Located in the heart of San Ysidro, the white stucco church that once housed Nuestra Señora de Monte Carmelo — Our Lady of Mount Carmel — stands as a symbol of the border town’s rich history and culture.
Built in 1927, the landmark is set to become the centerpiece of a small affordable housing project that will include spaces for services and programs geared toward the predominantly Latino community.
“We want to integrate [the church] because of the huge historical significance in the community. It’s seen as an icon in San Ysidro,” said Teddy Cruz of Estudio Teddy Cruz + Fonna Forman, a research-based political and architecture firm that designed the project with Casa Familiar, a social services organization.
“We believe that culture exists in a community — that you don’t bring culture to a community,” said David Flores, Casa Familiar’s community development director.
Construction at the site on West Hall Avenue, just west of the San Ysidro Community Park, is expected to begin in October.
Cruz and Flores said they consider the small-scale development an important model for other housing projects in small communities such as San Ysidro — one that puts residents’ needs first and aims to spur community engagement.
Plans for the $8.7-million project, named Living Rooms at the Border, include 10 apartments — four three-bedroom units, three two-bedroom units and three one-bedroom units. Rents are estimated to be between $900 and $1,800.
“In neighborhoods like San Ysidro, housing cannot just be units on their own,” said Cruz, a public culture and urbanization professor at UC San Diego. “They need to be embedded in an infrastructure of social, cultural, educational and economic programming.”
To that end, plans call for the church to be restored and used for visual arts and theater programs run by Teatro Mascara Magica and UC San Diego. The space, which will be renamed el Salon, or the Hall, will include a recording studio.
Plans also include an open-air pavilion called Casa Patio, where the university intends to put on art-related programs and activities for the community.
“This is about developing programs, developing participation and developing engagement,” Cruz said.
Also included in the plans are five office spaces, reserved primarily for community services. Casa Familiar intends to use two spaces to offer immigration services and a third to house a coffee cart, which would provide barista jobs to young people.
Casa Familiar has not designated a use for the two other office spaces, although the nonprofit has considered leasing to San Ysidro Health for a small clinic.
Cruz and Flores said they hope the the project encourages more urban development in San Ysidro and beyond.
“It’s about respecting the small-scale fabric of the historic center, the heart of San Ysidro,” Cruz said.
The project dates from 2000, when Casa Familiar purchased the land on which the church stands. In 2001, Casa Familiar bought an adjacent property, with a ramshackle house on it.
Cruz pointed to various aspects that contributed to the time frame of the project.
“This is not a developer-driven project, which from the beginning has budgets and a process all in place,” he said. “For this project, Casa Familiar has to construct a process: advocating for the right housing agenda, fundraising for acquiring land, approaching policymakers to raise awareness about the relations between housing and social services, and developing outreach efforts in collaboration with others like UCSD and foundations. To put in place the right financial composition that could support an unorthodox housing project.”
The project was one of five selected by the city of San Diego as part of a development planning effort called the City of Villages initiative. The initiative began in 2002 but fell apart. Despite the loss of support from the city, Casa Familiar moved forward with the project.
In 2010, the project gained national attention after it was showcased as part of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Casa Familiar, which has developed six housing projects, including two in National City, received funding for the project from the PARC Foundation and Civic San Diego’s New Market Tax Credit program.
The project is expected to be completed in a year.