But on the spot in San Ysidro where planners envision a convention hotel, U.S. and Mexico officials see the chance to ease worsening border traffic congestion by reopening a gate once used for commercial trucks. The crossing, which in Mexico is called El Chaparral, was mothballed in 1994 when trucks were rerouted to a new port of entry in Otay Mesa. Federal officials from the two countries see no need for a new bridge for pedestrians, who now walk alongside the vehicle crossing on a route linking San Ysidro's business district and tourism-oriented shopping on the Tijuana side.
The private project was flying high just a few months ago. The San Diego City Council embraced the plan as an official redevelopment effort, aided by local tax breaks, in May. Boosters presented a list of heavy-hitter supporters, including Tijuana Mayor Jose Guadalupe Osuna Millan, whose term ended Monday, and local luminaries from the U.S. side.
The campaign crested in September when a parade of boosters, including the head of Tijuana's economic development council and former U.S. attorney and border czar Alan Bersin, took turns praising likely benefits to the region's economy and image during a meeting of a U.S.-Mexico panel that reviews new border crossings.
But that same border group already had been presented with a competing vision backed by federal agencies--the U.S. General Services Administration and its Mexican counterpart--to reopen for passenger cars their facilities at the former truck gate. Those plans call for steering southbound freeway traffic into six to eight new inspection lanes there. In this way, the former southbound lanes could be converted for cars entering the United States. Lines sometimes stretch more than a mile onto Tijuana's already clogged streets.
The Mexican plan also would ease traffic in downtown Tijuana through a new connection that would swing beach-going motorists onto the highway to Rosarito and Ensenada.
One Gateway critic blamed San Diego planners for the bureaucratic snarl. "You don't go forward planning international border crossings without talking to the federal governments," said state Assemblywoman Denise Ducheny (D-San Diego).
Marasco said federal officials based elsewhere are unused to bottom-up planning on border matters and must "digest" ideas vetted by their colleagues here. "We are rewriting the rules of international relations through local cooperation," he said.
Leaders of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce, however, have objected to the proposed 50-cent toll, an emotional issue in a neighborhood whose meat markets and discount stores live and die by Tijuana shoppers.
Others worry that the developers will seek to move the terminus of the city trolley to the shopping center, leaving dozens of businesses stranded and jeopardizing plans for a transit center in San Ysidro that would provide easy access to a light-rail system that is planned in Tijuana. A station would be placed at the border as part of a transit complex contemplated by the Mexican federal government.
Some Tijuana merchants near the border have expressed fears the shopping center could cut into their business. And residents of a working-class neighborhood next to the current crossing have petitioned the Mexican government to prevent "foreign investors" from carrying out plans they fear will ultimately require razing their colonia.
Immigration officials have taken no public stance.
But a customs official in San Diego said the idea could work.
"This operation could be very similar to a large commercial airport operation," said area customs chief Rudy Camacho.
Proponents of the Gateway project say their design matches an 8-year-old community plan for San Ysidro calling for "a grand entrance into the United States." The plan suggested studying the feasibility of a footbridge at the truck crossing.
It is an audacious vision--reshaping the border through a 60-foot-wide footbridge and the urge to shop. For the moment, it is one whose future dangles.
"It's an elegant proposal," said Christiansen, "if we can get through the Gordian knot we're in."
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2 Views of the Border
A proposed $192 million development in San Ysidro that would include an international footbridge to Mexico has sparked a debate over the need for a new pedestrian passage and how best to ease traffic congestion at the border. Federal agencies of the United States and Mexico want to reopen an idled vehicle crossing instead of adding the footbridge; the city of San Diego and its developer say the vehicle-traffic problem could be solved by widening the San Ysidro port of entry already in use nearby.
Proposal of city of San Diego and developers
Proposed retail and entertainment center and factory outlet
Proposed pedestrian bridge
Northbound and southbound traffic through port of entry
Proposal of U.S., Mexican officials
Proposed reopened vehicle crossing for south-bound traffic
Sources: LandGrant Development, U.S. General Services Administration, Comision de Avaluos de Bienes Nacionales