Scott Ball / Rivard Report
If you don't understand what is happening with the planned redevelopment of Alamo Plaza, or who exactly presides over San Antonio's most important development project in decades, you are not alone.
A coalition of stakeholders from the downtown design and development community has expressed growing concern with the project's latest trajectory in recent email exchanges with Mayor Ron Nirenberg shared with the Rivard Report.
"As you know, many of us are very concerned about damage to our urban fabric the Alamo plan may cause, particularly restricted civic access to the plaza and permanently closing Alamo Street," wrote Madison Smith, a principal with Overland Partners architecture firm and a spokesman for the stakeholder group, in an April 30 email to the mayor.
Smith challenged the assumptions put forward by the Alamo Trust and the Texas General Land Office that vehicle traffic is damaging the Alamo's limestone walls. He suggested that no credible engineering studies have been undertaken, citing an exchange with various international engineers who questioned the impact of vehicle traffic on historic structures.
Smith also asked Nirenberg why officials have declined to release a traffic impact study commissioned by the City and conducted by Pape-Dawson Engineers. The stakeholder group believes the street closure will undo years of planning and investment to create a seamless north-south urban corridor from Broadway through downtown to Hemisfair and Southtown.
"Weighing most heavily on my mind is the Alamo campaign process itself. Billed as a public process, I have found it to be opaque," Smith wrote.
Others listed on the email include David Adelman, principal with AREA Real Estate; David Lake, principal with Lake/Flato Architects; Irby Hightower, principal with Alamo Architects; Ed Cross, principal with SA Commercial Advisors; Bill Shown, managing director, real estate, with Silver Ventures, owner of the Pearl; and Michael Berrier, a downtown businessman and resident who has previously written about the Alamo Plaza for the Rivard Report.
"Last Spring, our group of downtown advocates raised concerns regarding the potentially damaging impacts to the urban surrounds by the Alamo plan. After almost a year, we have been given no information on how the plan is coming along and how it is dealing with the concerns we raised. Discouraging evidence is mounting that our concerns are being dismissed."
The mayor, who has called for greater transparency and public discussion of the Alamo Plaza project since he served as the District 8 city councilman, responded to Smith and the other stakeholders the very same day, writing, "Thank you for your note ... I have had conversations with members of the Committee about these very points, and while all may not be satisfactorily addressed, the information that was shared will, I hope, alleviate some concerns. I would welcome another meeting.
"To be sure, the June 7 timeline was in the draft, but was not rigid. There will be no 'cram-down.' We will not move forward until there has been sufficient review by City Council and by the public of the forthcoming design. And in the end, approval does not occur until the executive committee (mayor/GLO commissioner) and the Council ultimately votes to move forward with conveyance. We will do so thoughtfully and without any artificial rush."
Nirenberg was preparing to send a letter to Alamo Endowment Secretary Gene Powell, a politically
-connected San Antonio real estate developer and the person widely regarded as the driving force behind the project. Powell also is chairman the of the nonprofit Remember the Alamo Foundation, which hopes to raise $200 million in private donations to convert the westside plaza buildings into a museum that will hold the renowned Phil Collins Collection of Alamo historic artifacts.
Nirenberg declined to release a draft of his letter, but two sources told the Rivard Report the mayor would call on Powell to open the process to public input in a series of community hearings, and advises that City Council will not approve the interpretive plan until its has been vetted publicly with stakeholder and community concerns openly addressed.
Nirenberg did issue a statement to the Rivard Report:
"The redevelopment of Alamo Plaza is important to the entire state and the world. It is sacred ground and it is central to San Antonio's story, 300 years ago to the present. However, I appreciate that the local project will be permanent and irreversible change to downtown. Before that occurs, I want to ensure that the Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee and the San Antonio community have a meaningful and early opportunity to view and respond to the interpretive plans now being developed. Whatever the plan calls for, the people of San Antonio deserve ample opportunity to weigh in on the future of the Alamo."
The Alamo Trust, which manages the Alamo, Long Barracks, and grounds, will hold its first public meeting at Alamo Hall on Wednesday, May 16, at 10 a.m.. The trust came under fire last year for holding closed-door meetings. Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush announced earlier this year that he would step down as chairman of the Trust with Houston businessman Welcome Wilson taking his place.
The meeting agenda suggests nothing substantive about the interpretive plan will be unveiled, but there will be an opportunity for citizens to address the Trust's board of directors and Alamo CEO Douglass McDonald, hired last August, who commutes to his part-time job from his Cincinnati home.
Gaining an understanding of the interpretive plan and all the development issues will probably not be possible until City Council is briefed in open session this summer, sometime before its traditional break.
More than one year has passed since the original master plan was developed by Philadelphia-based Preservation Design Partnership, which is no longer leading the process. That proposal called for the relocation of the amusement and entertainment businesses that dominate the west side of the plaza, with the buildings repurposed as a privately-funded museum and visitors center.
While the state owns the Alamo, the City of San Antonio owns Alamo Street and Alamo Plaza and has not yet disclosed where it hopes to relocate the lucrative entertainment businesses, which along with the Alamo itself, attract more than 1.5 million visitors annually.
The most controversial aspects of the plan's renderings called for shutting down the plaza to vehicle traffic, enclosing the World Heritage-designated Alamo and its former defensive perimeter behind glass walls cutting down heritage hardwood trees and relocating the 1936-era Cenotaph to create a more open plaza.
The interpretive plan for Alamo Plaza is the work of St. Louis-based attraction design firm PGAV Destinations, London-based museum and heritage consultants Cultural Innovations, and Cambridge, Massachusetts-based landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand. An April briefing before City Council yielded few details showing how the new plan will differ from the original proposal.
Whatever the interpretive plan's merits, the failure to invite key stakeholders to the table and the unusual degree of secrecy at play do little to build public confidence in the ultimate outcome.
Correction: An earlier version of this column stated that Mayor Ron Nirenberg had sent a letter to Alamo Endowment Secretary Gene Powell. A spokesman for the mayor said Sunday the letter has not been sent yet.