A collaboration between San Antonio-based Overland Partners and local firm Megamorphosis has culminated in the design of an environmental center respectful of the unique history, culture, and ecology of McAllen. With construction set to begin early next year, the P.A.L.M. House will serve as a net positive habitat and education space for the rich biodiversity of Quinta Mazatlán, a 20-acre oasis of wild Tamaulipan thorn forest in the heart of McAllen’s booming metropolitan area.
Although a geographical border may exist along the southern edge of McAllen, the North American migratory bird population is blind to this man-made distinction. Of the 500 species known to nest in or migrate through the Rio Grande Valley, over 230 have been sighted among the trees of Quinta Mazatlán. What began as a private home and estate, Quinta Mazatlán was acquired by the city in 1998 and, in association with the World Birding Center, has evolved into a crucial wildlife conservation and education destination for both local and global visitors. In 2017, the city hired Overland Partners to aid in transforming this site into a world-class gateway for the international birding network.
After a two-day workshop with local stakeholders, designers at Overland worked in teams to develop a master plan that addressed the various challenges of the expansive site. According to principal James Andrews, Intl. Assoc. AIA, the objective from the get-go was to “capitalize upon the existing resources, develop a solution that is relevant, and create a place to remember.” To do so, the team adopted an active and passive strategy to divide the grounds. The existing eastern land will continue to serve serious birdwatchers through a system of winding paths in the dense and serene forest. The undeveloped land to the west will be transformed into a native adventure garden, designed by Austin-based Ten Eyck Landscape Architects, complete with over a mile of walkable paths and interactive water features. This active development also includes a large “parking garden” that aims to set the tone for future surface parking in the region.
“The land comes first,” Andrews says, as explaining how the nontraditional arrangement of parking spaces created natural bioswales, allowing the existing topography to remain unaltered. Pollutants and noise are also mitigated by locating the bus drop-off far from the urban sanctuary, while still allowing children safe passage to the new visitor center via a greenscaped “magic tunnel.”
At the heart of the firm’s master plan for Quinta Mazatlán lies the P.A.L.M. House, a center for education about plants, animals, the land, and mankind. Tethered to the active west, a rectangular volume houses the visitor center, a children’s learning center, and the Center for Urban Ecology, which contains two labs to accommodate students from The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. The learning center opens to an outdoor amphitheater for children to gather, play, and observe. Winding up and over the northern administrative area, an elevated walkway leads from the amphitheater to a rooftop exhibition space, which connects to the eastern observation deck. Below lies the Palm Room, an event space accommodating 250 with views out to Palm Lake and the serene east.
Oriented along the path of migration and prevailing winds, the rectangular adobe volumes, reminiscent of the site’s existing Spanish-revival mansion, are shaded by three tree-like superstructures designed and fabricated by Houston-based Metalab Studio. Intelligent Engineering Solutions served as the structural engineer. To optimize views for visitors, facilitate a comfortable, shaded microclimate, and provide a sanctuary for the birds, the woven steel structures glide over the programmatic spaces, creating a continuation of the neighboring canopy. Along with bird-friendly glass, these “natural art pieces” work to reduce the instances of building collisions, which kill over 100 million birds in the United States each year. This furthers the P.A.L.M. House’s essential goal of creating a net positive habitat: one that is richer in wildlife as a result of the intervention. Currently, P.A.L.M. House is on track to meet LEED Platinum while the master plan is expected to earn SITES Gold certification — a distinction never before achieved in the state of Texas.
Aside from the countless environmental benefits of this development, P.A.L.M. house creates unprecedented social and educational opportunities for the city of McAllen. Not only will this state-of-the-art center attract global tourism, it will also help local communities access invaluable educational opportunities previously out of reach.
Sophie Aliece Hollis is an architecture and journalism student at UT Austin and TA’s editorial intern.