San Antonio architect Rick Archer leads project to build park on both sides of Rio Grande

Binational River Park

Amid calls to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, Rick Archer is working to build a park.

Archer — a local architect and CEO of Overland Partners, a design firm — is leading an effort to draw plans for the Binational River Park, which would span 6.3 miles along both sides of the Rio Grande between Laredo and its sister city of Nuevo Laredo in Mexico.

With an estimated budget of $500 million, the project is in its conceptual phase. It is expected to include hike-and-bike trails, soccer fields, playgrounds and an amphitheater spanning both sides of the river so that visitors in both countries could enjoy the same concert at once.

The project would also conserve the “profoundly polluted” Rio Grande, Archer said. As part of it, Nuevo Laredo would stop dumping sewage into the river, and invasive species such as the Carrizo cane — a fast-growing plant — would be removed.

In February, the city of Laredo hired Overland and a Laredo-based firm, Able City, to craft the master plan. The first phase, a sanctuary for monarch butterflies, could break ground in December, Archer said.

The park will require political support from both sides of the border, and perhaps more ominously, from both sides of the aisle. But Archer is up for the challenge; he is the son of Bill Archer, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 30 years representing Texas’ Seventh District as a Republican.

“With my dad being a well-known Republican, I think it’s been a real advantage,” he said. “This is a nonpartisan issue. This is not about a wall. It’s about thinking differently about our border.”

The project has secured $2 million in federal funding for conservation work. Archer expects to raise the rest of the budget through a mix of public and private sources in the U.S. and Mexico. In August, he traveled to Mexico City as part of a delegation from Laredo and Nuevo Laredo to rally support among business and government leaders.

He recently sat with the Express-News to discuss the politics of architecture, the ecology of the Rio Grande and how the park could actually enhance security along the border. The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Rick Archer is CEO and a founding partner of architecture firm Overland Partners, whose corporate office is in downtown San Antonio.
William Luther, Staff Photographer / Staff photographer

Q: How did you become interested in architecture?

A: I decided at the age of 12 to become an architect. I love to make things and to draw and to create. My dad was a politician, and I went to architecture in some ways to get away from politics. And I found that it’s highly political. I’ve been well-equipped for that part of the work.

Q: Your father’s work as a politician didn’t appeal to you?

A: I felt like I was a very different person, and like most kids, wanting to differentiate myself. I had a lot of amazing experiences because of the position he held – getting to spend time in the Congress, understand the political process, how laws are passed. It was an incredible education. But I really saw myself more as an artist. I think what’s been interesting, as I’ve gotten older, I find myself often gravitating to highly public and politically charged projects.

Q: Did your father hope you’d go into politics?

A: He never expressed that. I think today he would say this is a very different political world. I don’t know that he would wish it on his son at this point. Back when he was in Congress, people spoke to each other and had civil discourse.

Q: You said that architecture is highly political. How so?

A: Obviously, you have to have interface with government on every single thing you do, whether it’s as simple as getting a permit. Oftentimes — I would say increasingly — there’s community engagement, which can become highly politicized. Neighborhoods have a lot of power. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but it’s really learning how to navigate through complex relational situations and bring people to the table to solve problems together. And I really love doing that.

Overland Partners gave a presentation on Feb. 18 about the 6.3-mile Binational River Park to a group that included U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar, U.S. Consul General for Nuevo Laredo Deanna Kim, the Binational Working Group, and leaders from Laredo and Nuevo Laredo.
Courtesy / Overland Partners

Q: Former President Donald Trump’s signature issue is to build a border wall, and you’re kind of doing the opposite. Is the project political in that way?

A: The mayor of Laredo has called this a “virtual wall.” Without a doubt, the green space that we’re creating on both sides of the border will enhance security. There are very real security concerns. During the time that we’ve been working on this project, the cartel has attacked; in Nuevo Laredo, the consulate was closed for a month. One of the things that a green space does is it creates eyes on the river. It opens up visibility, and it enhances the environment as you’re doing that, so it’s a win-win. We’re not by any means trying to say security on the border is not important. But we are saying we think there are different ways for us to live together in harmony.

As far as the whole political piece of it, having grown up in a Republican household, the things I see happening right now politically don’t feel like the party that I grew up in or that my dad was a part of. I think this park is an incredible example of binational collaboration.

Q: What was the genesis of the project?

A: What’s happened over time, especially in the last decade, is the two cities have kind of turned their backs on the river. The river used to be at the very, very heart. In fact, in the 1800s, for a brief period of time, the city of Laredo and Nuevo Laredo were a country, and it was called the Republic of the Rio Grande. When the border was established between the United States and Mexico, the republic got split in half. So the two communities have seen themselves as being one community. It’s just deeply in their DNA. I think the communities have had in their heart a desire to always figure out, how do we restitch ourselves back together?

A conceptual rendering — developed by Overland Partners Architects in collaboration with Able City — shows the vision for the proposed Binational River Park, which would span 6.3 miles along both sides of the Rio Grande between Laredo and its sister city of Nuevo Laredo.
Courtesy Photo

Q: Does the project have much support among Republicans in the state government? The governor?

A: You know, we haven’t had conversations with the governor. We’ve gotten broad support at the federal level. Sen. (John) Cornyn has been down, has looked at the project. I’m not going to put words in his mouth and say that he would vote for something, but he has been supportive of the project, as have others. We’ve had a number of senators and congressmen down in Laredo to look at the project, and we’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback.

Q: What would you do to improve the Rio Grande?

A: The number one thing is that we’re working extremely closely with Nuevo Laredo on a new sewage system, to get them to stop dumping sewage into the river. They’ve committed $72 million to do that. That’s a really big deal. Number two, we’re committing to eradicate the Carrizo cane, which is an invasive (plant) species sucking water out of the river. Number three, we want to revegetate. We’re working closely with Border Patrol on that. We are going to likely do a series of interventions upstream, which will keep runoff from falling into the river and bringing with it trash and silt.

Q: How long do you expect this project to take?

A: The fastest I could imagine this project happening would be 10 years, but a lot of that depends on political will, funding, how the first phases go. There there are many, many things that go into making these projects work. I’d rather, personally, have a rollout slowly and with a comprehensive vision than try to push something that isn’t fully baked.

Q: Where will the remaining funding come from?

A: I wish I knew the answer to that. It will be a combination of public and private funding. It will be from the United States and Mexico. One of the things that I’ve learned is that the way work is done in Mexico is very different than in the United States. As an example, we’re collaborating with architects in Mexico. Those architects are employed by the city. The project will be built by the city in Mexico. In the United States, our governments turn to the private sector and say, “We’re going to pay you to do this work.” We’re being paid by the city of Laredo; the architects who work for the city of Nuevo Laredo are salaried employees. Mexico will build their side, the United States will build their side. The initial master plan, which is our next step, we will be the lead designers collaborating with our U.S. associates and our Mexican associates. I don’t know how that’s going to be funded yet.

Q: Other news articles have cited the River Walk as a model.

A: I don’t think that’s the right way to think about it for a number of reasons. The River Walk is what, 13 miles long? This is 6.3 miles, half the length. There is no place where you will be able to be on the river like the River Walk is in San Antonio, because the Rio Grande floods. The San Antonio River is a tamed river. That’s not what we’re going to have in Laredo and Nuevo Laredo; it’s going to be continue to be a naturally flowing river. If there’s a part of of the River Walk that it’s like, there’s portions of it that are more like the south reach, that are very natural. There’s a more urbanized section between the two downtowns, which will include the amphitheater, but it is not ever going to have the kind of urban density that you find in San Antonio.

Q: It seems like you’ll have your work cut out for you, having to deal with U.S. politics, Mexican politics, raising the funding, environmental issues and others.

A: For sure. This is a project that is going to take a long time. It’s going to require a lot of partners to get it done. It is not an easy project, but it’s one that is absolutely worth doing, because I think it can be a model for the world of how we can live as neighbors on international borders.

Read the original article on San Antonio Express News

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