Binational River Conservation Project wins Able City a top architectural award

MCALLEN, Texas – South Texas College President Ricardo J. Solis says a top award won by a South Texas architectural firm is well deserved.

MCALLEN, Texas – South Texas College President Ricardo J. Solis says a top award won by a South Texas architectural firm is well deserved.

Able City, based in San Antonio but with offices in Laredo, El Paso, and now McAllen, has won a 2023 Studio Award from the Texas Society of Architects. 

The award for the Binational River Conservation Project in Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, was won in conjunction with Overland Partners, OLIN Studios, and ARUP.

“This recognition keeps bringing to light the fact that people want this project to come to life and that its unique vision is worth fighting for,” Solis told the Rio Grande Guardian International News Service. “Congratulations to the whole binational team on this great effort.”

According to its website, Able City is a “majority-bilingual family of architects, designers, planners, economic developers, writers, and community engagement specialists, committed to connecting people with the kinds of places and policies designed to bring everyone in.”

The Guardian secured an exclusive interview with Mario Peña, an architect and co-founding partner at Able City. The interview took place at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the company’s new McAllen office, which is based within the Chase Bank building in south McAllen.

Asked about the Binational River Conservation Project, Peña said: “So the project envisions a fully recovered natural landscape along the Rio Grande River with the integration of several themes into a six mile stretch of river.

“One of the themes is the natural state where it’s a conservation park, in its natural state. Another phase of it is more focused on recreation. So, having trails and other more active recreation elements. But, as you approach downtown Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, it becomes a more activated park with activities that really are designed to bring those communities together.”

The main element in the project, Peña said, is an amphitheater that invites both the Mexican spectator and the U.S. spectator to share in an event, a musical performance, with a stage erected on the river.

“So, it’s a shared experience for both sides of the river. It’s a beautiful gesture of how these communities for generations have lived, enjoying life together. And so, the focus on that is to create space for that.”

Asked if city leaders have got the funding for the Binational River Conservation Project, Peña said: “Part of our community engagement team is helping with grants and other funding opportunities, both national, state, and international funding opportunities. So, we’re assisting the City (of Laredo) in identifying and tracking down the grants and other funding mechanisms that will make this happen.”

In his in-depth interview with the Guardian, Peña was asked what sets his company apart. He responded:

“I think that our corporate purpose to make cities able to serve the citizen in a more holistic way, by acknowledging the fact that a single building from the perspective of an architect is not enough to really connect the citizens of the community. It’s the urban space around them. It’s the street network around them. It’s the economic policies that you use to make decisions on what you invest capital in, whether it’s private or public capital. All those aspects are important in decision-making. And so we have to realize that architecture is really the last decision to be made, right, instead of the initial decision. We know that the puzzle we’re trying to solve has its key in other disciplines which we include at Able City.”

Asked about Able City’s decision to open an office in McAllen, Peña said he and his colleagues are excited about renting space in the Chase Tower.

“We really believe that cities are undergoing some critical transformations as we move into this next awakening in the urban fabric that communities need (in order) to build connections with neighbors. And so in Texas, we know that the way we’ve designed cities for the last 70 years and sort of spread everybody apart (has not worked). And so we want to be part of the solution that reconnects the next generation of neighborhoods and the next generation of schools and other businesses that serve those connected communities. And they’re connected through good urban planning. The design of the buildings is really not new. It’s actually very much traditional. Because our grandparents knew how to build the city, for people instead of cars. And so reintroducing that now as the state and the country rediscovers the power of connection in the way we design our cities.”

Peña added that Able City’s permanent arrival in the Valley could not have been timed better.

“The importance of the work that’s Valley is providing, obviously locally but (also) as a player in national economic arena is about to explode and we’re excited to be part of that.”

Editor’s Note: Here is the Guardian’s full interview with Mario Peña:

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