Failure to Launch

Foster + Partners’ Mexico City airport scrapped by public referendum

Architecture International
Aerial rendering of the now-canceled new Mexico City International Airport, designed by Foster + Partners (Courtesy Foster + Partners)
Aerial rendering of the now-canceled new Mexico City International Airport, designed by Foster + Partners (Courtesy Foster + Partners)

Mexico City’s new Foster + Partners–designed airport has been canceled while already under construction. In a referendum today voters rejected the partially completed project that’s been beleaguered by accusations of corruption, ecological irresponsibility, and lack of community involvement.

The referendum was originally proposed by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the president-elect of Mexico, as popular opposition grew against the project that was approved by President Enrique Peña Nieto in 2014.

Not only was the project, called NAICM (Nuevo Aeropuerto Internacional de la Ciudad de México), deemed inordinately expensive at an estimated USD$13 billion, its location was less than ideal. The wetland plain of Texcoco outside the city that it was to be built on is quite literally sinking—as much as 16 inches a year. Not only does building the airport require thick supports, like much of Mexico City, which was built on former lakes dredged by the colonizing Spaniards five centuries ago, but it the area accommodates stormwater runoff for the city, requiring a complicated and expensive system of plumbing, tunnels, and canals to manage potential flooding. Furthering the environmental infeasibility is the impact it would have had on numerous bird species as well as its effect of exacerbating the decline of the city’s already dwindling water supplies. As Fernando Córdova, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico told Alto Nivel as later reported in translation in Citylab: “It’s just the worst terrain.”

Rendering of proposed Mexico City airport

The Foster + Partners-designed new Mexico City airport has been cancelled by a public referendum. (Courtesy Foster + Partners)

USD$5 billion has already been put into the airport, which was designed to handle the ever-increasing traffic through North America’s most populous city, which also serves as a travel hub for much of the rest of Mexico and Latin America. The mega-project, which would’ve been the third largest airport in the world and the most expansive in all of the Americas, was noteworthy for its six million square-foot main terminal designed in a sci-fi X-shape with a sweeping canopy.

The no vote won by a large margin, with 70 percent voting in opposition of completing the project, though, as others have noted, voter turnout for the referendum was underwhelming, with only around 1 in 90 registered voters turning out to the polls. Those opposed argued that the project was being built and developed by contractors and other parties as a series of political favors to line each other’s pockets.

Still, regardless of the fate of NAICM, Mexico City needs a new airport. The current main airport, Benito Juárez International, is operating 50 percent over capacity and the strain on it is only growing. López Obrador and others have supported a significantly cheaper project that uses existing infrastructure by converting part of the Santa Lucía air force base into a commercial terminal. As for the thwarted Foster + Projects design, it was reported in The Washington Post that López Obrador suggested turning the remains of the unfinished airport into “a big sports and ecological center for Mexico City.”

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