Duty Free Americas Inc. is proposing a new mixed-use facility with retail and parking elements, designed to complement the federal government’s ongoing $735 million reconfiguration of the international border crossing at San Ysidro.
The federal project is aimed at cutting painfully long crossing times for motorists, and leaders of Florida-based Duty Free Americas said the retailer is looking to bring related services long lacking at that crossing, including parking and restrooms.
“It’s going to be set up as a last-chance place to stop before you actually get into traffic heading south, waiting to cross the border,” said Joe Kearny, senior vice president of business development for Duty Free Americas.
The privately funded mixed-use project would range in cost from $30 million to $50 million, depending on what features are ultimately included, and will be built on about four acres directly adjacent to the San Ysidro crossing. It is not expected to go forward until 2015 or 2016.
Developers in Talks With GSA
Developers are in talks with the U.S. General Services Administration, which is overseeing border crossing improvements, on issues including property acquisitions and project elements, and they hope to have agreements in place within three months, Kearny said.
The development entity is called SYG Venture and is majority owned by Duty Free Americas. At a recent gathering in San Ysidro, company CEO Simon Falic presented preliminary concept designs for a single structure that would have about 4,000 square feet of ground-floor, duty-free retail, at least two levels of parking with about 900 spaces, and a rooftop helipad that could be used for helicopter access by border law enforcement or medical personnel.
If federal officials decide the helipad is not desired or feasible, the rooftop would likely be used instead for additional general parking, Kearny said. The private project would coincide with the third and final phase of the GSA’s work at the crossing, and is designed to replace an existing duty-free store being operated by Duty Free Americas at San Ysidro.
It would also replace most of the 1,500 parking spaces expected to be displaced as work proceeds in coming months on the third phase of the federal crossing project, which has an expected 2018 completion date.
The mixed-use retail and parking project has been designed by Kansas City-based architectural and engineering firm HNTB Corp., whose recent high-profile projects also include the $900 million Green Build renovation at San Diego International Airport and the San Francisco 49ers’s new Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.
Work began in 2011 on improvements to the San Ysidro crossing into Mexico, which federal officials said is the busiest land port of entry in the Western Hemisphere, handling 50,000 northbound vehicles and 25,000 northbound pedestrians daily.
Elements completed so far have included a new southbound pedestrian crossing and the expansion of northbound vehicle-inspection lanes. Plans for upcoming work include the addition of 38 vehicle inspection booths, realignment of a portion of Interstate 5 to connect with El Chaparral, a multimodal transit center, and related enhancements to U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilities.
Crucial to Regional Economy
Along with the Otay Mesa border crossing to the east, which also has improvements in the works, the San Ysidro land port is deemed crucial to the regional economy that includes San Diego and Tijuana.
A 2006 impact study by the San Diego Association of Governments noted that nearly 730,000 trucks travel north across the San Diego County/Baja California ports of entry from Mexico annually, with a similar number crossing southbound.
Also, more than 60 million people, including drivers and pedestrians, cross the border each year, with more than half of the trips for shopping and recreation, and about one-sixth related to commutes to and from work.
Federal officials said the San Ysidro improvements are geared toward reducing southbound vehicle lines and wait times during Customs and Border Protection’s “pulse and surge” inspections, lowering vehicle-idling times and reducing emissions.
In an emailed statement, officials said the General Services Administration “is preparing to enter into good-faith negotiations with a local property owner” to acquire land for the upcoming third phase at San Ysidro, including realignment of the final segment of southbound I-5, and will not be commenting on other elements of that phase.
Based in Hollywood, Florida, Duty Free Americas operates more than 125 stores in the United States and internationally, most of them under the name UETA Duty-Free. The company opened its first local store in 2012 at San Diego International Airport.
The stores, primarily located at airports and border crossings, allow travelers under certain conditions to buy items like liquor, tobacco and cosmetics without paying sales taxes or customs duties.