both sides of the border. So we have the same brand in San Diego, in Barrio Logan, and also in ocean beach. And then we have this 14 rooms here in Tijuana. And then we'll be building the one bunk valle, we'll start construction and like two months.

That’s Greg Strangman, a San Diego developer whose known for buying old buildings in neighborhoods, mostly in and around downtown San Diego. His company uses art and design to rebuild and rebrand the buildings as spaces tailor-made for younger, more urban-minded folks.

One Bunk is his first project in Tijuana. But like he said, he’s already working on opening another project in Valle de Guadalupe, the wine region just a short drive south of Tijuana.

He and his wife and kids spend a lot of time on both sides of the border. He’s building a house in Valle. He says he knows there’s a growing market of cross-border people just like him. So he’s building spaces for them to stay.

Sitting inside the very colorful lobby at One Bunk in downtown Tijuana, Greg says learning the building rules and regulations in another country was far from easy. But he says it’s been worth the trouble, because Tijuana is filled with the exact type of buildings he likes to rehab -- old, affordable buildings with lots of quirky character.

Greg Strangman Clip 20 (02:56 - 3:50)
….specifically Centro, has a really large stock of those type buildings. Some are in better condition than others, but you know, there's some very notable and beautiful architecture down here and there were some real opportunity for people to kind of take a look at maybe what should be kept and what should be repurposed and what could be maybe moved on to replace with something, you know, in a, in a higher and better use.

As a foreigner, it can be tricky to purchase buildings in Mexico outright. So for Greg’s project, he secured a long-term master lease on the property instead.

The hotel has been open for about two years now, but it hasn’t been a raging success. Greg says slow and steady is probably a better way to describe it.

Greg Strangman Clip 21 (06:36 - 7:33)
Greg: You know, honestly I feel like we probably entered the market a little early. Probably could have opened right about now and it would have been much better. But I mean go time, anything, go time the stock market or go time when you do this or do that. It's really hard to say. Do I, do I feel like tourism is on the upswing? Absolutely. I'd feel like, I think tourism for leisure is on the upswing. I think medical tourism is a big part of the economy down here. While it's not necessarily a big segment of our market, but it's a driver for the overall region. Um, but I think people are fascinated with what's happening here…..

Tijuana’s surging violence is, of course, something that is worrisome to a lot of would-be tourists. But Greg says he’s coming across more and more folks who are deciding to try the city out anyway. He says most are surprised by what they find here.

Greg Strangman Clip 22 (57:56 -58:49)
…..I do like taking people to my favorite places and it's pretty mind blowing when you take people cause they just don't know what to expect. Maybe there's still expecting curio shops and just weird illicit activity. I Dunno. I Dunno what people expect but they get so blown away when there it's like people, I think the one that always amazes me the most and people, it doesn't get enough credit for it. It's like the design here, it's like it's really rich. It's rich.

There is a building boom happening in Tijuana right now.

The city’s skyline has changed drastically in recent years as more large condo towers have been built.

According to a series of reports by the San Diego Union-Tribune, 500 new condos opened last year, and hundreds more are scheduled to open this year.

U-T condo video clip
It’s not yet clear how many of these condos will be bought up by Americans. THe U-T reports that lots of Mexicans from other parts of the country are swooping them up.

And while there has been tension and grumbling about a few of these new big condo projects because of worries about gentrification and too much of an influx of retiring Americans with higher incomes than many Mexicans, Greg says he hasn’t heard any complaints about his hotel project.

He credits that acceptance in part, because the project is small, but also because he’s marketing the hotel by marketing the city of Tijuana alongside it. Each One Bunk room write-up on airbnb lists the things to do and see in the city, and they also provide a “Bunk Concierge” onsite seven days a week to help guests find the best places to eat and visit.

Greg says he built One Bunk for people on both sides of the border, but he says he hopes the binational culture grows with the right kind of people who access Tijuana for the right reasons.

Greg Strangman Clip 24 (01:05:57 - 1:06:25)
Greg: So I do think the housing crisis in San Diego, people talk about Tijuana being part of the solution. I think it can be part of the solution for the right people. But like I tell people, don't, don't go live there just because you're going to save money. go live there because you're going to save money. And you also deemed to think that you're going to get an equal, if not greater quality of life. I mean pretty darn cool down here.
Greg Strangman Clip 25 (01:00:11 - 1:00:35)
I’m not building Disneyland for the American traveler or the foreign traveler, but building that great city too, for the people that live here and have to be here all the time. So that's kind of the gist of itI think. Keep forging forward. So I think it will, it's exciting. Very exciting times for Tijuana.

Next episode teaser

Next time on the podcast….A two-part series about saving animals from the streets of Mexico.

**********Got First Dog Off Beach Clip 3 (46:27 48:16)
some days I think I just can't do this anymore. I'm, I'm not going to do this anymore. It's too hard. And then I just see one and I'm like, but who's going to help him? You know, I don't know. Believe me, we talk about it. Animal rescue people like, are we insane?

Only Here will you find a community of animal lovers who’ve dedicated their lives to saving dogs in Rosarito and Tijuana by finding them homes in San Diego.

Show credits

Only Here is a KPBS podcast hosted by me Alan Lilienthal. It was written and produced by Kinsee Morlan. Emily Jankowski is the director of sound design. Lisa Morrissette is operations manager and John Decker is the director of programming.

So, I know I say this every time at the end of each show, but really, we need your support to keep things going. Become a member at kpbs dot org today. Thanks.

Only Here podcast branding

Only Here

“Only Here” is about the unexplored subcultures, creativity and struggles at the U.S.-Mexico border. The KPBS podcast tells personal stories from people whose lives are shaped by the tension reverberating around the wall. This is a show for border babies, urban explorers or those who wonder what happens when two cultures are both separated and intertwined.