Interview and transcript courtesy of Fronteras. Full episode can be found here: https://www.tpr.org/podcast/fronteras/2022-06-24/fronteras-two-nation-one-riveproposed-binational-river-park-will-connect-los-dos-laredos?fbclid=IwAR1AURJ9UASzByymZeR6Wr1t2AqNL48u6nX0jrbahX1cCBdj3mz5MRzQDmc
Welcome to Fronteras, a program that explores issues at the border and beyond through the lens of arts, culture and history. I’m NM with Texas Public Radio in San Antonio.
Border communities are anything but divided. Invisible international lines, concrete monuments, border fences, or rivers can’t break up the ties that have connected families for generations.
Some efforts on the U.S.-Mexico border have resulted in shared land and park space to symbolize unity across international lines.
The Chamizal National Memorial on the El Paso border, and its corresponding Chamizal park in Ciudad Juarez, are symbols of the resolution of a boundary dispute that resulted when the Rio Grande shifted its course and brought into question what was the U.S. and what was Mexico. A border wall now divides the two Chamizales.
Friendship Park is on the border between San Diego & Tijuana. Its amiable intentions are scarred by a border wall that stretches into the Pacific Ocean. The park is freely accessible in Mexico, but restricted on the U.S. side by San Diego Border Patrol.
A proposed binational park adjoining Laredo & Nuevo Laredo will be unlike any other.
The 6.2-mile-long Binational River Park would strengthen the ties between “los dos Laredos” — the Two Laredos. The mission statement for the park emphasizes “Two Nations. One Community. One River. One Park.”
It was conceived in 2021 and championed by U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar, Mexico’s Ambassador to the U.S. Esteban Moctezuma, other binational governmental officials, and a public-private Binational Working Group.
We’re joined today by Rick Archer, Overland founding partner and senior principal on the project…and by project manager and Overland architect, Barbara Warren.
Representing Able City are Frank Rotnofsky, partner and co-founder of Able City…and Viviana Frank-Franco, architect and co-founder of Able City.
Representing the Binational Working Group is Tricia Cortez, executive director of the Rio Grande International Study Center in Laredo.
Cortez says the idea for the park comes at a time when federal officials have halted plans to divide “los dos Laredos” with a border wall. The proposed park will unify what has always been one community.
TRICIA CORTEZ: And that’s what makes this project so special and why it really resonates so deeply with us, because we have a chance to tell our story of ourselves on the border and not have somebody come in from the outside and dictate to us what that is going to be like. So, through this project, we’re able to come up with all of the ideas and everything that’s needed to do what this park is wanting to do, which is ecological restoration of this endangered, highly distressed river system, and secondly, help spur our economy by creating a really extraordinary landmark. And thirdly, it’s to weave in border security. This is a fundamental part of this project on both sides, on the Laredo side and on the Nuevo Laredo side. And we’re doing this in a way that is not destructive. We’re doing this in a way that is much more open to the desires and needs of our community. And so, it’s sort of the antithesis of what was called for prior to the river and the land along the river.
NORMA: Well, I want to talk to you next, Frank Rotnofsky and Viviana Franco with Able City. The both of you are based in Laredo, so you know firsthand what the community needs on both sides of the border. Like Tricia was mentioning, border security. But it’s also ecology restoration. It’s embracing cultural identity. Can you let us know what Able City is doing and to contribute to this project?
FRANK ROTNOFSKY: Obviously, being here for over 30 years and working on this river — primarily on the on the Laredo side, being architects and planners on this side — we had a lot of insight that we could bring to the group. But it was just an amazing effort on everyone’s part. I do want to say one thing about this park, that, yes, maybe there are National River Parks and maybe even binational national, but I don’t think there’s any park in the world as special as this one with the history and the story. And it, of course, always begins with the river itself, the Rio Grande. And we all like to say, number one, if we can’t environmentally address the river, there’s no park. And number two, it’s a very special area because as you mentioned, there’s a lot of other narratives about what the border is about — what it should be or what it isn’t. But not too many people know the history of this place. It was founded because of the Rio Grande and that goes back to Native Americans settling here. It was later taken over by Spanish colonization. And not many people know this — we talk about Texas being under Six Flags, but Laredo and Nuevo Laredo actually flew under a seventh flag. We were our own country for almost a year, known as the Republic of the Rio Grande. And so, this community was always one. And then it was basically divided in the Treaty of Guadalupe (Hidalgo) in 1848. And then overnight, not only did this become two cities, it became two countries. So, the beauty of this project is — at least symbolically — bringing back our two cities as one and continuing that spirit where this border community has always been on to itself. It’s the largest land port in the Western Hemisphere. So, there’s, there’s a lot of activity. But we’ve been divided by the river. And so, this project, you know, brings us full circle and, and so that’s how we have been involved in it. (Viviana?)
VIVIANA FRANK-FRANCO: So, two points. As a park … I mean, it evokes a place of recreation, to go and have a nice day in the park. But this is truly a conservation system that is the reason that this park is different from all the other attempts. And it’s also timely because of all the environmental social issues that we have today, the challenges that we have today. And as a border typology of a city… Basically the closest member that we have as a border city typology is maybe El Paso, but the river is a trickle there. And here also the city grew parallel on both sides of the river because of the way the river turns east-west at the bend, which is a very prominent part of this project. And in essence speaks to why this city developed or these cities developed the way they did and why this place particularly is different and has the opportunity to show the world how to live on a border, especially one that is divided by a natural resource and be able to coexist in this one ecosystem. It’s a very timely project in that in that respect. A lot of lessons will be learned from the political limitations that happened just simply because it’s an international border separating two countries in the middle of a river. But there’s many discussions around the world with borders and how to create structures and systems that kind of transcend that boundary. And we’re about to do the first one on the Texas-Mexican border.
NORMA: So I want to move next to Rick Archer and Barbara Warren with Overland Partners. Overland is based in San Antonio, so it’s really not too far away from Laredo, but San Antonio can influence some of these ideas that are being developed now in Laredo, mainly because of San Antonio’s River Walk. So, Rick, can you maybe give us a little bit of a background on how it’s really going to be making a difference in developing this part of this project?
RICK ARCHER Sure. One of the interesting things about the San Antonio- Laredo relationship is that (the) two cities actually have a very symbiotic relationship with one another. Our economies are deeply linked. Most of the imports that are coming through the trade that’s coming across the bridges in Laredo is going up I-35 to San Antonio. And so, the two cities have been very, very connected for hundreds of years. Our political leadership, the San Antonio River Authority, our mayor’s office, our county, have all been advisors to the city of Laredo and Nuevo Laredo about this project. And we really see the success of Laredo and Nuevo Laredo being integrally tied to San Antonio’s success. Certainly, San Antonio is an example, with a 13-mile-long river park. But what’s interesting is in San Antonio, the park system around our river is about 800 acres. And in Laredo, it’s a thousand acres. The length of the park is about half what it is in San Antonio, They’re very similar in scale. And there are parts of the Rio Grande which will be like the southern reach, the Mission Reach of the river in San Antonio, which will be nature preserve. There are parts that will be more urban, not quite the River Walk, certainly in the heart of San Antonio, but an urban stretch of the river as the Rio Grande/ Bravo runs through the heart of downtown. And then there’s the recreational zone as it moves to the south and east. And so, we are learning both physically from the way San Antonio has restored the river, but also structurally for how the projects put together have been funded, been organized and managed.
NORMA: Well, Barbara, you’re the project manager for this project. It’s a 6.2-mile project. Are you and the other architects in Overland and with Able City … What kind of challenges are you facing on the 6.2-mile stretch, because I’m assuming there’s going to have to be quite a bit of infrastructure that’s going to have to be installed or updated with the view towards conservation as well.
BARBARA WARREN Right. There are a lot of challenges. In looking back at your previous question, I think that there’s a lot of similarities and things that we can learn from the San Antonio River Authority and the way San Antonio built this development on the river. But at the same time, looking at the binational river park, there’s on top of that, all these layers of extra just considerations in terms of security, in terms of having the two countries, and most of all having an international boundary right down the middle of the river. And so when we talk about challenges, I think that that is perhaps one of the biggest ones. So, for example, anything that we do in improvements, whatever we do along the river, has to go through CILA and IBWC, which is the regulating body over the river (that would be the International Boundary and Water Commission). Correct. CILA is Comicion Internacional de Limites de Auga. And so, when we have to consider that, on top of economics of the park, the security aspects, just how we’re bringing community together, any improvements that we do need to do apply so that we don’t change this boundary line at all. And so, that’s one of the biggest challenges that we have to do from the technical aspect as we develop the park. And then, I also wanted to bring up water conservation is, I think, the heart of this development, making sure that the river comes back to being healthy and long lasting for years to come in our community in Laredo and Nuevo Laredo. And so, the work has already started. And Nuevo Laredo has invested a large amount of money through several programs to make sure that the water is clean.
Barbara Warren is an architect with Overland Partners and is the project manager for the Binational River Park Project.
We’re also talking to Overland senior principal on the project, Rick Archer…with Frank Rotnofsky and Viviana Frank-Franco, co-founders of the architectural firm Able City…and with Tricia Cortez, a member of the public-private consortium that makes up the Binational River Park Working Group.
When we come back…there can be no binational river park without conservation of the Rio Grande.
This river feeds 6 million people and it is our only source of drinking water.
…our conversation continues next on Fronteras.
Welcome back to Fronteras. I’m NM.
Today, we’re talking about the ambitious plans for a binational park that will span 6.2 miles and over a thousand acres between the border cities of Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo in Mexico.
The Binational River Park isn’t just meant to be a symbol that unifies the community. It’s a huge environmental project.
The park would include a 2.5-mile-long ecological restoration area. It will feature roadways and trails.
Wetlands and riparian vegetation would have to be restored. Some native plant species would need to be scaled back to improve visibility for border security purposes.
Wastewater flow into the Rio Grande would have to be reduced or eliminated.
Mexico has committed 72-million-dollars to address river pollution and waste water management related to the Rio Bravo – which is what the river is called in Mexico.
Today we’re talking to several individuals involved in designing the park: Rick Archer & Barbara Warren of Overland Partners…Frank Rotnofsky & Viviana Frank-Franco of Able City…and with Tricia Cortez, who’s part of a public-private Binational Working Group that’s working hand-in-hand with these design firms.
Rick Archer of Overland Partners says the Binational River Park is a conservation project first…and there can be no park without first conserving the river.
RICK: There’s no cities without conservation of the river because it is the sole water source, drinking water source, for over 6 million people in this region. And the fact that the river has not been loved and well cared for now for many, many years, this is the time, this is the place to reverse the course of that and to secure a prosperous future for both of these cities for generations to come.
NORMA You were mentioning about the water and the conservation of the river, but I want to bring in Frank and or Viviana, whichever one of you wants to tackle this question. Laredo has had its water problems here in the last couple of years. Is that something that’s going to have to be resolved prior to taking on the conservation project or is that something that you are working with the Laredo utilities? Or is that a completely separate issue?
FRANK: It’s all connected. It all starts with the Rio Grande, like Rick said. This river feeds 6 million people and it is our only source of drinking water. And if we don’t fix the river — and yes, there are water distribution problems and other things that other cities face, we’re facing them here as well — but ultimately, it’s as Viviana says, it’s the ultimate tap. And we’re not caring for it the way it needs to be taken care of.
VIVIANA: Right. It’s not a very sexy way of putting it, but it is our main water pipe. And that is what people need to understand mostly when they evaluate this project is that without dealing with our only major water source in a manner that preserves it for generations, fixing of the pipes is a is a temporary action in the long run. We have a discussion here a lot every time it comes up, we don’t have a secondary water source, but we haven’t even fixed the primary water source to be able to preserve it.
RICK: I think it’s important though to note that the city is committed to fixing the pipes as well (Viviana: Absolutely.) So, they are, as Frank said, it’s an integrated water system from the river to the treatment plants to distribution to how we treat it and release it back into the river. (It will) have to be addressed holistically.
TRICIA: I just wanted to add to that that this is our moment. This is our chance to make this sort of ground zero for how to do it right and how to make sure we’re incorporating all of these very important elements together in one project. And hopefully we can be a binational model for other cities in Texas, especially along the Rio Grande, for how to plan for the future. It’s really important to note that the city of Laredo put out a preliminary projection that showed that we only have 18 years left with the river — until 2040 — as our sole source of drinking water for the first time since 1755. That’s mind boggling. And so, this park, through the restoration and conservation aspects that it’s going to undertake and working with the major creeks also that feed into the river, we want this to be a launching pad for how we invest in the river and its tributaries in order to secure the long-term future of it and extend that 18-year deadline by many, many, many more years into the future.
NORMA: Barbara, did you have anything to add?
BARBARA: Yeah. So, Trish touched exactly on what I was going to say, which is… this is one of hopefully the whole stretch of the Rio Grande, because this is this is the first of its kind. What we’re trying to do is to weave all of these topics that have independent sources of money and funds into one holistic project so that they can strengthen each other. So, when we’re talking about the funds for security or we’re talking about the funds for ecology, all of these would support each other to make a better sum of the parts into this beautiful restoration of the Rio Grande did in Laredo. And hopefully once this is established — the ambassador is pushing for this — it could be a model for all the way from Matamoros to California and maybe beyond. So, that’s why we all think this project is so important.
NORMA: Tricia, we were talking earlier about border security and obviously, the Rio Grande is the international divider between (the) U.S. and Mexico. But there are plans for sort of a shared binational bridge. Are there plans to have kind of like a safe zone that’s customs-free prior to people wanting to cross from one side to another?
TRICIA: So this is like a dream. And I think the design team folks here can speak more eloquently to that. But, as part of this process, we’ve been speaking with the port director, with customs, and (the) Border Patrol to think that through and be aspirational and think big, and think in a way where we could do something like that and what would that take? And how can we do it safely and meeting all security requirements? So, yes, this, Norma, would be a dream. And it’s something that we are having these conversations about with the right folks. I think maybe somebody from the design team could speak more to the details on that.
RICK: I’ll jump in on that. (All right, Rick) When the design team was hired, the two cities, the two nations had aspirations to create a place that would be shared. But initially, it was thought of, frankly, a little bit almost as a political statement about the fact that we can’t crossover. And so, we raised the question, can we actually do something that might begin to solve that problem? That could imagine a place where families could be reunited? Where you could hold weddings or quinceañeras or marketplaces? Where the kind of vibrant life that the two cities had enjoyed for centuries could be restored? And we began by simply asking that question, could the bridge be that kind of elevated park where that could happen? And so, as Tricia said, we’ve been in conversations with the various officials. And originally, I think we all thought, “well, that’s not realistic.” But I think as we’ve engaged with Border Patrol, with Customs, with aduanas, including meeting with the chief of Border Patrol in Washington, D.C., they encouraged us to continue to explore it, with everyone having a desire to figure out how to solve the problem. And I would say that in many ways, we were pleasantly surprised that the people who are often represented as being against us were actually for us and really wanted to come alongside to create a solution that would reunite the two nations, reconnect the two cities, and celebrate the culture that has been enjoyed in that place for centuries.
NORMA: I’m curious as to how this is going to be paid for public, private, partnership? Viviana?
VIVIANA: All of the above. It’s going to take an economic development plan that avails itself of the potential of creating funding sources that are available by statute through the state, as well as federal monies, state monies coming through federal grants to states and then coming down for different programs that … (RICK: In both countries). Both countries. So, everybody’s working on that from public/private, P-3 creating river authority. There’s all sorts of ways of pulling these this economic development plan together to be able to sustain (it). Because one thing is to build it and to find the monies to build it, another thing is to sustain it. It’s one part of the technical committee. Everybody is reaching out and bringing information. And soon enough, there’ll be a plan that can address that.
RICK: I also think we need to think about what is the cost of not doing this? What is the cost if we don’t conserve/restore the river? What would it cost to bring water from an alternate source to these two cities? What does it cost in terms of the health benefits to the community? What does it cost in terms of trade if the border is not safe? What are the costs? And so, what we believe is actually the cost of building this conservation park are far less than the ultimate costs if we don’t do it. And the economic benefits are so far greater in terms of multiplication that it absolutely will be a phenomenal investment in this part of the world.
TRICIA: And, Norma, I just wanted to emphasize we haven’t said like quality of life. It’s what we’re after. Where after this this quality of life and pride in our number one asset, and making something that everybody here is really proud of and enjoys and visitors alike. So, that’s really, really important for us. And as Viviana said, as far as a development plan, we want to make sure it’s an equitable development plan so that we get the most people who are from here and live along that area benefit the most as well.
Tricia Cortez, is executive director of the Rio Grande International Study Center in Laredo. The RGISC is part of the Binational Working Group, a consortium of public & private organizations that are collaborating to make the Binational River Park a reality.
We also heard from Rick Archer, founding partner with Overland Partners, and senior principal on the Binational River Park project; and park project manager and Overland architect, Barbara Warren. We were also joined by Frank Rotnofsky, partner and co-founder of Able City; and Viviana Frank-Franco, architect and co-founder of Able City.
Able City of Laredo and San Antonio-based Overland Partners are architecture and design firms selected to create conceptual designs for the Binational River Park, a 6.2 mile project that will span the Laredo-Nuevo Laredo international border.
Thanks for joining us this week for Fronteras.
Fronteras is produced by Norma Martinez and Marian Navarro. Our executive producer is Dan Katz, our digital content producer is Bri Kirkham and our editor is Fernando Ortiz, Jr. Charanga Cakewalk composed our theme music.
I’m NM with Texas Public Radio in SA.