Cruz Finds Solutions for Border Living

The San Diego architect and his firm are designing affordable housing for immigrants in a California border town

San Diego architect Teddy Cruz, and his firm Estudio Teddy Cruz, have been working along the Mexican border for years. Cruz's newest design is for two affordable housing and community center schemes for immigrants in the border town of San Ysidro, California. The plan was developed with non-profit community center, Casa Familiar, whose client base is mostly Spanish-speaking.

Cruz's inspiration came first from discussions and brainstorming sessions led by Casa Familiar. It also came from a critical approach to the trends in new urbanism, which he says "only address aesthetics, creating a fake facade of difference without considering the lifestyle of the community."  He says the downtown redevelopment of San Diego is an example of this kind of "suburban planning," meaning that he feels it is dressed up in high-end urban aesthetics without addressing zoning policy for higher density or affordable housing options.

The pilot projects, whose rezoning needs were approved by the city last year, will begin construction this summer.   The first, "Living Rooms at the Border", is a mixed-use high-density 14,000-square-foot plan built around an old church. It will be transformed into a community center–including an office for Casa Familiar in the attic.  There will also be 12 housing units, a community garden, and a central market. The second, for senior housing and child care, is connected by an alleyway and includes a semi-public lobby, a restaurant counter, and small private living spaces.

All units will be made up of a series of minimalist, geometric parcels. Roofs will be made of metal and will have an alternating rhythm to their shape in order to supply ventilation and natural light.  Interlocking housing units will be made of poured concrete and wood framing.  Inside each unit will be an open 12-foot cube-shaped space centered around a kitchen or bathroom which can be subdivided with prefab wooden or sheer walls. The senior housing portion of the project will be a repetitive series of masonry concrete walls and wood framing with the lobby walls made of a system of stackable aluminum windows. The existing church space will become a "building within a building" with steel-frame reinforcement inside the wooden structure.

The development gardens and alley pathways are connected by a promenade, and the traditional Mexican plaza in the center is meant to be the focus of public life. The senior center's food counter, built into its front façade, will allow seniors to sell food to locals to earn extra income. Its child center will cater to the many children who are cared for by their grandparents.

Cruz hopes that the approach being used in this project can be a way to think about all border towns.  "We should be turning our attention away from the wall and towards the landscape, the ecology and the communities," he says.  His ultimate goal would be to create a number of urban planning non-profits like Casa Familiar, which speak to the needs of each individual community.   His plans for the future are to improve zoning laws to better address the needs of those who need affordable housing.

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