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High-Rise Hopes Just South Of Border

— Imagine a high-rise condominium offering views of downtown San Diego, the bay, and the Pacific Ocean. Each condo features granite in the kitchen, tile in the bathrooms, and wood trim throughout. The 25-story building stands in a gated complex patrolled 24 hours a day by private security guards. The resort-style grounds have swimming pools, tennis courts, putting greens, a gym, and a day-care center. A "skybar" occupies the top floor of the building. And you can have all this for between $155,000 and $190,000.

Such a place doesn't exist in San Diego, you say. But less than a mile south of the border, in Tijuana's Zona Río, a Panamanian developer who made his fortune in Mexico City and now lives in San Diego sells three such condos per day to Tijuanenses and San Diegans alike.

Well, sort of. Except for two model units, these condominiums don't exist in Tijuana either. Right now, the corner of Paseo Centenario and Manuel Márquez León is little more than eight and a half acres of mud and the low concrete building that houses the models and a sales office. But when developer Moisés Abadi looks at those eight-plus acres, he sees seven condominium towers separated from the city by 12-foot walls. When they're built, they'll be the seven tallest buildings in Tijuana.

Stylishly dressed in olive green slacks and a black jacket, Abadi, a slim, clean-cut man in his mid-50s, leads a visitor through the two-bedroom, 1500-square-foot model, which sells for $155,000, and then through the 2000-square-foot, three-bedroom model. "This one is $180,000," he says as he settles into the leather couch in the living room. "More, with upgrades."

In a soft yet commanding style punctuated with one-liners and anecdotes, Abadi, chief executive of TrueStone Properties, explains the philosophy behind the project he calls New City. "We are not just selling condominiums here. This is a way of living, it is a way of living that we are already living in Mexico City because of safety reasons."

Two years ago, Total Shield, an automobile-armoring business from Mexico City, opened an office in Tijuana. Fear of kidnapping and carjacking fuels the business they've been doing since. Abadi feels the same fear of crime will help him sell another Mexico City concept to Tijuanenses. "Around 1992," he says, "when the situation in Mexico City started getting a little wrong, people started moving out of their huge houses into complexes like this one we are building here. People started realizing that their houses were not the way of living anymore. And houses that used to sell in a moment for three or four million dollars, today they sell for less than a million. Nobody wants to buy them because of safety. Now, here in Tijuana, the situation is getting a little unsafe too."

But unlike in Mexico City, where the rich are moving from the center of town to New City-type developments on the outskirts, buyers at New City, Abadi says, cite the convenience of its central location as a reason they're buying. "Tijuana is getting inconvenient," he explains. "This city used to have a population of 500,000 to 600,000. Now it is 2.4 or 2.5 million people. To live in a nice area, you cannot buy here in the urban area anymore. You have to go to the outside. But the roads and the traffic are not so nice as they used to be. So for us, now is a time that we can start building some downtown condos, like in San Diego."

There are other differences between the condominiums Abadi sells in Mexico City and his Tijuana development. "In Mexico City," he explains, "they're a little bigger than these. There, we usually design from 2800 to around 4000 square feet, minimum. It is a bigger city, with a higher standard."

The larger Mexico City condos sell for $500,000 to $700,000. Abadi figured Tijuanenses would not pay that kind of money so he decided on 1500- and 2000-square-foot units. The first phase of the design calls for two towers of 100 units each -- four to a floor -- at those sizes. "I was surprised," he admits, "that the people were searching for something bigger than these. Some have even bought two apartments and asked if we could join them together because they needed more space. The first two towers have already been designed, so they will be these two sizes. But the third tower, we are changing it to apartments of 2500 to 3000 square feet and only 75 per tower, three per floor. So instead of being seven towers of 100 units each, it is going to be just two towers of 100 and the other five towers of 75, so it will reduce the population density."

For 16 years, the land that New City is being built on was the subject of an ownership dispute between a federal government housing agency called Infonavit and a wealthy family from Monterrey, Mexico. "So I sat them together," Abadi says, "and we paid each one an amount of money."

Abadi declines to disclose the amounts paid to each side. With the land in his possession, he next approached the municipal government for approval. He was surprised at how receptive officials were. "In Mexico City and in the States," he explains, "we have a huge problem because of permits and licenses to build something. We buy a property in the area of Spring Valley near Bonita to build 20 houses -- I've had that project for two and a half years -- but I cannot build one house because the permits are impossible. And now they are telling me that the property has a wetland area. In Mexico City, every time I need to do something, it takes me also from one to three years for the permits and all the licenses and everything. Here in Tijuana we have found that these people want to promote investors such as myself to develop things. I first contacted them less than a year ago, and already we're selling models."

In two months, Abadi and his staff of attractive saleswomen sold 110 condominiums, mostly to Mexicans but a few to Americans, despite the fact that New City hasn't been marketed in the United States. "There have been a lot of Americans coming through, we don't know from where."

As Abadi talks, one of his sales agents leads an English-speaking couple into the model condominium for a tour. Jeff Cranford and his wife, who is Mexican, live in North Park, but their children attend school in Tijuana not far from the New City development. Cranford, a U.S. Customs agent, says he saw a billboard for New City just south of the border while bringing his kids to school one day. He and his wife came back for a visit and, he says, "We were blown away. We've looked at condos and townhomes around North Park, and some of the condos are running $500,000 to $600,000, and you are not getting anything. So we saw this place and saw how nice the models look, plus all of the amenities, for $180,000. It was unbelievable. We came back today to meet with the bank to talk about financing."

Abadi says Americans will be able to buy New City condos with U.S. financing, which is offered at far lower rates than Mexican financing. Mexican law stipulates that foreigners can't own real estate within 50 kilometers of the coast and 100 kilometers of the border. Property, including condominiums, in that "restricted zone" must be purchased through a bank trust. Abadi says that's a good thing because trusts make ownership simpler and cheaper. "As a Mexican," he explains, "every time you buy or sell property you have to pay taxes. With a trust, you don't pay those taxes."

Not that Abadi wants speculators buying his condominiums only to resell them or rent them out. Renting will not be allowed. And when it comes to selling, "We will have the first option to buy it back from you. If we don't want to buy it, we will let you put it on the market, but for a minimum price."

Controlling the buying and selling of the condominiums will allow Abadi and his associates to control the type of customer who buys into New City. "We cannot discriminate," he is quick to point out. "Mexican law won't allow it. But when we see somebody that we don't like, we try to give him a little hard time about the possibilities of paying and buying here. If he is able to pay, then it gets a little bit more complicated. But Mexico is not like the United States. Here when people see that we aren't looking at them in the right way, they will say, 'This is not for us.' Mexican people live where they feel they will be comfortable with the people around them."

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