Miguel Buenrostro is enjoying the morning sunshine at Praga, a nice sidewalk café between Fourth and Fifth streets on the east side of Avenida Revolución, the main thoroughfare of downtown Tijuana. A decade ago, the posh café would've stood out amid the gritty Mexican curio shops, pharmacies and cheap restaurants and bars catering to the tourists who once flocked to the street.
Nowadays, spiffed-up spots like Praga are fairly common on Revolución. Plenty of the older touristy businesses remain, but, as the well-known story goes, the drug war in Mexico has seriously damaged Tijuana's reputation. While tourism in Mexico is making a comeback, according to reports by World Travel & Tourism Council and others, Revolución remains a shadow of the bustling destination of its heyday. Empty storefronts and abandoned eyesores abound.
"The past is the past," says Buenrostro, who, along with his partners, is in the process of transforming the old Mexicoach Station building, an old bus station, into HUB STN, a co-working space geared toward entrepreneurs working in both Tijuana and San Diego (along with startup business offices and a communal workspace, the place will also house a gallery focused on architecture and urbanism and a multimedia room for film screenings).
Buenrostro, a passionate 30-year-old filmmaker and photographer, says he's tired of the telling and retelling of Tijuana's recent history regarding the drug war and the common perception that the city is still mostly seedy and filled with urban decay. He wants people to focus more on the city's future and the mass of young people like him who are reclaiming downtown spaces and opening businesses catering to locals instead of tourists.
"What is happening right now is that these spaces are being transformed into new purposes that are generating a big impact on the city," he says as he heads south on Revolución toward Sixth Street and the iconic Mexicoach building, with its eye-catching stained-glass rooftop. "It's changing . You can see it."
Buenrostro walks past the handful of folks on benches at the entrance of the Mexicoach Station waiting for busses. The building is still a transportation hub, but what once served somewhere around 20,000 people a week now serves just about 200, Buenrostro says.
He blazes by a large, stuffed ostrich, one of the bizarre items for sale at the last remaining curio shop located near the entrance of the large building, and heads back to the stairs leading to the second and third floors. The loud sounds of construction fill the raw space he and his partners are leasing and refurbishing, so he pauses before heading up to the second floor to show off what, come early May, will be HUB STN.
"This building, like any other building on Revolución, was focused only on tourism," he says, pointing to several shuttered storefronts on the first floor. "Tourism stopped . But, eventually, a new type of tourism will come. In our case, entrepreneurial tourism—the people who are interested in the things that are changing the city, not the things that've contributed to the negative cliché of this city."
Buenrostro is a founder of Reactivando Espacios, the initiative that gained international attention when the group helped negotiate with landlords of Pasaje Gómez, a once-abandoned alleyway, and rebranded it as a vibrant cultural district by documenting the potential of the space with film and photography.
These days, however, unless there's a big public event, both of the pasajes sit relatively empty. On a recent visit to Pasaje Gómez, just a handful of shops were open and only a few potential customers trickled through. A similar scene played out across the street at Pasaje Rodríquez, where, thanks to a popular bookstore and a brewery, a few more customers lingered. Buenrostro and a few tenants in the pasajes say the landlords of the alleyway shops began seeing the large number of people at events and raised rents, pushing some tenants out. Another issue is artists renting spaces in the pasajes who refuse to open during normal business hours because there isn't enough foot traffic.
Buenrostro isn't ready to write off the alleyways as failures just yet, but he does admit that, with the Mexicoach project, he and his partners needed to take a new and different approach: focusing on binational startup businesses and entrepreneurs in diverse sectors.
"This building will be revitalized from a more economical point of view," says Buenrostro, who approaches redevelopment as he would approach a documentary film, by first researching the history of the space and then capturing the story of its transformation with film and photos. "We are already leasing spaces, and it isn't even finished yet."
Rene Peralta, a professor at Woodbury School of Architecture and the principal of Generica, an architecture firm in Tijuana, is advising Buenrostro and partners Miguel Marshall of Angel Ventures Mexico and Marco Soto of Startup Weekend Tijuana on how to make HUB STN a sustainable venture. While Peralta is supportive of the project, he has some serious doubts.
"Basically, nothing is going to work downtown until you get a critical mass of people living and working there," Peralta says. "They want to be the saviors of downtown. They have good intentions, and they're doing everything they can to try to make this work."
The big challenge, Peralta says, is an older generation of landlords who own most of the property on Revolución—Mexicoach Station included—and can't see the street becoming anything but a tacky tourist destination. They don't see the value of lowering rent or redeveloping their spaces for entrepreneurial or creative ventures, he says.
Buenrostro knows that asking property owners to take a chance on new entrepreneurs for the greater good of the city is a hard sell. It was difficult to initially convince the landlords of Pasaje Gómez to lower rents in order to allow creatives to move in, but he thinks startup businesses and entrepreneurs from both sides of the border will help ensure HUB STN's longterm viability.
"Entrepreneurs want to contribute to the whole revitalization of downtown," he says. "They know the value of what it's generating."
From 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday, April 30, 12 architects will give a lecture, "The New Architecture of Tijuana," at HUB STN (1025 Av. Revolución).