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Building up, instead of tearing down, in Tijuana [The San Diego Union-Tribune :: BC-REAL-TIJUANA:SD]

TIJUANA, Mexico - Tijuana has been in a building rush for several years with more than a dozen condo towers built on vacant lots, or in the place of demolished aging structures.

In the quickly transforming skyline of the city, it is rare that destruction of an old building gets much opposition. This is a stark contrast to San Diego where structures with limited historic significance can halt major housing developments.

However, like its neighbor to the north, the Mexican city is becoming land constrained and developers are more frequently turning to redeveloping existing structures - without the pressure of lawsuits.

At the western edge of Tijuana's Central Zone, Tijuana-based Centro Ventures is turning an abandoned former hardware store built in the 1980s with a handful of apartments on the second floor into a 15-unit condo building and commercial space named Commuter.

Keeping the history of a building alive is important, but Centro CEO Miguel Marshall said it also made financial sense. He said rebuilding the building was cheaper than paying for a demolition and materials.

At 31, Marshall is one of the city's youngest developers and his five-person Centro Ventures has completed three other similar projects. As a Tijuana native, he said it was important for him to come back to his home to make a difference after time in San Francisco and Mexico City. He said fixing up old buildings is a way to make the city look better.

"Not a lot of people see it through my eyes," Marshall said.

The mixed-use building is located on a busy street that doesn't look like the best place in the world for pedestrians, but is in the middle of a transformation with other multi-family buildings proposed nearby.

Marshall reasons there are up to 100 abandoned or dilapidated buildings like Commuter in Tijuana that could be remodeled. He said it is difficult to acquire buildings because many owners think Tijuana's condo boom means they can charge very high prices. Because the costs are too high for small developers, they remain empty.

"Even if we are doing urban infill at a small scale," he said, "it doesn't mean we don't need to make a profit."

Condos at the site will be even cheaper than most new Tijuana condos that average around $200,000 to $300.000. The least-expensive unit is a 389-square-foot condo for $62,904 but the average is around $81,000 with apartments ranging from 420- to 906-square-feet. There are two penthouse apartments for $217,170 (1,802-square-feet) to $238,276 (2,003-square-feet).

The commercial space on the first floor is 315-square-feet and has already been leased to a coffee shop.

Centro purchased the building earlier this year and envisioned it as a place for young singles and couples. Marshall did not want to say the cost of the project, other than it was more than $1 million, and that it was financed by private American investors he met on a business tour of the city. Additional money comes from a loan from a Mexican bank.

Construction on Commuter is not slated to be finished until spring 2019, but five condos have already sold. Marshall said most buyers are Mexican, but they have had one American who travels often to the city for medical work buy a spot.

Najla Wehbe Dipp, a former Tijuana councilwoman, said changing the culture of tearing down buildings without much thought will take some work because it hasn't been a huge priority since urban development began around the start of the 20th century.

"Tijuana is a city that has grown very quickly," she said. "As it has grown, old buildings or houses are demolished, and more modern and bigger places for people to live or put offices are put there. I think that's one of the reasons there aren't many historical buildings."

Dipp said as a councilwoman she had fought to save one of the oldest buildings in Tijuana, a jail that many Americans ended up spending the night in, but was unsuccessful. The more than 50-year-old jail even inspired a 1959 song by the Kingston Trio, "Tijuana Jail." Despite plans to turn the lot into a new development, it eventually became a park.

"I think there are very few people that find historical buildings important or something worth keeping," she said. "Unless you find someone who is willing to put money into preserving it, or turning it into something new, it's not going to happen."

At least one prominent developer took pains to connect the past to its new development. A new apartment building called Eazy Living from Cosmopolitan Group in an underdeveloped area two blocks from the city's main drag, Avenue Revolucion, was built out of the husk of a 60-year-old dilapidated building.

The building was used in a scene in "Born in East L.A.," a 1987 film by Cheech Marin about a Mexican-American who gets deported after being mistaken for an undocumented immigrant. In the scene filmed at the building, Marin teaches several other immigrants - including some from China - how to blend in in Los Angeles by saying "waas sappening."

The scene is immortalized in outlines of Marin and the immigrants painted in the courtyard where it was filmed. An interesting bit of trivia: One of the Chinese immigrants was Jason Scott Lee, an actor who went on to play Bruce Lee in the biopic "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story."

"These stories are important to us," said Cosmopolitan architect Gustavo Gualajara.

Rent for a one-bedroom (430 square feet) at Eazy Living is $799 a month and $1,049 for a two-bedroom (688 square feet). Amenities include a small gym, community dinning room, movie nights on the rooftop lounge, and a club room for watching TV or playing ping pong. After a year and a half of construction, the project is set to open in July.

Because Eazy Living is an already existing apartment complex, it does not have strict parking requirements, but is putting in 30 spots, Cosmopolitan said. For Commuter, because it is a condo development, it has stricter rules that emphasis actual owners over renters.

Centro was required to put in 1.6 parking spots for each unit, adding to costs even though there was already some underground parking already built in. Like San Diego developers, Marshall said parking requirements are outdated.

"It's very oriented on parking," he said. "The No. 1 challenge is how the urban agency is focused toward parking."

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