Juan Mariscal rests a hand on the new walker he started using two days ago. In November, doctors amputated the 64-year-old man’s right leg because of complications from diabetes. During the next three months, as he recovered and learned to use his prosthetic, Mariscal was confined to a wheelchair.
“I couldn’t go anywhere,” he says in a thick Mexican accent. “I couldn’t roll the chair on the sidewalks. Too many bumps and cracks. Many places there are no sidewalks and you have to use the street.” Mariscal worries that doctors might have to amputate his other leg. If they do, he will be back in a wheelchair.
Mariscal sits in the lobby of the San Ysidro Community Service Center, two blocks north of the border crossing, waiting to speak to Councilman David Alvarez about the poor condition of sidewalks. After hearing that District Eight’s new councilmember would be hosting office hours for the south San Diego community, Mariscal caught a bus this morning from his home in north San Ysidro.
“It’s disappointing,” he says. “[The City] puts money where the rich live, but they forget about the poor communities like San Ysidro. Not all of us can afford electric wheelchairs. And that’s what you need to get around here because of the sidewalks. I can’t stay at home and do nothing. I’m not ashamed of being in the chair. I’m ashamed that my wife has to push me. It makes me look weak.”
Mariscal isn’t the only resident upset about San Ysidro’s infrastructure. Community members have complained for decades. Old and inadequate streets and the absence of sidewalks and pedestrian pathways were mentioned in the community plan when it was revised in 1990. Since taking office in early December, Councilman Alvarez says most of the calls he’s received from San Ysidro residents have concerned infrastructure.
“This is supposed to be the international gateway— America’s front door —but look around at the sidewalks and the streets,” he says. “No one really feels like it’s a gateway. How could they?”
Between appointments with constituents, Alvarez walks west from the community service center along Camino de la Plaza, heading for Las Americas outlet mall, on the other side of I-5. As we cross the bridge over the freeway, we can see construction crews working on the new footbridge at the pedestrian port of entry. On the south side of Camino de la Plaza, the sidewalks between the border crossing and the outlet mall are new. Alvarez points to the north side of the street, where a section of sidewalk is missing.
As he looks at the dirt, Alvarez says he can understand why some residents accuse the City of favoring the more affluent neighborhoods. “There is some truth to that,” he says, “but it’s also true that many of those wealthier areas are newer than San Ysidro. This is an old neighborhood.”
The councilmember thinks that part of the problem is geography. Annexed to the city in 1957, San Ysidro and its neighboring South San Diego communities are nearly 20 miles south of downtown, separated from the rest of San Diego by Chula Vista and National City.
To make matters worse, the City forecasts a $56.7 million budget deficit for next year. This year the budget for the Capital Improvements Program, the source of funding for new sidewalks, was $153 million less than it was last year.
The City’s Street Division estimates the deferred maintenance on street pavement at $377 million, according to an audit report on street maintenance released in November 2010. The report said that 17 percent of the streets are in “poor condition.” A study conducted by TRIP, a national transportation research group, found that 50 percent of San Diego’s roads are in poor condition. The city was ranked eighth highest in the nation in substandard road conditions for urban areas of 500,000 people or more.
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that curb cuts be built into newly constructed sidewalks. In 2002, an appeals court concluded that the act’s “prohibition of discrimination in the provision of public services applies to the maintenance of public sidewalks.” The case, Barden vs. Sacramento, concerned curb cuts and access to sidewalks already constructed. Although the City of San Diego had initially joined Sacramento in the suit, in late 2002, then–city attorney Casey Gwinn withdrew his support. “It was said…that this is a civil rights issue, and I agree with you,” Gwinn told a group of disability rights advocates. “This is about civil rights.”
Despite the legal position taken by San Diego’s city attorney, the infrastructure backlog continues to grow. And while it does, many of the 28,000 residents living in San Ysidro believe their community has been particularly neglected. “I think of [capital improvement funds] like an hourglass. Money flows from top to bottom. I consider San Ysidro to be the neck of the hourglass,” says Steve Otto, who’s a member of the San Ysidro Community Planning Group and the former executive director of the San Ysidro Business Association, a business improvement district.
Spending on infrastructure in San Ysidro is hard to find in the City’s budget. One project, the West San Ysidro Streetscape project, calls for sidewalk improvements. However, despite beginning project design in 2004, the General Services Department has not yet identified funding for the project.
“The City’s Capital Improvements Program money is held pretty close to the vest,” says Otto. “Not very much of that money finds its way down to San Ysidro.”
Consequently, Otto and other residents have turned to the City’s Redevelopment Agency, which was created to “alleviate conditions of urban blight,” according to the City’s website. They have met with some success. The San Ysidro Redevelopment Project Area comprises business districts near the border. Since 2008, the Redevelopment Agency has allocated $600,000 for new streetlights along East San Ysidro Boulevard.
Lobbying the Redevelopment Agency, however, may no longer be an option if Governor Jerry Brown is successful in his effort to help balance the state’s budget by dismantling each of the state’s 425 redevelopment agencies.
Currently, Otto is heading a planning group subcommittee that is focused on improving the condition of streets and sidewalks. The group has identified 6.35 miles of streets that need to be repaved and 6175 linear feet of sidewalks missing or in disrepair. But that is only a fraction of the total work needed in San Ysidro.
During the subcommittee’s February 4 meeting, subcommittee member and planning group chair Michael Freedman spoke about the importance of identifying needed improvements. At the same time, he expressed frustration that, despite identifying projects, San Ysidro’s list of needed improvements continues to grow. “If projects are not included in the City’s Capital Improvements Program, then it’s very difficult to get any funding,” he said. “But here we are still waiting for projects to get done that we identified 18 years ago.”
Two hours after his meeting with Councilmember Alvarez, Juan Mariscal sits outside his wife Irma’s small apparel store, El Regalo, on West San Ysidro Boulevard. Mariscal doubts that San Ysidro’s infrastructure will ever catch up to the rest of the city’s.
He points north. “You see, there is sidewalk there, and then it stops. It’s nothing but dirt.”