A Public Plaza is More Than Dirt and Glass

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This rendering shows Alamo Plaza (looking northeast from above) during the day.

Courtesy / Texas General Land Office

This rendering shows Alamo Plaza (looking northeast from above) during the day.

The Alamo Plaza, we are learning, has many defenders. Most are united in the belief that the plaza as it exists fails to tell a complete or even compelling story. Most agree that removing the entertainment destinations that line the western plaza will give visitors a greater sense that they are standing where history once was made.

The plaza fails to tell the story of the indigenous people who lived off the land for thousands of years yet left that land so unchanged. It fails to honor those who lived, worked, and worshipped at Mission San Antonio de Valero in the 18th century. It even fails to tell the full story of the epic Battle of the Alamo in 1836.

How to make it a more historically representative site and keep it as a vibrant public gathering place for locals and visitors is the challenge. It's a challenge that the Alamo Management Committee and Preservation Design Partnership (PDP) have not yet met, in my opinion. The renderings first shared with the public and City Council last week should be the starting point of a community conversation, not the first look at plans bound for City Council approval by next month.

With all due respect, nothing in the lives or work of most City Council members qualifies them to all but instantly rubber stamp a proposal of such magnitude. Far better for our elected officials to take the time to survey the thinking of our city's best architects, historic preservationists, and place makers. What they would find, I am certain, are serious reservations about the submitted plan.

After decades of neglect, San Antonio can afford to take more time to get this right. I would ask several questions of the designers and committee members that merit debate before we proceed.

Question: How many local designers of public spaces and local historic preservationists are involved directly in the plan?

Question: Is restoring a sense of the sacred to the Alamo Plaza only possible by eliminating its use as a public gathering space for concerts, parades, and celebrations?

Question: Is there a middle ground to managing vehicle traffic, perhaps allowing it on weekdays, at least during rush hour? Are we really going to invest so much money in the redesign of lower Broadway and Hemisfair, and the latter's surrounding streets, only to cut off all south-north traffic flow? Does that also mean we will end a century of Fiesta parades passing by the Alamo?

It seems to me that the community conversation starts now. Public meetings and forums held beforehand were fine for sharing concepts, but only now have local citizens and professionals had the opportunity to actually see what is being proposed. Yes, we had public meetings before we reached our present state of the plaza's redesign, but citizens and experts alike were speaking in generalities then, unaware of the designer's plans.

Taking the city's most public of all spaces and walling it in with glass might add a sacred note to the enclosed buildings and plaza, but it will come at the expense of a century or more of the Alamo Plaza as a public destination. Locals will come once to see the new layout, and that will be their last visit. Once again, San Antonio will have an Alamo Plaza built for tourists. The wax museum, sidewalk barkers, and other sideshow attractions will be gone, but we will have failed to integrate a World Heritage site into our 21st century city.

That's why I am not real interested in whether tourists spend one additional night in River Walk hotels. I am far more interested in meeting the expectations of UNESCO officials and creating "outstanding universal value."

Europe does it so well, where locals and visitors visit shops, relax in beer gardens, and dine in restaurants in the shade of World Heritage cathedrals, palaces, and plazas. Such spaces remain very public spaces. Our glass wall, if built, will serve as a symbol of shutting people out. So many people have been shut out of the Alamo story for so long in this city that we will only be repeating our errors of the past. A glass wall will become a symbol of exclusion and the likely target of vandals.

No one will be relaxing in the sun-baked dirt expanses of the Alamo Plaza as pictured in the renderings. The Alamo was so named because of the surrounding cottonwood trees so common to the riverbanks. The renderings show some of the existing mature trees near the chapel being removed. Why would anyone remove a mature oak tree in downtown San Antonio? Why would anyone design a treeless plaza? Plazas in Spain and Mexico are often deeply shaded on all four sides by mature trees, which create the perfect ambience for strolling couples, street vendors, artists, and entertainers.

“[The plaza] was not a real hospitable place,” Alamo Management Committee Tri-Chair Gene Powell, who also is a member of the Alamo Endowment Board, told the Rivard Report's Iris Dimmick. How does he know that? How does he or George Skarmeas, design director of the Philadelphia-based Preservation Design Partnership, really know what was there beyond what hurried archeological digs revealed during last year's brief opportunities?

If indigenous occupation of the riverbanks was a part of the region's pre-history then surely there were trees, which provided shade, nuts, and firewood.

37 thoughts on “A Public Plaza is More Than Dirt and Glass

  1. This plan is a dud. They should consider walls that can be raised for a brief period of time and then lowered to draw people at regular intervals to see the “compound” without it being permanently walled off. Houston Street should remain open as an alternative entrance exit; dead ends don’t usually survive well. Do they have an evacuation plan to fit this design; a disaster could be followed by an even greater stamped disaster of people trying to square out the “sacred” original entry gate. People who come to San Antonio often have time only at night to see the Alamo, but will they have to look at it from a distance through a glass wall? And all that sand rather than a cool place to relax. The list of bad problems with this plan just go on and on and on. And most of it relates to local drivers of the plan who do think the word “sacred” in terms of the grounds means it should be a dead grave.

  2. Thanks you! This rendering has been greatly disappointing exactly for those reasons. The Alamo plaza must remain a publicar space open without walls and rather than cutting down trees we really need more shade. We really need to broaden our ideas of what Alamo plaza can be by taking a close look at México’s or Spain’s public plazas

  3. Where would the desire paths be within the walled structure once visitors are inside? Which is to say, where would the majority of foot traffic happen naturally? From the main entrance (where the proposed Arch is) to the entrance of the church.

    And the remaining 5 acres? Occupied by dirt and heat.

    Seems like we’ve ‘reimagined’ 2 undesirable elements to take center stage for our great shrine.

  4. But that’s the question I feel the article poses: Is this progress? Progress isn’t blind change, it’s betterment. I support the progress made in Main Plaza, for example, and I think many believe the improvements made there to be a net win. But it still is a very public space that welcomes visitors and offers seating and shade. People genuinely hang out there, steps away from the extremely historic San Fernando Cathedral.

    Here, I support the increased focus on the Alamo itself, on pedestrians, and on natural elements around the plaza. But what purpose is really served by the glass wall, what will it come to represent, and how will it age? And why does the plaza have to be barren and punishing to offer any reverence?

  5. Thank you Robert! You and Erik Olsen put into words what I could not say. For the life of me, even if climate change and rising global temperature were not a grave concern for humanity, why in the world would one relocate mature trees?
    Another earlier-article replier I thank mentioned that birds would probably fly into the glass walls, and I thank you for the probable-vandalism note.
    The Alamo is now a shrine, and an integral part of SA’s living history. It is not to be a standing fort or barrier anymore.
    (…back to my bumper-sticker speech…)Keep the Cenotaph, Repair It in place! Significant cenotaph for indigenous peoples! More Trees!

  6. Well said. After looking at the renderings more closely, it appears there are openings throughout the drawings, which wouldn’t be so bad, except there’s no way to keep the glass from becoming an eyesore when people start carving/scratching into it. By all means, let’s show the world how tasteless and unimaginative we can be.

    How about a rock line/path the width of the walls that were once there.

    I hate the idea of removing mature trees, among other things, just so it’s “the way it was.” If the idea is to represent the reason it became an icon, then you might as well remove the chapel’s roof, knock down some walls, place scattered graves around, & rebuild a crumbling rock wall all the way around.

    My response: try again. Honor the memorial, don’t cheapen it.

  7. As a Photographer with 40 years experience documenting San Antonio tourists attractions. I think this plan ignores common sense, having a barren plaza would be brutal in the middle of July in down town San Antonio. From an aesthetic point of view the glass walls will not be very photogenic and a nightmare to maintain, is the city going to have an Army of window washes to keep them clean and free of tags on a daily basis. The traffic downtown going north and south is already terrible and closing Alamo St will make it even worse. This Plan ignores the realities of climate, and that this is in the heart is SA with 300 years of history growing up around the Alamo.

  8. Mr. Rivard:

    This is one of the most important commentaries you have ever written (and I’ve read many of them)!

    Please keep pushing from your very public lectern.


    Bob Bevard

  9. Too few trees!! While there would have been a plaza in front of the Alamo over its many years and many uses, there would also have been lean-tos, jacals and other shade structures for the inhabitants and animals. I can’t see that happening with this sterile plan.
    I agree with a lot of the comments: the glass will be scratched and graffitied, the locals won’t come, look to Mexico and Spain for their vibrant plazas and don’t close it off for local celebrations.

      • It’s a battlefield soaked with the blood of over 1000 human beings. It’s not, and never should have been, a place for celebrations….parades….or political expression. It’s a place, and should have always been, a place for reflection….for learning the history of the battle….and it should be representative, as much as possible, of the way that it was the day of, or the day after, the battle. At least, that’s how I see it.

  10. The HORROR they’re trying to do at the Alamo would make the defenders & heroes & couriers roll their eyeballs. WHAT A TRAVESTY!!!!!
    That HIDEOUS plastic WALL from GERMANY?????
    Moving the Cenitaph????
    Killing the big oaks????
    Blocking the air flow????
    Digging up the dirt so you STEP DOWN into the Plaza???
    A Philadelphia man running the show?????

  11. “Taking the city’s most public of all spaces and walling it in with glass might add a sacred note to the enclosed buildings and plaza, but it will come at the expense of a century or more of the Alamo Plaza as a public destination. Locals will come once to see the new layout, and that will be their last visit. Once again, San Antonio will have an Alamo Plaza built for tourists. ”
    I do agree!

  12. Please use these money for research and education purpose about the Alamo and Texas history, for the preservation but not reconstruction, assume that that plaza will never be same as in 1836, no matter what deign could be done to it. Any reconstruction will made it brand-new looking, will evaporate history and charm that Alamo plaza already has! If you take care about tourists opinion then listen to me please, I was tourist in San Antonio about 8 years ago and love what I see, I was impressed! Please do not build new Disneyland on the plaza!

  13. Thank you for another excellent commentary. A poll of your readers would be helpful. There are a few specific areas to be answered with a for or against, for example:
    Treeless Courtyard
    Glass walls
    No reconstruction of south wall
    Closing of Alamo Street
    Moving Cenotaph
    Museum in Crockett Building
    Creation of Avenue to Commerce Street
    (etc – what I missed)

    • Maybe we should initiate a public competition for a better plan and appoint local talent to coordinate the submissions and make recommendations to the community. Have there been any public charettes on this? Apparently, there is funding out there, which might be put to better use. I agree with Mr. Rivard. Let’s slow this thing down and get it right, as we did with the Main Library, with adjustments, of course.

  14. Thanks for this superb calm response to the very bad plans. The mock-up of the so-called new Alamo Plaza seems horrific beyond belief – Not only a gigantic slab of dull concrete -very hot and uninviting with no imaginative quality at all – but ridiculous glass paneling which bears no true reference to Alamo history (does it?) and will be scratched with graffiti constantly, not to mention filthy and dirty. Worst plan ever.

    Bad enough to be closing the street to make passage through town even more difficult than it already is. But let’s slow down and invite some alternative plans, some thoughtful designs, from experts on this matter or this history, thank you Bob, let’s do something beautiful, if we’re forfeiting passage.

  15. Thanks, Bob, for expressing the outrage so many of us feel over this ridiculous plan. It’s hard to tell what is worse — the glass walls imported from Germany that will require full-time window cleaners, the blindingly hot courtyard that visitors must cross to get to the Alamo or the removal of heritage trees in the name of “authenticity”.
    It was clearly designed by a team that either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about the heart and soul of the San Antonio.
    How about an on-line petition that we can send to City Council so they don’t just rubber stamp the excesses of these designer?

  16. There are so many things wrong with this design. Why not purchase Alamo Village for a fraction of the cost? If someone wants to see the way Alamo Plaza was in 1836 they could go to Alamo Village. It simply isn’t feasible to return Alamo Plaza to the way it existed in 1836, and this grand compromise doesn’t seem so grand. The only thing grand about it is the tax payer cost.

    Alamo Plaza is the heart of the city. Don’t sterilize it. People are still going to be disappointed that it isn’t the castle they had imagined. Is that such a bad thing? The defenders of the Alamo were fighting for more than that old run down pile of bricks.

  17. Thank you, Bob, for putting into words exactly how I felt when I saw this design. I am calling my city council member tomorrow to voice my opinion. I am including contact numbers below for anyone else who would like to do so.

    Alamo plaza should remain a truely public space that reflects the living history of San Antonio. No glass walls. Save all heritage oaks.

    Ivy R. Taylor


    Roberto C. Treviño


    Alan E. Warrick, II


    Rebecca J. Viagran


    Rey Saldana


    Shirley Gonzales


    Ray Lopez


    Cris Medina


    Ron Nirenberg


    Joe Krier


    Mike Gallagher


    • This is great info, but all these people are up for re-election. Attend public forums of the councilpersons currently running for office in your district and prompt discussion.

  18. I think the scheme tries to create a reverence to one event by keeping the grounds open, harsh and hot and focused on the chapel façade only. Night lighting is great but not the enclosure of a (hot) glass wall.

    An urban design approach, LAYERS the history of the mission, city plaza and military outpost and the native Indians, Spanish, then Mexican, settlers, and of course the immigrants from the US; Texans and Americans.

    This plaza has lived as an urban center.

    A top-of-my-head punch list:
    – fix the roof and water proof the Alamo
    – maybe two church bells near chapel
    – change the landscape plant selection (this isn’t a desert), lush with water features and shade
    – depict the mission/battle walls with trellis-loggia-arcade that allows people to walk along a shaded path that closely approximates wall locations
    — the path can be tree lined too – more shade!
    – Restaurants and quality, gallery, book stores in store fronts along street that already FRAME the urban space of the plaza
    – think of the plaza from 1860s to 20’s, chili queens and music and people seating outside, celebrating, strolling muscians
    – keep existing trees and gazebo for dining/performances (beer garden)
    – keep the cenotaph but make more pedestrian friendly, shade, seating
    – provide water fountains, esp, at old well, and other locations with seating so people can sit around the fountain(s), lawn, benches, tree lined path
    – close Alamo and Houston streets only on sundays and special days
    – crockett street right turn only onto Alamo street
    – remove all ‘curbs’ to create continuous flagstone surface, sense of space

    its a living plaza in the center of the city
    keep things on the street level and not on rooftops


  19. An outstanding analysis. As a member of the master planning team, I’m sorry to say that, to my knowledge, no member of the team bothered to read the enabling legislation, HB2968, that appropriated the $32 million that was to pay for the master plan and other work at the Alamo. I have read it recently, and was concerned to find that only one item enumerated in the legislation called for the recognition of the “entire history of the Alamo, from the time the Alamo was established as a mission until the present. . . .” Every other item enumerated focused on the Alamo as a “symbol of liberty and freedom for this state,” on the responsibility “to honor the individuals whose lives were lost at the Alamo,” on the “importance of the Alamo in this state’s fight for independence and to honor the people who lost their lives at the Alamo,” to “inspire virtues of honor and Texas pride,” and to “preserve the memory and achievement of individuals who served at the Alamo and provide a fitting tribute to the heroism of people who paid the ultimate sacrifice for freedom and of the noble men and women of this state who have served in the armed forces or died while serving in the armed forces to ensure the freedom of the people of this state.” Whether or not one agrees with the focus of the legislation, the fact is that the money was appropriated for a very specific purpose, and the work to date does not appear to reflect that.

  20. Many good points — but I cannot make a case to continue traffic through the site.

    Remember: Alamo Plaza developed the way it now is in part because the city DIDN’T care about the Alamo site itself for many decades.

    Let this city center be a truly walkable experience. The cars can go elsewhere.

    As for the rest of the plan, the glass walls should not be an enclosure. And the courtyard can stand to add shade without losing its definition.

    (I do not doubt the historic courtyard was largely treeless. Look at Mission San Jose and the others. It often was a defining feature.

    I suspect the locals of that period were built of sturdier stuff than their contemporaries of today.

    • I’d mentioned above that there would always have been a plaza in front of the Alamo, but there also would have been shade structures dotting the area. And while long ago locals would have undoubtably been sturdier I wonder also how many degrees the city’s heat island effect has added to our temperatures in the last centuries…? Bring on the trees!

  21. NO WALL!!!

    Looks like the Alamo Dessert. Please don’t remove any trees. Make the architect come down here in the summer. This Philly architect has no idea how hot it gets down here. Shade in the summer will make it more inviting.

  22. The main comment that I have seen here that really got my attention was the problem with any kind of wall cutting off the air circulation. But columns, with walkways built on top of them…with ramparts and the gate might be much more realistic. I know how many times I have stood around the grounds, hearing how disappointed people were, not realizing what we know….that the “Alamo” is just the chapel of a much larger fortification. The ‘plaza’ itself, is a battlefield, soaked with the blood of over a thousand brave men from both sides. Fiestas and parades should have never been allowed. But, they for sure need to be ended by any new plan. Grass, trees, demonstrations, education, and a place to reflect on what happened there, are much more important….at least in my mind.

  23. When the Alamo Endowment was established, I was thrilled that the Alamo would get the care she deserves and was happy to donate a sizable amount to the Endowment to support their efforts. I could not be more disappointed that this is what my money is going to create. Thank you for your commentary, Bob. Hopefully the response is loud enough for the Endowment to hear. This design is maddeningly amateurish.

  24. It looks more like a blank slate than a finished project. Keep the trees, and maybe add some. Place interactive exhibits around the plaza. and position the glass panels at intervals, with space to walk between. We’re not creating a real fortress. We should be creating an experience that teaches visitors about the battle of the Alamo and its place in Texas history. It should be a welcoming space that invites people to gather, to learn, to meditate and to pay respect.

  25. I like that people are speaking out and would add that current pedestrian uses of Alamo Plaza – a confluence of cultures if there ever was one – are what make Alamo Plaza one of the few great urban public spaces that still matter in the U.S.

    Along with joining others in being bothered by the painful design proposals, I’m troubled that the executive summary (all the public is able to access currently) for the new Alamo Plaza ‘master plan’ depicts public demonstrating as well as mobile vending as somehow attacking the ‘dignity’ of the Alamo or San Antonio – while seemingly deciding for us that a new rooftop cafe or the free fudge samples at the Alamo gift shop (or a nearby hotel and bar and shopping mall and surface parking) are somehow more decorous.

    As Bob raises, Alamo Plaza is an urban space with traditions of public gathering including parading that the designers seem to have missed. It is also a space for exercising constitutionally guaranteed and individually determined public rights – what the Battle of the Alamo was ultimately about.

    The designers and others might not love people street preaching, panhandling, protesting, raspa vending, trinket shopping, photo posing, sitting under trees, wearing tank tops, riding bikes etc. (a good day out at Alamo Plaza involves at least these elements in the pursuit of happiness), but this is what active urban public life looks like. These practices and the urban public character of this area are not recent, noting the direction development took in this part of San Antonio in the years immediately following the Battle. Nor is touristic commercial development near the Alamo something without history – you can see for yourself in the comedy motion picture Viva Max filmed in 1968-9 (some of it filmed within and on top of some Alamo structures) that is approaching its 50th anniversary. You’ll find similar elements in important U.S. urban public spaces including Times Square or Greenwich Street near the 9/11 Memorial in New York. Pearl Harbor historic sites on the outskirts of Honolulu and similar are largely not appropriate models for the design and management of the area surrounding the Alamo, including as these are mainly drive-in, drive-out non-urban sites with no relation to the historically public and urban nature of Alamo Plaza.

    Noting the non-urban and more expansive ‘decorum zones’ the design team has drawn from with their proposals, the ‘before’ images of visitors and locals under the shade of mature trees and colorful umbrellas enjoying raspas from cart vendors on the Plaza (vendors approaching at least their 30th year of public practice if you don’t view them as an extension of the Chili Queens and other street vending that has historically helped to make San Antonio’s public spaces and visitor experience remarkable), seem so much better than the rendered ‘after’ images showcased with the recent ‘big reveal’.

    Beyond questions of taste and judgement in framing Alamo planning work as Design TV, the new design images ‘revealed’ lean heavily on pedestrians for any vitality whatsoever. Yet the design images put people/ the public in downright strange positions, with women clutching juice bottles (somehow better than raspas, a vending practice erased with the renderings) and a man in a sweater and backpack randomly pushing a bicycle across the desert terrarium – er, the now glass-enclosed Alamo Plaza.

    As miraculously as the new and orderly mature trees outside of the terrarium (replacing ‘disorderly’ existing mature trees lacking ‘dignity’?), these rendered folks are in the exact same position at night as depicted. It seems they have to keep standing as there’s really nothing else envisioned for them to do.

    I question the veracity of calling the Alamo work to date a master plan as what has been presented to the public lacks various essential planning elements, including a detailed study of pedestrian uses of the site and surrounds or any semblance of a pedestrian strategy (as potentially connected with a night time economy strategy for greater downtown, which the City is also sorely lacking). For example, where is that guy with the bike headed (where can he park it? How can he get out of the terrarium?). Where did those women get those juice bottles (and how will recycling be managed)? What will anyone do once the gift shop fudge samples are locked up for the day?

    It’s a bit concerning as the new Alamo design work is so heavily dependent on presumed pedestrian activity (a whole lot of standing around apparently) but with the designers making such sweeping proclamations about what is or isn’t an appropriate pedestrian use of a large and traditionally urban public space and right-of-way. Just as troubling, the designers seem to have run out of ‘great ideas’ for pedestrians when it comes to addressing the surface parking creating horrible pedestrian approaches to the Alamo from Bonham as well as East Houston Street – areas that mar the experience of visiting the Alamo but that the ‘master’ planning seems to ignore.

    The new executive summary borrows (without reference) from the now dated study done by Project for Public Spaces for the Alamo area which proposed back in 2012 closing some streets to traffic, including to help mitigate some of the damage being caused to the Alamo (that the latest executive summary also highlights). I think the City should pause current planning and do this immediately – close recommended streets to traffic near the Alamo via non-permanent interventions, if only just to study how the public uses the space in order to inform new proposals for the site, as well as to collect some of the data needed for a downtown pedestrian strategy and night time economy strategy.

    Regardless, the goofy ‘planning’ that the City has now received for Alamo Plaza must be taken for what it is – basically an infomercial (in keeping with the formula of Design TV) for structural glass, the laminate wood flooring of public works with some nifty uses but likely not appropriate as proposed. Noting, too, that ‘master planning’ typically does not stress a specific (and in this case a non-historical and non-local) building material choice – at least, not without some rationale or comparisons or data.

    I’m including below an example of what San Antonians should instead expect with City planning in 2017 – a recent draft pedestrian strategy (presented in its entirety to the public for comment and feedback, with reasonable notification and time to review) connecting with a night time economy strategy and other planning for an urban downtown district just 40 years younger than the Alamo, about the same size as San Antonio’s central business district and, like San Antonio, undergoing significant redevelopment.

    Note the data (including ten years of walking statistics for key streets in an area roughly a mile in radius) informing this plan; currently pedestrians in San Antonio seem only to be counted when they are hit by cars. Note also the aims for pedestrian conditions as well as commitment to international pedestrian design standards and urban qualities. This is how you plan to make a world-class site and city, not with structural glass.


  26. Thank you so much for your excellent articles, Bob. Your first question is The Key: who amongst the “authority” have ANY history in 1836 San Antonio (much less before then!!). And if they don’t, why aren’t they communicating and making official those of us who ARE???? Who ARE these people attacking our Alamo?? And show me evidence that they UNDERSTAND and that they CARE about our Alamo and it’s genuine devotees.

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