It’s Time to Go Public with the New Alamo Plaza Plan

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More than 2.5 million people visit The Alamo every year.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

More than 2.5 million people visit The Alamo every year.

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 politicallyconnected 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.

Gift shops, amusement rides, and wax museums make up the businesses at Alamo Plaza.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Gift shops, amusement rides, and wax museums make up the businesses on the west side of Alamo Plaza.

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.

37 thoughts on “It’s Time to Go Public with the New Alamo Plaza Plan

  1. Why is that section of Alamo continuously referred to as a north-south corridor? It is northbound only. The southbound lane is a bus lane and has been since Tri-Party in the 90s. The only explanation I can think of is that either people wish it was a two-way and as fast as Broadway. It’s not. Or maybe they’ve never seen it.

    • Most streets downtown are one way. I think of the paired streets of Alamo/Losoya as a North/South corridor, similar to Navarro/St Mary’s.

      Closing one half of that coupling is problematic for cars downtown, but also for buses. If that bus route has to be moved to Losoya, which is narrow and already pretty slow with all of the Broadway traffic meeting a narrower street already clogged with restaurant deliveries and people entering and exiting the Hyatt, it wouldn’t be pretty. The other option is sending South-bound buses down St Mary’s, which is already one of the busiest bus routes with 10+ bus lines passing through.

      I’m all for walkable pedestrian zones, but you can’t first close off the North/south streets at Main Plaza and the close Alamo, and not expect an impact. Any other project would be required to provide a Traffic Impact Analysis. If they do one, and the public is on board with the idea that depicting the original boundaries of the Alamo is worth messing up traffic, so be it. But you can’t just not do one.

      • There are three bus routes that transit Alamo Plaza. They all are what VIA now calls culture routes. They were known as streetcars. There are no main line buses on Alamo Plaza. They don’t even run as late as main line routes.

        It’s the city’s decision to close the streets. Nowhere have I read that the state is taking over something that they don’t already own.

  2. A majority of the “design” groups involved in this are based outside of Texas. That has never made sense to me, but we should continue to push back when they run afoul of common sense.

  3. Stakeholders? On a public project?

    Why is architecture and development sooooo political in San Antonio? That’s what I really want to know.

    I think this has less to do about the design, and more to do about who is involved, or better yet, who isn’t.

  4. 1.5 visitors? Take a look at that and fill in the blank. I’m interested in whether it is “million” or “billion”.

  5. We want to know why there isn’t a public-relations/public-informing department. There are multiple groups making decisions and having input, and it’s imposdible for us to know who they are, what’s their group called, who has the most power, where to attend public hearings…..what a wreck. INFORM US. Make it easy to FIND YOU PLANNERS.

  6. The “Alamo Messenger” arrived in my emailbox. I try not to be alarmed about how the gathering of statewide input affects the disposition of what is San Antonio’s plaza… But the statewide process seems so biased.

    From the mouth of the Messenger itself: “Each event began with a digital comparison of the 1836 Alamo battlefield and Alamo Plaza today, presented by Bryan Preston, the Communications Director at the Texas General Land Office. This digital demonstration illustrated the importance of recapturing the footprint of the 1836 battlefield so that reverence and honor can be paid to the defenders who gave their lives on March 6, 1836.”

    The plaza is important to San Antonians as a public park; for urban traffic patterns, at a minimum meaning pedestrian; for historical celebrations; as a center for the exercise of free speech. With the type of introduction indicated above, the rest of the state will endorse closing the plaza in favor of the battle footprint.

    San Antonians’ rights to access our public park – always part of our heart, a critical part of the reason we are celebrating turning 300 – should be at the forefront of any decision-making.

  7. If you’re interested in an expansion or full telling of the story of the Battle of the Alamo, I’d love to share a concept with you. You’ll be surprised and pleased.

  8. Why can’t the City release the traffic study that Pape Dawson conducted? Why should the public accept the report’s questionable conclusions when we aren’t even allowed to see the document? And consider the connecting north-south streets in downtown San Antonio in 1885: Comal, Salado, Medina, Frio, Leona, Pecos, San Saba, East, Laredo, Flores, Soledad, Navarro, Alamo, and Walnut. I count only four connecting open north-south streets in downtown San Antonio today: Frio, Flores, St. Mary’s (1-way), Alamo (1-way except for buses.) If a driver needs to travel from the north side of downtown to Southtown, she probably must use the freeway. Chopping up downtown into more and more multi-block campuses disorients visitors and frustrates those of us who live and work here. That is the real traffic problem that needs analysis.

  9. Bob, I agree completely with your article .

    The citizens do own the streets and open space surrounding the Alamo.

    I believe the state is unfairly TAKING our plaza and street by closing it to traffic .

    All great plazas in the world are open to traffic. The pantheon in Rome is 2000 years old and the plaza and streets that surround it have buses and cars next to this Roman wonder of the world.

    There are inventive ways to have intermittent street closure while enjoying a wondrous and vibrant Alamo Plaza .

    I ask the city council , mayor , city manager , and city staff to be inclusive to all ideas from citizens to stakeholders .

    To date this process has been all closed door and secretive .

    David Lake

  10. Thank you to this group who is working to ensure the process is done the right way. I see zero benefit to turning over our street to the State of Texas for this project. Even if it still ends up being shut down the CIty of San Antonio should maintain ownership to ensure we control our downtown and not the state. The idea that the street MUST be shutdown and ownership conveyed seems like an idea that was cooked a long time ago with the state during negotiations for the money to complete this project. Maintain ownership and we can cover the cost and future of Alamo Street. CC: Madison Smith, David Adelman​, Ed Cross, Bill Shown, David Lake, Irby Hightower​, Robert Rivard​

  11. The last comment I made on Alamo Plaza was to the City Council just after the release of the Master Plan. I told them to imagine the entire plaza as being empty. The question becomes then, how to make the Alamo more visually important in the plaza as a whole. The difficulty now is that the Alamo is sub-ordinate to the North-South orientation of nearly everything in the existing plaza. (street, curb, fire lane, bollards, light fixtures, trees, etc.) A more important East/West axis (aligned with the Alamo) is a valid goal.

    • Why? The church was built off to one side of the mission, away from the major axis. It wasn’t Karnak.

  12. The Alamo Trust is having its first public meeting Wed at 10am? Not much notice and just who do they think is able to attend at 10am on a weekday. Still not much transparency.

  13. I’m all for restoring the sanctity of Alamo Plaza by closing it to traffic & restoring at least some part of the walls. But the proposed glass wall would be an abominatio. The idea of destroying the precious shade-creating heritage oaks is absurd. No tourist or local could enjoy that space in the summer when radiating heat would drive the temperature to 100+ degrees regularly. Moving the Cenotaph to the actual cremation site makes good sense to me except I wonder will anyone actually go over there to see it?

    • Exactly right on the trees. It takes a consultant from Philly or Cinci to imagine a plaza full of tourists milling around a tree-less Alamo Plaza mid-day. I’d love to have the EMS contract to tend to the people who collapse from heat stroke.

  14. Following the changes at the Alamo began for me when I became aware of the mismanagement 10 years ago and filed the complaint with the Attorney General. Since then, I’ve been in the dark along with everyone else. Thank you for the article, and good luck finding out what’s really happening!

  15. I’m a firm believer that the Alamo is a State sacred site and should be restored to it’s original battleground setting. As far as San Antonio citizens having a voice in it’s projected plans…no, just no, as in HELL NO! where were they during the battle? TEXAS needs to see this brought to conclusion. I’m sure San Antonio can handle it’s own traffic concerns AROUND the battlefield. As a birthright Texan and historical enthusiasts I say let’s move on!

    • Well Rickey, as a birthright Texan *and* San Antonian, and an historical enthusiast like yourself, I want San Antonians to voice their concerns.

      This sacred ground, consecrated as well by indigenous and immigrant peoples before and after the momentous 1836 battle, deserves more space and shade and historical markers denoting what happened and why.
      I believe the ground is also a Texas treasure as a public park, and a free-speech and civic space venue ’cause, y’know, Shrine of Texas *Liberty* and stuff 🙂
      If it takes a little longer to finally open up the dialogs and discussions so damnable glass walls are *never* built, and heritage trees stay put with some cottonwoods contributing more shade, then let’s take a little more time.
      HECK YES! to all reasonable people and open, transparent discussions for restoring our public treasure to hordes of UNESCO-site inspired visitors and locals!

    • So Rickey, I am all for your proposal. When do you plan on destroying the fake façade and removing the 1850’s roof? Let’s restore the cathedral to it’s pre-battle condition as you demand. Oh wait, you and plenty of others want your cake and to eat it too. You want the 1850 to present day façade and the original walls.

  16. From my perspective, there are controversial aspects to the Alamo Plaza plans that have been made public, but closing a few blocks of Alamo Street to regular through-traffic (including VIA vehicles) makes sense if the aim is preservation and place- and downtown-improvement.

    Overland Partner’s Smith (no Rivard Report disclosure?) seems to be making arguments from a car traffic flow and not a humanistic urban planning perspective, injecting the 1950s car-dependent suburban dream into the heart of urban San Antonio — making the Alamo as convenient to passing cars as a Jack-in-the-Box or Taco Cabana drive-up window. What other city or historically significant urban site does this?

    Alamo Street between Houston and Commerce is obviously a better place for locals and Alamo visitors when these blocks are closed to traffic, as every Sicloverde has proven. As other readers have observed, these blocks have already been limited in recent years to northbound traffic only, except for new VIA VIVA buses. I would be surprised if any traffic study has had time to measure the negative impacts of the introduction of heavy VIA buses to Alamo Plaza in recent months — and I note no pedestrian polling or public space studies shaping the arguments above for maintaining the current through-traffic.

    The closing of blocks of Alamo Street to regular traffic (parading traditions could still be maintained) follows the long-term trajectory of planning for this street and the past recommendations of national public space planning experts. It also is supported by recent SATomorrow planning aims and objectives. Perhaps Gehl Architects or other firm committed to safe and comfortable spaces for people (not suburban drivers) and at the leading edge of this practice could be brought in for yet another more informed and objective opinion?

    But locals already understand that further pedestrianizing this small section of Alamo Street supports economic, preservation, public health improvement and, sadly, security aims for downtown — noting the increase in vehicle ramming attacks in symbolic and high pedestrian volume sections of other cities.

    Through-traffic across Alamo Plaza has been gradually planned out, and most San Antonians haven’t even noticed the change. Arguments for maintaining or increasing through-traffic in scraping or ramming distance of the Alamo reek of self-interest. Broadway and East Side gentrifiers shouldn’t be determining the long-range form and function of (eg. place-changing) the historic downtown in hopes of improving car access to and from their subpar design efforts around downtown. Fight the glass walls and raspa vendor and tree removal proposals but not the longstanding effort to give Alamo Plaza back to locals and visitors.

  17. As a San Antonio ground transportation provider for 38 years. New visitors of the Alamo have always told me they were surprise with the overall small size, the overall image of the Alamo and the surroundings area. Improving the story behind the Alamo and cleaning up the surrounding area, plus adding a museum may will help. The question is how can we balance the needs of city and State of Texas who want improve the site and its story? Everyone will have to give a little if we want to improve the site. Whatever they do the park it should remain an open free space to citizens and visitors.

    • Robert,
      Accessibility has always been my number one priority as I provide feedback. The original presentation of the master plan last spring (a year ago!) had walls. The presentation said “tickets”to the plaza would be free but limited in number and times. I told them I thought that was unacceptable. People use that plaza for so many reasons but just to see the Alamo requiring either a ticket or to look through glass walls would do the opposite of adding more people to learn the Alamo story. I am told that portion of the plan was dropped, however, I have seen nothing to confirm.

  18. Thank you Rivard Report for your continued reporting on this matter. As someone who has given countless tours of the Alamo over my two decades here, I personally would like to see a couple of things that I believe would make the Plaza and the monument a more successful place.

    1. Better, more modern story telling. We don’t have to rebuild what once was. We have to do a better job telling the story. The location downtown dictates that the full footprint will never be again and you know what? That is ok. Gettysburg does not and will not ever get the full battlefield either. Most visitors walk right over the stone wall representations that cut through the asphalt streets and because the story isn’t being told, they don’t even realize it.

    2. Leave the Cenotaph monument where it is. Once again I go back to Gettysburg and a very successful restoration project that I helped with. Gettysburg has hundreds of monuments placed on “scared ground” long afterward and they help tell the story, they are not a liability except to the PC crowd.

    3. Recognize that since Battle, Alamo Plaza has been and hopefully always will be the “heart and soul” and the defacto town square of San Antonio. It is where we residents gather for special events and where hundreds of thousands visitors come to enjoy those same events such as the HEB Tree Lighting (until the disaster of 2017). Restoration of the Alamo must be weighed closely with the destruction of this “heart and soul” of San Antonio.

    4. People need to recognize that the vendor who owns and operates the Ripley’s attractions has been an asset to the Plaza. I am however in favor of turning those buildings into a world class museum complex to house Alamo artifacts and specifically the Phil Collins collection. This goes back to point number one, tell the story better!

    My final thought on the project and proposal is this, restoring walls, whether glass or by some other representation does very little to tell the story. To tell the story CGI methods should be used, a 21st Century built wall with open space amongst the modern buildings won’t do that. Visitors to the Alamo should be encouraged to seek out the other four missions in San Antonio and specifically Mission San Jose to gain a better perspective of what Mission life was like. You will never be able to recreate that in the middle of downtown San Antonio.

  19. As a San Antonio native, I agree, very good article.

    What an amazing city we have!!!

    I’m so proud of the people in our community coming together to vocalize diverse viewpoints and work collaboratively to represent all backgrounds especially those who are historically under-represented or marginalized in our great city.

    Outsider disruptors will never understand! Well said!

    Thank you for the Rivard Report!

  20. I believe that sanctity can and should be returned to the Alamo by closing Alamo plaza to traffic. The Cenotaph should be moved to the edge of Civic Park off of Market and placed on top of a multistoried pedestal much like the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal where they can similarly house a museum run by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas so they can once again be an integral part of the preservation of the Alamo. Such a pedestal should be tall enough to allow visitors a partial view of Alamo plaza with digital technology allowing an overlay view (from inside the pedastal) of what the battle looked like on a multimedia wall through which the actual partial view of the Alamo can be seen. In addition, this location can be used for Alamo galas and fundraisers. As for the ‘glass wall’, perhaps there can be reconstruction of certain parts or corners of the wall, blending into similarly formed opaque glass and transitioning into clear glass. Just a thought …

  21. Mayor Ron Nirenberg wrote:
    “…Whatever the plan calls for, the people of San Antonio deserve
    ample opportunity to weigh in on the future of the Alamo…”

    Do they? I did not realize that the Alamo belonged exclusively to the people of San Antonio. It belongs to All Texans, Americans, and freedom-loving people of the world.That these so-called concerned residents of San Antonio do not want to have to spend 15 more minutes in traffic in order to honor the Alamo heroes and over 1000 mission Indians buried beneath Alamo Street is both pathetic and self-serving. “Me First” seems to be their battle-cry. They are willing to show reverence to the history of Alamo Plaza, so long as it does not affect them personally.

  22. Why didn’t the city have a contest with different ideas coming from citizens of san antonio, instead of having out of towners drawing up the plans?
    The proposed plans look sterile and cold–there is no warmth.
    Also, why didn’t they use some of the money for traffic improvements
    and also for helping the homeless downtown.

  23. Can you imagine how hot it will be without the trees and all that concrete? Way to take away all the charm of the city.

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