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The State

Housing Boom at Border With a View of Tijuana

Development: Federal officials credit change to a 1994 crackdown, while real estate experts cite demand for open land in San Diego County.

April 30, 2002|MATEA GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Coral Gate could be any Southern California suburban housing development, a swirl of curving roads lined with large, red-tile-roofed stucco houses.

But this tidy community of almost 500 homes sits directly across the street from the corrugated metal fence marking the U.S.-Mexico border. From their backyards, the residents of Coral Gate have a view of the hills of Tijuana.

None of it was here a decade ago, when this land in the Tijuana River basin was one of the most heavily traveled thoroughfares for Mexican immigrants making their way north. Thousands attempted to scale the northern levy of the Tijuana River at night and escape across what were then barren fields. Smugglers and bandits roamed the area, preying on immigrants, and outnumbered Border Patrol agents sometimes found the bodies of people who had been raped and murdered amid the tumbleweeds.

"It was the wild, wild west," said Border Patrol Agent Raleigh Leonard. The new projects "never could have existed before Operation Gatekeeper."

Leonard was referring to a crackdown on illegal border commerce, which along with a housing boom in southern San Diego County has dramatically altered the hills and beaches once used as clandestine entry routes into the United States.

New tract housing communities with names like Dolphin Cove and Remington Hills are being dug out of the hillsides that used to be covered by sagebrush and dotted with Border Patrol radar towers. Expensive condominiums are going up along the beaches once heavily trafficked by illegal immigrants. An outlet mall featuring such stores as Tommy Hilfiger and Liz Claiborne opened in November right at the international line, down the street from Coral Gate.

The Border Patrol credits the transformation to its 1994 crackdown, which doubled the number of agents and increased security with new fences, lights and sensors. The measures pushed the flow of immigration to the east, where many Mexicans now attempt an often perilous and sometimes fatal journey across the deserts and mountains of Imperial County.

Local home builders say the new developments are as much a product of San Diego's insatiable appetite for housing.

No matter what the cause, the U.S. side of the border has undergone a major make-over since the early 1990s, when most of the rugged canyons were deserted and real estate agents in Imperial Beach had to reassure worried buyers about living just north of Tijuana.

"There was always a perception of the area south of the 8 Freeway that it was not necessarily a desirable location," said Robert Pletcher, a project manager for Corky McMillan Companies, a major home builder. "We've shattered all those myths."

In the last three years, about 7,500 new housing units have gone up in the South Bay area of Chula Vista, Otay Mesa, San Ysidro and Imperial Beach, with an average value of about $330,000, according to Alan Nevin, director of economic research at MarketPoint Realty Advisors.

Master-planned communities such as Ocean View Hills and Otay Ranch advertise houses with formal entries, three-car garages and up to eight bedrooms.

"NEW HOMES!" blares a billboard off the 905 Freeway, just north of the port of entry in San Ysidro, where tractors busily clear the land. Several dozen yards away, a yellow sign features the silhouette of a running family, a warning to drivers to watch out for migrants.

Real estate analysts say it is difficult to know how much credit for the change can go to increased border security, because open land for housing is in such demand in San Diego.

"They're building everywhere and anywhere they can in San Diego County," said John Karevoll, an analyst for DataQuick, a firm that tracks housing prices.

Developer Patrick Kruer said he wasn't concerned about the proximity to the border when he bought up the 155 acres of empty fields back in 1988 that eventually became Coral Gate. At the time, he was looking for a place to build affordable homes.

"There was some concern by some people, but we saw the border as an opportunity ... to provide very affordable housing and create a catalyst to doing something nice there," Kruer said.

The recession of the early 1990s delayed development until 1997, but when Coral Gate opened, the units--priced from about $130,000 to $170,000--sold out immediately.

Drawn by the price, retail sales manager Gary Lane signed up to buy a house before it was even constructed, eventually moving into a two-story home with a view of the border.

Lane grew up in nearby Imperial Beach, where he often saw immigrants fleeing through his backyard and the headlights of Border Patrol trucks sweeping through his windows at night.

But Lane said he was pleasantly surprised when he moved to Coral Gate to discover the illegal traffic had slowed to a trickle.

"It's made a difference for the average home buyer," he said. "I grew up here and accepted it, but a lot of people wouldn't have moved in if it was still going on."

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