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©MIKE BLAKE/Reuters/Corbis

If there is an epicenter of the massive demographic, economic, and urban-planning trends that are recharacterizing the United States and the rest of the world, then San Diego—which calls itself “America’s Finest City”—may very well be it.

Its burgeoning population, led by both young professionals and a steady stream of immigrants from Mexico and South America, makes San Diego one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States, according to the U.S. Census. Its deepwater seaport, filled with cargo ships carrying everything from Costa Rican bananas to U.S.-made sporting goods like leather footballs and golf clubs bound for China, is one of the busiest on the West Coast. (According to a spokeperson for the Port of San Diego, it processes about 3.6 million [U.S.] tons of cargo each year.)

And now, the southern end of the city of 1.3 million is the site of one of the most ambitious and expensive public-works projects in history—a $583 million expansion and renovation of the venerable but overloaded San Ysidro (Spanish for Isidore, patron saint of farmers) Land Port of Entry.

The land port—operated by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) and commonly referred to by its acronym, SYLPOE—is the primary gateway between the United States and Mexico, and Central and South America. It was able to capably handle the comings and goings of commuters and freight trucks for decades after it was built in the early 20th century, but not anymore: The 50,000 vehicles that pass through its northbound lanes leading to the United States daily are now routinely stuck in traffic for more than two hours, while the 25,000 pedestrians trekking up from Mexico each day sometimes make the bridge that connects Tijuana and southern San Diego County look like the start of the Boston Marathon. (According to Mexican officials, southbound traffic is about half the volume of northbound traffic and mostly includes tourists, people who work in the tourism industry south of the broder, and some who work as managers at maquiladoras).

“It’s the busiest land port in the entire world,” says Craig Curtis, design partner at Miller Hull Partnership, the Seattle-based firm hired by the GSA to handle the port project’s design duties. “It has served San Diego and the rest of America very well for decades, but it has to be updated to catch up to the times.”

Time Is Money

 

The project cannot be completed soon enough. If the current wait time at the border were to rise by just 15 minutes, according to a study by the San Diego Association of Governments, the additional delay would cost the local economy $1 billion in productivity and 134,000 jobs.

“The land port is the largest and most important part of San Diego’s economy, bar none,” says Cindy Gomper-Graves, executive director of the South County Economic Development Council, a business advocacy group for San Diego and neighboring cities. “Speeding up the crossing process would be a boon for the entire region.”

Curtis of Miller Hull admits that designing the modernization and expansion project has been a daunting task.

When the complex is completed a few years from now—assuming that the federal government approves funding for its final phases—the number of northbound lanes on Interstate 5 will have increased from 24 to 34 and the number of inspection booths will have been raised to 64 from the current 24. That would help trim the typical two-hour wait to 30 minutes or less, Curtis says. The port handles six southbound lanes into Mexico.

The highway—California’s busiest—will actually be shifted to the west so that it will align with a new inspection facility that Mexican officials recently opened on their side of the border.

Even more important, most of the current and newly constructed lanes would have two inspection booths instead of one. If the booths are “double stacked,” two cars can pass through as quickly as one.

“It’s sort of like a Target or Walmart store, where you see the company installing a counter behind an existing counter to expedite service,” Gomper-Graves says. “Now that idea is coming to San Ysidro.”

Plans also call for large new walkways, administrative space, and a pedestrian-inspection facility to be built. A public plaza, which would connect to San Diego’s trolleys and other components of the city’s public transit system, is also in the plans.

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Energy and Water Savings

Miller Hull’s design, which incorporates energy-saving and water-conservation systems, would help make the sprawling 40-acre (16 ha) facility the largest government-owned facility to gain a Platinum rating from the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program.

Miller Hull’s plan to make the facility largely self-sufficient was a key reason why the GSA chose the firm’s proposal over those from about a dozen competitors, an agency official says. “Sustainability is a priority for us,” says Maria Ciprazo, the GSA’s regional chief architect who is helping to coordinate the San Ysidro project. “This plan will take the busiest land port in the world and turn it into the greenest, too.”

A complex network that includes solar panels and thermal energy is expected to help the land port generate as much “clean power” as it needs, or even more. Part of the integrated plan calls for the finished project to achieve “net-zero” energy, meaning it would generate as much power as it consumes—a key step toward gaining a LEED Platinum certification. An important component of the energy-saving system is the 780-foot-long (237 m) canopy that will stretch across the expanded traffic lanes. Dozens of large solar panels atop the covering and along its sides will capture rays from the sun. The canopy itself will be made of ethylene tetrafluoroethylene, or ETFE, a plastic known for its ability to radiate heat.

“Because ETFE is also translucent, it allows for natural light to reach the ground and eliminates the need for artificial lighting during the day,” says Denise Fong, a principal at Lynwood, Washington–based Candela, a lighting and electrical design firm. Fong says the energy captured from the sun will be supplemented by an intricate “geoexchange system,” which draws heat from the ground and puts it through a high-tech pump to warm workers and travelers in the winter and cool them in the summer.

The photovoltaic system alone will yield 12.3 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy each year, Miller Hull’s Curtis says, while its on-site geoexchange system will eventually generate all the power needed to heat and cool the facility.

The canopy is also an integral part of the project’s visual aesthetics. Curtis says it will be topped by four 100-foot-tall (30.5 m) masts “that will welcome residents and visitors into the United States.

“The land port is the first thing that millions of people will see as they enter our country, and we want to make a good impression,” he adds.

Curtis likes to call SYLPOE “the port of the future.” Some have even likened the masts to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, which welcomed generations of newcomers from Europe.

The project’s water-saving features are equally important in thirsty southern California, Curtis says. The region’s water supply for new homes and commercial buildings already badly lagged demand when construction started to boom around 2000, and countless projects were delayed or even canceled a few years later because there was not enough water for new developments. The recent uptick in construction, though welcomed by builders and businesses, aggravates the region’s water problems. The massive San Ysidro project cannot solve the region’s water shortage, experts say, but it will not worsen it and may even make it better.

A 400,000-gallon (1,514 kl) cistern at the San Ysidro checkpoint will begin capturing some of San Diego’s average 11 inches (28 cm) of rainwater each year, while a separate system will recycle drinking water from fountain and sink drains. After it is processed through an on-site “membrane bioreactor”—a huge tank that helps clear out bacteria—the blackwater will be used to irrigate SYLPOE’s new drought-resistant plants, to flush toilets, and for other maintenance purposes.

The 28 million gallons (105,991 kl) that the system will save each year would be enough to support 503 people or 230 households, the GSA’s Ciprazo says.

Funding Questions

Some of the project’s pedestrian-oriented features have already been completed, and work on the northbound vehicle-inspection system is expected to be finished by the end of next year. But the final phases of the project—including the new pedestrian-inspection facility, the public plaza, the administrative building, and the widening of Interstate 5—have not been funded yet by the federal government, Ciprazo says. A lot is riding on Congress’s decision about funding. The final phase would add nine new lanes with 17 inspection booths—a crucial step if the GSA is to meet its goal of cutting the wait time at the border down to 30 minutes from the current two hours.

Though the federal government’s financial woes could put pressure on the GSA to downsize the project, some experts say that there is an equally good chance that the quest for the additional money could get a boost from another major concern: the federal government’s push to improve national security in the wake of 9/11. “It’s a key crossing for drugs, human-smuggling, and potential terrorists,” says one official from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), speaking on condition of anonymity. “Needless to say, there are important security [related] mechanisms built into the San Ysidro plan.” The INS spokesperson will not elaborate on what those safety features will be, but says the translucent nature of the canopy that will stretch across the new lanes and inspection stations will make it a bit easier for border agents to survey activity from above.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is also on board with San Ysidro’s improvements. It recently opened a new office adjacent to the facility to process applicants for its Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection program—commonly referred to as SENTRI—which allows people who first pass a series of tests and background checks to get an identification card and a special license plate that lets them breeze through the port’s inspection lanes.

Newly elected California State Senator Ben Hueso introduced a resolution in Sacramento earlier this year calling upon the federal government—including the Department of Homeland Security and the GSA—to fund the remaining $285 million needed to complete SYLPOE’s final phases. But no such bill had been introduced in Congress by early spring, and matters could become even more complicated if federal lawmakers do not settle on a long-term budget plan.

“We obviously need the money to get the job completed,” says Curtis. “We’re just trying to make the border-crossing experience as fast, secure, and enjoyable as possible.” With cross-border trading between California and Mexico alone totaling nearly $200 billion each year, he adds, “there’s a lot riding on the completion of this project.”

In addition to the design by the Miller Hull Partnership, Seattle-based Magnusson Klemencic was hired to handle structural duties, while Interface Engineering of Portland, Oregon, performed the mechanical and electrical tasks. Los Angeles–based AECOM designed the drought-resistant landscaping plan, and Candela worked on the lighting. O’Brien & Associates of Seattle served as the LEED consultant. Broomfield, Colorado–based Atkinson Construction was the general contractor for the first pedestrian bridge that was completed in 2011, while Greeley, Colorado–based Hensel Phelps Construction is handling the ongoing construction of the northbound vehicle-inspection component that is scheduled to be finished next year.