Courtesy / Texas General Land Office
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.