A More Modest Alamo Plaza Proposal

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Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / Rivard Report

The Alamo.

If the Alamo Master Plan Committee is really serious about the conceptual plan being a work-in-progress subject to design challenge and change, it should bring a simplified proposal to City Council for approval on May 11.

It’s clear that the public wants City and State leaders to honor the site and its rich history, but does not want to be walled out in the process.

A modified design would assure unanimous passage by City Council and send a strong signal to State officials and the Texas Legislature that the project is on track and worthy of the requested $75 million funding in the new budget. It also would defuse community tensions and signal to citizens that City and State leaders want greater consensus in moving forward.

Simplifying the conceptual plaza design at this stage will serve to greatly reduce the community dissent and tensions with the draft master plan. In time, a strong case could in theory be made for removing trees and erecting glass walls, but in the short two weeks that most local design professionals and members of the public have had to digest the conceptual master plan, it is clear that a compelling case has not yet been made in a way to win over a majority of citizens.

What does a simplified design look like? I see four elements:

Signify the Boundary Walls of the Alamo and Mission San Antonio de Valero

Archaeologists should conduct the dig so a clear plexiglass walkway can be installed in-ground to give plaza visitors a direct view of the wall footings and an understanding of the boundaries and dimensions of the mission and battle site. That means locating the North Wall in its proper place, bisecting the Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building, not East Houston Street as now presented in the preliminary renderings.

Discreet above-ground glass panels etched with historical data can serve as contextual guides as people move from one point in the plaza to another. In-panel multimedia audio and video options should be explored. The panels should be removable.

Table the Glass Walls Concept

The preliminary renderings by George Skarmeas and his team at Preservation Design Partnership (PDP), the Philadelphia-based firm that is leading the project’s design, enclose much of the Alamo Plaza in walls of glass. The proposed design has been officially described as “preliminary,” but design professionals and members of the public who oppose the idea have expressed fear that State and City officials will not accept any fundamental changes once City Council approves the preliminary concept.

This rendering shows Alamo Plaza (looking northeast from above) at dusk.

Courtesy / Texas General Land Office

The proposed rendering shows Alamo Plaza (looking northeast from above) at dusk.

It seems ill-advised to proceed with any concept that has been so poorly received and considered publicly for such a short time period.

I suspect the glass walls are really meant to serve as security barriers that give the Texas General Land Office a tighter grip on the plaza property and a greater ability to control public access. Yes, the Alamo is a “soft target,” in the language of security experts, but so are countless other urban historic landmarks in this and other countries with World Heritage sites. That’s the price of living history. Put it behind locked glass and you have a static museum display rather than a civic destination.

Historic battles from Bunker Hill in Boston to Charleston in the South are recalled with reverence without walls. It’s the mix of urban life and historic sites that makes each place unique.

The question of security and State control, especially if City officials intend to deed the land in front of the Alamo to the State, is one that can be debated over time, with considerable public input. Eliminating the glass wall as an issue now simplifies the process. The concept could still prevail in time.

Leave the Trees

Let’s agree to leave undisturbed the heritage trees on the Alamo property. It’s possible, of course, that not every tree can be saved, but there is a big difference between sacrificing an individual tree or two for the greater good and starting out with a concept that assumes significant tree removal. Let’s instead plant a park bench or two for every tree, and give people shaded places of respite to sit and consider history and their surroundings.

A public conversation about the plaza’s trees and ample shade can be had over a longer period of time. Eliminating wholesale tree removal from the debate to create an open, lifeless plaza also will reduce opposition to other elements of the plan.

This daytime rendering shows the pedestrian plaza that South Alamo Street (looking north) could become.

Courtesy / Texas General Land Office

This daytime rendering shows the pedestrian plaza that South Alamo Street (looking north) could become.

Putting on hold plans to build glass walls and “relocate” mature trees, in my opinion, will make it easier for many people to go along with closing the plaza to vehicle traffic and relocating the Cenotaph.

Get Real About Traffic

It doesn’t help the committee’s credibility to blithely wave away concerns about traffic flow with the plaza shut off to vehicles. Claiming that workarounds will only add seconds to their downtown travel is not credible. Dealing with the existing problem of horse-drawn carriages mixing in with vehicle traffic should be part of the alternative proposal on any proposed traffic fixes. Perhaps the carriages can continue to exist in and around the redesigned plaza and Hemisfair, but they don’t have a place on the already stressed main streets of downtown.

One Final Public Hearing

Let’s move forward with a plaza redesign that relocates the entertainment businesses and establishes a museum and visitor center in their place. Leave some space for a restaurant, café, and bar. Develop the southern reaches of the plaza as an outdoor beer garden and restaurant.

There will be one more public hearing this Tuesday, May 2, starting at 6 p.m. at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, Room 301. It won’t be easy to get there, but it is one more opportunity for more members of the public to comment, and for the public to get a sense of whether the committee is responding to public opinion.

Councilman Roberto Treviño, the District 1 representative and a member of the Alamo Plaza Master Plan Committee, was the only elected official I noticed at the last public hearing. Mayor Ivy Taylor and the other nine members of the council were not there, and are not likely to attend this meeting, either.

16 thoughts on “A More Modest Alamo Plaza Proposal

  1. This design team missed the mark. Send them packing. No Glass, Cenotaph needs to go to the State post haste. Don’t disrespect Campo Santo.

    • If the design team really wants to give visitors a vision of what the site was like during the 1836 period they should restore what was there by using the same materials which were use to build the old church and Long Barrack. That glass wall does nothing to historically interpret the Alamo’s history or even the boundary.
      Before any more plants or trees are removed those architects need to go outside the urban area to see what the landscape of Bexar County is like. It is not and was never barren, treeless and grass-less. It is scary and disappointing to think that this interpretation of the Alamo could actually be implemented.

  2. As a user experience designer, I see the Alamo Plaza redesign from a different angle. When I look at what has been proposed, what I see is simply a glass wall that does not seem to serve the intended purpose, which was to be a better historical representation.

    Conceptually, I don’t believe glass will do that for people. When most people first enter the Alamo, they will be handed a map or other guide, which will likely have some form of dotted outline demarcating the border of the Alamo. Why not recreate that in either large short wood posts or stones (or both) spaced some feet apart and a few feet high (but not too high), allowing visitors to walk it, stopping at points along the way? It also serves to allow foot traffic in an out, keeps errant vehicles out, and feels in keeping with the aesthetics of the Alamo.

    • When I try to wrap my head around this glass wall I keep thinking about the thought process that led to it and I imagine it started with closing the plaza and creating one entrance. In order to do that, they knew they had to wall the plaza off. They then realized that a wall along Houston St. would obstruct the view of the Alamo and the glass wall solution emerged.

      The fact that they are proposing a glass wall through the heart of what was once the open plaza of the original mission is the dead giveaway. The wall is not there to remind us of what was once there, it’s there to restrict entry to the plaza.

      • I thought about that and thought that was probably why the glass wall concept emerged as well. What had me thinking along other lines though was this – At the capitol building in Austin, around the capitol in D.C., and even at entries to parking garages around the world, you see those retractable metal poles that are used for security. They permit pedestrian traffic, but can either permit or refuse vehicle traffic. So I thought, why couldn’t they design something with natural materials and do the exact same thing around the plaza? I’m not an architect, so I have no idea if that is even possible, but I thought the concept was interesting.

  3. What changed you, Rivard??
    NO glass. Leave and protect ALL the trees. Don’t disturb the sacred GROUND. Allow car traffic, & the annual parade homage.
    Sorry, Rivard, but you’ve fallen under their influence. What happened to your REMEMBER THE ALAMO previous postings?
    Disappointed in your new opinions. Bummer.

  4. Thank you Bob. I sincerely hope you sign up for Citizens To Be Heard and tell the City Council this. You can have my three minutes and I’m sure somebody else will go and donate theirs so you can have the maximum 9 minutes. Your plan is easy to visualize but perhaps one of the architects will provide an aerial view for you.

    I’m going to add your proposal as a comment to my petition, and it will be emailed to all of our state and US legislators in addition to the Governor.

  5. Bob – Well tempered comments, thanks for that. The plan needs to be halted and rethought. Postpone funding – that will do it. Trying to fix the problems in this plan is, to some degree, agreeing to it. To those who say this must be done now or never I say we do have time. Don’t rush into an unwise compromise – that would be disaster. Lastly, what do we know of the budget, the costs of the individual parts, how much has been spent to date (and how was that money spent, and are the contracts available to the public for review? Since the Committee is not a government unit it is not subject the freedom of information. Where will full disclosure and honesty come from?

  6. Thanks for continuing to speak out, Bob. We need your guidance. You may have my 3 minutes too.
    Good comments. What’s the hurry about pushing this deal through? Where’s the Conservation Society? It feels like something very strange and high-pressured is going on. And just take a glance at those images above – how appealing that massive hot slab of concrete looks. Glass wall utterly crackpot.

  7. “The question of security and State control, especially if City officials intend to deed the land in front of the Alamo to the State, is one that can be debated over time, with considerable public input.”

    Lori Houston has said the city is not deeding Alamo Plaza to the State – that in response to a question I asked about the $100,000,000 figure Gene Powell was throwing out as part of the COSA’s participation in this project. She made it appear that the COSA would be the manager with a contract from the State.

    We need straight answers to simple questions.

  8. One additional item for future inclusion would be to NOT blithely ignore and destroy the intervening history of the space since the 1830s; namely the German merchants who made there livelihoods in and around Alamo Plaza, like Reuter, Wulff, and Joske. It seems to me these merchants buildings and the Bandstand replica have a history that deserves preservation as well.

  9. The idea of a glass wall is a bad idea. I have long believed that the south entry gate should be reconstructed as close as possible to what it looked like in 1836. The south gate should also include the building where Jim Bowie was killed. This could be preformed on property already owned by the City, and could turn into one of the most favored tourists attractions involved with the Alamo. The south wall does not have to be a compete wall, just enough to show where the entry gate and the south wall was located. It is important to show the palisade wall that connected to the Alamo church, for many reasons, one being that the Alamo church was not really part of the walled portion of the Alamo mission. There had never been a roof on the Alamo Church in 1836, and when Ms. De Zavala and Clara Driscoll saved the Alamo, it was the Long Barracks they were saving.

    The old Post office should be used as the museum with as much of the north wall as possible reconstructed inside the Post Office, with a reconstruction of the death of William Travis displayed as accurately as possible.

    Alamo and Houston Streets should both be closed and sections of the wall be reconstructed as accurately as possible on all 4 sides to show what the Alamo looked like in 1836. Portions of the actual wall could be shown with glass over them, as one portion is shown now. You do not need to close in the plaza with a glass wall to show where the walls were in 1836. I have not seen mention of the Emilie Morgan or the Crockett hotels. What are the plans for the rear section of the Alamo Mission?

    The only really important date in the life of the Alamo is March 6, 1836, but the monument in front of the Long Barracks is more a part of the history of the Alamo than anything but the Long Barracks. Why spend millions to move it? It is in a GREAT location now.

  10. Please don’t ignore post battle history. Please don’t close more streets. The mission church at the Alamo emcampment should continue to be integrated into the San Antonio as it has been for almost two centuries. I am not the only person expressing reservations about completely stopping vehicular traffic. Please remember those who can’t walk up or hire a carraige or a pedicab to see the Alamo. Sometimes I detour through at night when the facade is lighted just to think and feel the history we live with every day. We are so fortunate. Don’t make it dead history.

  11. Please don’t ignore post battle history. Please don’t close more streets. The mission church at the Alamo emcampment should continue to be integrated into San Antonio as it has been for almost two centuries. I am not the only person expressing reservations about completely stopping vehicular traffic. Please remember those who can’t walk up or hire a carriage or a pedicab to see the Alamo. Sometimes I detour through at night when the facade is lighted just to think and feel the history we live with every day. We are so fortunate. Don’t make it dead history.

  12. First of all, decide on what tourists will experience once within the compound (i.e., key points of the final battle, death of Travis, Bowie, Gregorio Esparza, North Wall 14 pound cannon, etc.). Then, determine the best ways to highlight the story. As it is now, one walks in and sees glass walls and that’s it! No lifelike statues marking famous names and or the 14 pound cannon, nothing that will provide a sense of what happened on March 6, 1836. The museum may provide that, but the compound itself appears to be “story-less”. Further, not sure how the glass walls may increase humidity and temperatures within the compound during extreme hot summer days. Air circulation needs to be considered.

    Bottom line: Where is the STORY OF THE BATTLE OF THE ALAMO?????????

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