The Alamodome: Wrong Project at the Wrong Time

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Former farm and dairy land, looking Northwest at the contemporary 900 block of South New Braunfels Street. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Former farm and dairy land, looking Northwest at the contemporary 900 block of South New Braunfels Street. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Editor’s note: Helen Dutmer is one of San Antonio’s longest-serving civic  leaders. At age 92 she still serves on the City of San Antonio’s Board of Adjustment and the San Antonio Water System’s Grievance Commission. She lives on the near-Southside on McKinley Street on land that a century ago was the family dairy farm. Of all the people involved in the fight over building the Alamodome, she was the elected leader who lived closest to the long-abandoned former Alamo Iron Works site.

Dutmer represented the Southside on City Council from 1977-1991 before the era of term limits. After leaving the City Council, she served for six years on the Bexar County Commissioners Court. She still drives her own car, points out that she doesn’t need glasses, and doesn’t have a computer or use email. The following article was written by hand and augmented in an interview with Robert Rivard.

helendutmerIt seemed like every time we attended a National League of Cities convention in another city the mayor and city council came home in a rush to spend money and copy what some other city was doing.

That’s what happened when Mayor Henry Cisneros took us to Indianapolis for such a meeting and to see that city’s fancy new domed stadium. It was the envy of everyone around the country. You know Henry. We just had to come home and outdo everyone else.

In the first place, what we built doesn’t even look like a domed stadium. It looks like a big airplane hangar. I said back then we ought to use the expressway as a runway and park planes in there. And the AT&T Center, which we built later, is just as bad. It looks like a cow shed compared to what we saw that day in Indianapolis.

The RCA Dome in Indianapolis. Photo by Derek Jensen, public domain.

The RCA Dome in Indianapolis. Photo by Derek Jensen, public domain.

All these great things were supposed to happen on the Eastside after the Alamodome was built. Well, look there today. Nothing much happened. People come and then they go home, and everything stays the same for the people left behind.

A neighborhood view across Cherry Street from the Alamodome. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

A neighborhood view across Cherry Street from the Alamodome. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Now the same thing happened with Henry and Target ’90 (a city-wide community planning organization started in the early 1980s to “implement strategies for meeting San Antonio’s economic, cultural and social goals,” much like contemporary Mayor Julián Castro’s SA2020 initiative).

If my memory serves, all of us went to Fort Worth for another League of Cities meeting and they had just finished restoring the Stockyards. I still remember all that brick. So home we came and started spending money, putting in a big water fountain in Hemisfair Park and paving it all over, making Houston Street one way, narrowing the lanes and widening the sidewalks, putting bricks down everywhere, tearing things up. For what?

Water feature at Hemisfair Park. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Water feature at Hemisfair Park. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

I speak my mind and people know it. Henry knows it. He still calls me from time to time to say hello. My family and his family have been friends going way back. It’s not personal. Now, if I can get this 92-year-old brain working, I will try to convey my rationale back in the 1980s for opposing the construction of the Alamodome – back when it was still just an idea on paper.

Dr. Robert Marbut. Robert was also the founding President and CEO of the San Antonio Amateur Sports Foundation, now known as San Antonio Sports. Dr. Marbut has been a college professor for over 20 years and is a tenured full professor at Northwest Vista College.

Robert Marbut.

Back then, in the late 1980s, I had been on City Council for quite a while. I actually served from 1977 to 1991. Somehow I became the voice of the opposition. I never planned it that way, but I didn’t mind it, either. I can’t remember how many times Robert Marbut Jr. and I debated in front of community groups, neighborhood associations – you name it. Robert and I made quite a circuit. We never said no to anyone who invited us, and Robert and I always got along just fine, despite our differences. Like I said, it wasn’t personal.

[Read Marbut’s side of the story: San Antonio’s Strangest Election]

My objections were based on financial considerations, not necessarily opposition to a sports facility in general.

To meet the cost of building such a facility, ticket prices were going to have to be set high. That meant many people would not be able to afford to get inside the Alamodome. They’d have to settle for more affordable outdoor sporting activities where they could find them.

I didn’t like the proposition of building a domed stadium suitable for a professional sports team when I knew we didn’t have a professional sports team to put in there and we weren’t going to get one. Pro football was what everyone had in mind, whether they said so then or whether they say so now.

At the time, the Alamodome was not necessarily conceived as a venue that would host other, non-sporting events. That became necessary in time, but in the beginning the project was hurried and not well-thought out in advance. In those years the San Antonio Spurs played in the HemisFair Arena and were just beginning to be recognized in the David Robinson era. Dallas and Houston and UT-Austin all had better arenas and were filling them.

The Alamodome became a place for Red McCombs, then the owner of the Spurs, to get a better concession deal, charge more for tickets, and give the Spurs a new home – until we made the mistake of building them another home deeper on the Eastside and away from downtown (the AT&T Center). It turned out the Alamodome was never a great place for a basketball game. The domed ceiling was so high, the acoustics didn’t lend themselves to the experience of a smaller arena. So the Spurs left.

Red McCombs, former Spurs coach Larry Brown and former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros. Photo courtesy of red McCombs.

Red McCombs, former Spurs coach Larry Brown and former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros. Photo courtesy of Red McCombs.

Today I’d say the Alamodome is second now to the AT&T Center, and not just for sports, but for concerts and other events, too. That’s regretful, in my opinion.

My intent always was to point out that I didn’t oppose sports facilities, but this one wasn’t a very good one and at the time the city should have had greater priorities for its spending. It was not the right project for the time. My approach as a city council member was to think things through, make a decision and then stick with it, even if it meant I was going to go down fighting. And I did. So we debated and debated.

During this time Henry Cisneros was pretty frustrated and he told me, “Helen, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

I told him, “Henry, it’s not the heat. It’s the smell of the deal.”

Well, despite all that, the other side finally won and that’s about the time I stepped out and left the Council.

I’ve since been to the ‘Dome for concerts and other events, but not for several years now – those parking lots and neighborhoods used to be farmland. I was raised on one such dairy farm, what is now the 900 block of South New Braunfels Street, right in the shadow of the Alamodome.

Former farm and dairy land, looking Northwest at the contemporary 900 block of South New Braunfels Street. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Former farm and dairy land, looking Northwest at the contemporary 900 block of South New Braunfels Street. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

It was all fields back then. That was a long time ago.  

 

Related Stories:

San Antonio’s Strangest Election: Robert Marbut Remembers the The Alamodome

Great Cities Have Great Gathering Places

San Antonio Goes Major League — It Started With the Alamodome

The Alamodome, Now 20, Made San Antonio a Bigger, Better City

Why San Antonio’s Future is Bright

Thinking Big and Brutal: An Architect Examines Hemisfair Redesign

Sports: A Hole in the Fabric of Downtown

The Spurs Family celebrates 25 years of giving back

 

12 thoughts on “The Alamodome: Wrong Project at the Wrong Time

    • Oh my, thanks for catching that, Mark. I’ve switched out the photo to one of the RCA Dome. I thought that stadium looked a bit “modern” for the 80s. Thanks again!

  1. As a relatively new San Antonio resident, it’s a real shame that the SBC Center is not downtown. When announcers say on TV that the “series is going back to the Riverwalk,” that’s barely true. How great it would be to have a arena that was within walking distance to the Riverwalk and all that area offers. It’s not as bad as my hometown of Detroit with the Pistons’ arena being way out in Auburn Hills (the equivalent of the Spurs playing in Boerne perhaps).

  2. Ms. Dutmer is correct on a lot of points. The dome is at best plain and at worst ugly. It hasn’t the economic impact for the near east side it was hoped to bring. That said, the dome did allow for large scale events that sophisticated cities are expected to be able to host. Prior to the dome, large event planners largely did not consider San Antonio. It may have also have helped keep the Spurs in San Antonio. While the owners may have been the primary beneficiaries of that, the regular citizens of the city have been hugely benefitted by that as well. The Spurs have given the city a common source of pride that transcends our differences. The dome has, intentionally or unintentionally, produced a lot of good for the city, and at a fairly low cost in light of the billion+ dollar stadiums going up these days.

    The question now is whether the dome has outlived its usefulness. In light of the resurgence of downtown, all of that land could potentially be put to a higher use such as a large planned mixed-use community, cultural arts destination, or some other creative purpose.

  3. Of your recent articles concerning the Alamodome, this one more closely reflects how I’ve felt about the dome all along. Simply as a private citizen, and perhaps not particularly informed, at the time, of the naunces of pros and cons, I voted against it. I was not against a new sports facility, but thought it best to focus on the needs of the successful sports franchise the city already had…the Spurs. I thought a basketball arena made sense and not a phantom football franchise stadium. I don’t think it’s a bad thing the city has a domed stadium, but the one we got is landmark unattractive and we’re left with arguably the city’s most prestigious ambassadorial tool (again the Spurs) left to play on the world stage well away from the city center. This absolutely curtails any pre and/or post game public integration into the life of downtown. Setting the Alamodome’s aesthetic shorctomings and questions of how well the city is served by having the dome aside, the fact that AT&T Center was not built downtown may be the dome’s most detrimental contribution to our city.

  4. With respect to Helen, her perspective is probably right regarding basketball. I’ve watched Kentucky in the NCAA finals there. Watched football and concerts. The Dome was a venue we needed, and been a part of our growth and the changing perception of SA nationally.

  5. She is right. Red cut a fat hog with the city with that contract. The city did a poor job negotiating that contract.

  6. Glad to see an opposition post on the ‘Dome. I didn’t grow up in San Antonio, but upon moving here I always wondered why this stadium was built. I always felt that the cart was put before the horse and that the city was building a stadium to get a football team (a pretty large bet that ultimately yielded only a handful of Saints games in the aftermath of Katrina). I did attend a couple of Spurs games at the ‘Dome and the architecture just wouldn’t let the stadium get loud – there was too much empty space behind that curtain.

    Needless to say, I have never been a big supporter of the ‘Dome; however, after reading this series for the 20th anniversary, I can see why it was built. I imagine it must have been frustrating to constantly be left behind as the city bid on different events. While I don’t think the ‘Dome was the best solution, it was at least a solution that was needed to ultimately did have an impact towards making San Antonio a destination for many concerts and sporting events in a way that a 20,000+ seat high school stadium could never offer.

  7. Helen took a completely wrong position on 112 Lindell. I am not sure where the lawsuit is now. Voting against 95% of the River Road residents was just wrong. What made it worse is she insulted almost everyone in the room. Being the crotchety, acerbic one is good sometimes. In this instance, when last I saw her it was rather tragiocomedic.

  8. I absolutely loathe the dome.

    I went to the Big League weekend recently. I had heard that the traffic was bad, so my husband and I took VIA to the game. WTF–dropping us off in some leaky tunnel, making us take elevators up, and then having to hike to the stadium? Seriously? Disabled people like me don’t need to be spat on that way. At AT&T in San Francisco, CalTrans is kitty-corner from the main gate, no more than 50 feet away, and the Muni has a huge stop only 10 feet from the main gate. THAT is proper public transit service to a game.

    And then there was the Alamodome “Staff”. Can we say the most disgusting rude slime on the face of the earth? We had two choices of which gate to use to enter, so we asked this guy who was clearly staff, but was standing there doing NOTHING, which would be best for us to use, based on our section. He stared at us without saying anything with a scumbag smirk on his face and didn’t answer until I asked him if he was mute or a moron. He finally waved dismissively and muttered, “go that way.” At AT&T in San Francisco, the ushers are 200 years old on average, but they’re are the sweetest people you could ever meet who will go out of their way to help you find a seat, or to figure out where to get a drink or find the stinking bathrooms–which are plentiful–unlike the filth dome in San Antonio.

    There are no escalators to move people efficiently at the dome. You have to hope to find the elevators.

    The concessions are vomit-inducing, and few of them take credit cards. The ATMs were all on the fritz when we tried to use them. Again, at AT&T, there are insanely good options, at every major section of the park, with not only a wide range of foods and beverages to choose from, but they even have plenty of healthy options, all through the park!

    Everywhere at AT&T in San Francisco, there are escalators and huge elevators to get people through the park with ease. There are no escalators at the dome. The elevators are cramped and slow, and the useless operators don’t even have the ability to control them, unlike the Majestic with its rickety old 1920s elevator! They limit the people in them to 9. Lines are long for the disabled for that reason.

    People smoke in the dome bathrooms with impunity and the staff do NOTHING about it. You’d be caught, arrested and thrown out for LIFE at AT&T in San Francisco.

    The seats are cramped and filthy. There are no cupholders like in modern parks. They’re uncomfortable, and the armrests are metal, so they dig into you, even if you’re thin. Worst of all, they have the San Antonio curse of ZERO LEG ROOM. What is it with this moronic cowtown that not a single event venue offers any seats with leg room? AT&T, Freeman and now this filthy dump–not a single one of them has any comfortable room for anyone over 4’11! Are the architects in this pathetic dump all midgets?

    The sight lines are atrocious, while the sound system is the worst of all worlds–insanely loud but cheap and distorted so that you can’t understand anything blasting at you. The acoustics at the dome wouldn’t cut it for a third world high school gym. The jumbotrons are smaller than most people’s home theater TVs. You can’t read the scoreboards for the game from anywhere in the park.

    The announcers stupidly don’t know how to cover a baseball game because they’re the typical braindead Texas football morons who think that the rest of us are as stupid as they are and don’t care about things like announcing players coming up to bat or announcing pitching changes or substitutions. The jumbotron’s trash operators were so stupid that they don’t understand that baseball fans expect to see POSITIONS listed by players’ names, not generic filth like “infield” or “outfield.” That is beyond insulting to fans of the game.

    Everything–and I mean absolutely everything about the “experience” of the Alamodome is disgusting.

    Worst.

    Venue.

    Ever.

    If you want a great venue that is a joy to attend, then borrow a page from San Francisco, where they know how to respect their city, the people and the events held in their park. The Alamodome is a disaster. Someone needs to bomb it into smithereens, and the sooner the better.

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