Alamo Master Planners Present New Ideas for the Plaza

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The Alamo Cenotaph is proposed to be relocated less than 500 feet South from it's current location.

Courtesy / Texas General Land Office

The Alamo Cenotaph is proposed to be relocated less than 500 feet South from it's current location.

Demolish historic buildings and build a modern museum facility, close South Alamo and East Houston streets to vehicular traffic and create several gated access points, enhance the tree canopy, move the Cenotaph less than 500 feet south, and sink the original footprint of Alamo Plaza by more than a foot.

These are just a few of the ideas the Alamo Master Plan design team has proposed in its  draft interpretive plan presented to the Citizens Advisory Committee on Thursday evening at the Witte Museum. The $450 million public-private project to reimagine the space in downtown San Antonio would include a “Smithsonian-level” museum and visitor center, interactive exhibits, and more. As presented, the interpretive plan would essentially make the church, Long Barracks, and a portion of the plaza into a destination, a pedestrian-friendly green space, and an outdoor extension of the museum with continued public access to the square, designers said.

What most people now think of as Alamo Plaza would become twin plazas, the smaller Alamo Plaza in front of the Church and Long Barracks, and the larger Plaza de Valero reaching southward to Commerce Street. Click here to download a version of the design team’s presentation.

The glass walls proposed in a previous plan are gone, but the concept of “managed” access to the Alamo Plaza’s mission footprint remains, City Manager Sheryl Sculley said, in order to secure and support programming – such as demonstrations of indigenous cultures, guided tours, and 1836 Battle reenactments – planned for the square.

This “managed” access, which includes moving the free speech/protest zone south along with the Cenotaph to the front of the Menger Hotel, as well as the building demolition and street closures, is expected to generate significant  public feedback – and criticism.

During a meeting with the Rivard Report on Wednesday, designers and officials stressed that the renderings shown here and at the Witte and the various concepts and proposals remain works in progress. Public input gathered at a series of hearings over the summer will continue to shape the plan, expected to be finalized this fall.

“The committee is moving in the right direction,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg told the Rivard Report on Thursday. “I haven’t reviewed the plan closely enough to endorse it yet. They have incorporated public feedback, and public access remains crucial.”

The design team consultants – Cambridge, Massachusetts-based landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand; St. Louis-based attraction design firm PGAV Destinations; and London-based museum and heritage consultants Cultural Innovations – have been working with City and Texas General Land Office officials since December 2017 on the interpretive design. It’s aimed at bringing “reverence and learning,” said Reed Hilderbrand principal Eric Kramer, to a plaza that many feel is plagued with cheap commercialization, tourist traps, and lack of historical interpretation and signage.

“We’re still in planning mode,” said John Kasman, vice president of PGAV Destinations. “There’s huge design phases yet to come.”

The latest renderings are the result of public input collected from public meetings held locally and across the state, said Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), whose district includes the site.

“You’ll see that we’ve been listening,” said Treviño, one of three chairs of the Citizen Advisory Committee and a member of the Alamo Management Committee.

Four public meetings are scheduled in the north, south, east, and west quadrants of the City in June, and more are expected. Demolishing the historic Woolworth, Palace, and Crockett buildings – which the State owns – or perhaps using the shell of one as an entrance to a new facility, are options, Kramer said, but so is keeping them there.

Those are choices that all the various boards, committees, and elected officials associated with developing and executing the plan will have to wrestle with over the next several months in addition to getting public feedback.

Various museum professionals have said the existing buildings, even retrofitted, are not suitable for presenting and preserving museum-quality artifacts. Others are expected to argue that all of the buildings on the plaza’s western flank should be preserved.

The goal for the design is to “change the understanding of the Alamo as a building to the Alamo as a place,” according to the team’s presentation. This most recent effort to revive the plaza started in 2014, and City Council approved the conceptual master plan in May 2017.

Designers translated the guiding principles developed in 2015 by the Citizens Advisory Committee into physical ways to achieve the vision, Kramer said. No easy task, he added, but it boiled down to: revealing as much of the 1700s Mission San Antonio de Valero’s Plaza original footprint, clarifying periods of historic significance, highlighting the importance of water, choreographing visitor approaches to the site, and developing an accessible and coherent place linked to adjacent historic venues.

The designers sought to “remove elements that are not contributing to this experience,” Kramer said. “How do we make this feel like a safe, comfortable, continuous, space?”

That includes a recommendation to relocate the Cenotaph, a 1936 memorial to the Alamo defenders who died in the 1836 Battle, to a space fronting the Menger Hotel where a gazebo currently stands; removing the buildings, which lie directly over the original footprint; exposing the original wall via transparent flooring; digging more than one foot down into the ground to remove modern layers of infrastructure and allow visitors to step down into a distinct, sacred space; and closing the plaza to vehicular traffic to work toward those physical manifestations of the guiding principles, he said.

“The visitor should have a different relationship between the city [built environment] and the mission footprint,” Kramer said, noting that the one-foot drop will achieve a “sense of arrival.”

Moving the 1930s-era Cenotaph is a sticking point for almost all descendants of the defenders who want to see the Cenotaph stay where it is. But moving it less than 500 feet south allows it to have its own space, Kramer said.

“If [the Cenotaph] is moved, it needs to remain on the Alamo grounds in a prominent location,” Nirenberg said. “Most importantly, it needs to be restored so that it doesn’t fall down.”

The proposal includes the establishment of several access points to the plaza’s original footprint that could be sectioned off via railings, fences “hidden” in landscaping, and other barriers yet to be determined. These gates can be opened and controlled by staff and can allow for delivery and emergency vehicles to access the site, Kramer said. The plaza would generally be open 24 hours a day, but the museum, church, long barracks, and garden behind it would close.

Parade routes, as originally proposed, would be redirected to other streets, but the proposal allows for “flexibility” in routes that could take floats around the back via Bonham or via Losoya Street, Kramer said.

Leaders of Fiesta’s Battle of Flowers and Flambeau parades have vehemently opposed adjusting the parade routes moving out of the plaza, as have other residents who see the path in front of the Alamo as a unique and essential tradition to the annual spring festival.

A traffic study conducted by Pape-Dawson Engineers found that the impact of closing portions of East Crockett, South Alamo, and East Houston streets would be minimal, mitigated by turning Losoya Street – a narrow, busy street one block west of the Alamo – into a three-lane, two-way street.

Click here to download a presentation of the study’s findings prepared by Pape-Dawson and presented to the City.

A traffic study conducted for the Alamo Plaza redesign suggests turning Losoya Street into a three-lane, two-way street.

Courtesy / Pape Dawson Engineers

A traffic study conducted for the Alamo Plaza redesign suggests turning Losoya Street into a three-lane, two-way street.

Should planners choose to, demolishing the some or all of the buildings would give the mission footprint, church, and long barracks more visibility and prominence from within the Alamo Plaza and as visitors approach the space, Kramer said.

Martyn Best, CEO of Cultural Innovations, said a comprehensive study will be commissioned to learn more about the historic relevance of the buildings, their current conditions, and capability of being converted into a world-class museum and/or demolished. The stories of those buildings would be included in the museum as well, he added.

“If you wanted to show [the] original footprint, you could do that inside the building,” said Susan Beavin, president of the San Antonio Conservation Society, which opposes any plan that suggests knocking down any of the three buildings. “There’s no point in not using that [historic] space.”

The Woolworth building is the site of the first peaceful integration of black and white lunch counters in a southern city, Conservation Society Executive Director Vincent Michael added. The lunch counter isn’t there any more, but “that story [and others] needs to be interpreted in the building … there’s a lot of possibilities there.”

Inside the museum, Best said, there would be four galleries that explore life on the Misiòn de Valero site, the 1836 Battle of the Alamo, and another that explores the Alamo’s modern journey from “ruins to icon.”

There also would be a “thematic” gallery that explores and debunks the myths associated with the site and battleground such as Col. William Barret Travis’ famous “line in the sand” folklore, Best said. The mission footprint itself will serve as part of the museum and opportunities for outdoor exhibits and reenactments are plentiful, he said.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Alamo CEO Douglas McDonald

No matter the shape or look of the museum, said Douglas McDonald, CEO of The Alamo, “it’s a new academic entity that will challenge us … [and] stretch people’s understanding. That’s the role of museums.”

Meanwhile, the City continues to work with the current tenants of the historic buildings to establish a so-called “entertainment district” somewhere – possibly nearby – for businesses such as the Guinness World Records Museum, Tomb Rider 3D, Ripley’s Haunted Adventure, apparel store Del Sol, and Grand Trolley Tours to move into.

The move isn’t about discouraging those businesses, Sculley said, “it’s about moving these functions to another place.”

Bryan Preston, director of communications for the Texas General Land Office, said while on tour with the master plan concepts around the state, most Texans’ greatest concern was ensuring the Battle remain the focus of the site and  the Cenotaph be preserved.

“Outside of San Antonio, they don’t care about the [smaller details and] issues that we’re all talking about,” Sculley said. “And the donors are not going to come necessarily from here.”

The bulk of the estimated $450 million project will be funded through private donors and philanthropists here, throughout Texas, and across the nation through the nonprofit Alamo Endowment.

“Fundraising won’t happen until there’s a clear plan going forward,” McDonald said, adding that he expects the entire project will be completed by 2023 – before the Alamo’s 300th birthday in 2024.

The Texas General Land Office manages the Alamo and Long Barracks. The City owns the plaza and surrounding streets. The City won’t give up ownership of the streets that run through and around the plaza until the design satisfies the community and stakeholders, Nirenberg has told the Rivard Report. That conveyance of land would require a City Council vote.

Nirenberg sits on the Executive Committee with Land Commissioner George P. Bush. The final interpretive plan would also require approval from both members.

25 thoughts on “Alamo Master Planners Present New Ideas for the Plaza

  1. I think it’s a thoughtful plan. You are not going to make everyone happy and nothing truly great was ever done by committee. So pick a plan me let’s get going!

    • I would say that this current plan is not truly thoughtful considering the mandate to close the space when the state feels like it and removing the street for use when needed. Committee or not, this plan will not create a great space. It will create a fenced off state GLO run park and not the open plaza we were all told it would be and should be. The designers are certainly a talented and respected group of people that have a hard task of doing what is right for the space and the surronding part of the city. Great cities and great downtowns do not close off spaces. Great urban cities open up spaces for all to use in a thoughtful way. The committee that needs to take a step back is the Alamo Executive Committee and the Alamo Trust Board. They are pushing so hard to just move forward that it can be bad for our downtown for years to come. That is worth pushing back on if needed.

  2. Consultants from Cambridge or Massachusetts will never understand a Texan who shouts” Remember the Alamo”

  3. I’m thankful the hideous glass walls are gone and that the plaza is being considered as a more total spatial area that includes the Torch of the Friendship sculpture and Houston Street. Right now we have a patchwork of underused traffic circles complete with a curving driveway clipping across the front space of the Alamo itself. I actually watched schoolchildren on tour falling off the curb and into the street while huddling around trying to inspect the Cenotaph.

    I wish they would have also showed alternative renderings that left the Cenotaph and Alamo Plaza Gazebo in place within the sunken and re-detailed plaza, especially as it is still not clear what is the design necessity for moving and removing them. Not only are they historical in themselves, but they thematically and stylistically work with their surrounding buildings and anchor their ends of the total plaza. Moving memorial cenotaphs to make space for touristy battle re-enactments also seems in very poor taste.

    Demolishing the historic facades fronting the Alamo for the proposed museum is also mistake, for not only are those buildings historic in themselves, but we will never get any new architecture in their place that can match the scale and historical sensibility of those buildings. We simply do not build like that anymore, and any new building, regardless of the genius of the architect, will stand in stark contrast to everything else fronting the sides of the plaza and break the plaza’s contiguous historical enclosure. We do not want to loose that, and the apparent formative development of a museum building’s massing already should give us pause. Let any such museum building incorporate the historic facades, but do not demolish them and break what already architectonically works.

    As the proposed lowered plaza before the Alamo is not an exact recreation of the yard of the old mission, it is not necessary for this plaza to also be in exact size or proportion to the original’s footprint that we demolish surrounding buildings, but that the plaza exists and is detailed as a space holding and ennobling our cultural memory. This is why trees can be in there even though the enclosed yard of the old mission in 1836 was not prettily tree lined, and why the Cenotaph can also remain where it presently stands.

    This is still a much better conception than the previous iteration, but, as this is supposed to not be a design that is already nailed down, we should be fully shown the other options with the same pretty diagrams and renderings as the one they are here leaning towards. Especially, we should see more sequences of how people move around this place…the procession of landmarks, facades, barriers, and moments that take them through the plaza and to the Alamo.

    • Moving the Cenotaph 100 yards will – in time – be something that solves the problem and people will forget where it was. It needs to be moved to provide the plaza.

  4. This is leaps and bounds better. Hats off to those in the dark making these images possible, you did a great job trying to illustrate for all of us. Now get some sleep.

  5. 1. There aren’t trees like those illustrated in S Texas.
    2. It’s an insult to our town to close Alamo St to parades and cars and tourist buses. Just leave your floral gifts at the back door, please, after 70 years.
    3. Still gates & fences (hidden in bushes????) and mouthing “access” while actually closing people out.
    4. Using so-called experts from London????Massachusetts??? St Louis???? Like, we don’t have any experts here???
    Insulting.
    5. In short: another failure (not as bad but a failure nonetheless) to respect the local, small-town feel, people-are-important ambiance that our town is famous for.
    Disrespectful. Creates THEIR reality, not real reality. Ignores the feel of Our Town and Our Alamo. Again.
    Very poor presentation of a very poor plan.

  6. Went to the presentation at the Witte tonight and had the following thoughts.

    1. Great improvement from previous plan.
    2. Committee members demonstrated that they are thoughtful, courteous, and mindful of being open to hearing all sides of the issues. Also, some brought up some excellent points that had never occurred to me. That’s the benefit of “profound knowledge” gained from being brave enough to hear from all stakeholders, not just the ones that will agree with you. Good on whoever selected the committee members.
    3. Digging down the grade–is that lower patch going to have drainage issues? Will it flood?
    4. A little concerned about the controlled access during the day. I get that they are trying to solve the issue of random visitors walking into the middle of a reenactment, but not sure that restricting access to a few points is the right answer. Also, as someone mentioned, security is an issue–what if everyone in the plaza has to run away and most of the gates are locked?
    5. I’m surprised that Team Cenotaph didn’t like the new location–much more prominent location in front of the Menger than sitting out on the edge of the space. And if you can believe what you read, the Cenotaph doesn’t actually sit on a gravesite, the people commemorated were actually buried someplace else. So what is special about the exact spot where it’s located now? Seems like everyone should work together to find the most impactful spot for it–surely the Team C folks could listen to some options with open minds..
    6. A committee member made an interesting point that he would like to see the actual front gates of the 1800s layout delineated somehow so that visitors could have an actual visual starting place. But I imagine over time the area had many “main entrances.” So which one do you pick to commemorate?
    7. Re the “historical” buildings. I thought the one fellow made a point worth considering when he gently but firmly reminded the committee that the reasons why those buildings were built in the first place deserves to be factored in to any conversation (point–when they were built, was anyone involved concerned about the indigenous history on the site?)
    8. Losoya three lanes? Gotta see the math on that idea…how in the world would you get the trash trucks, delivery trucks, tour buses etc etc down that street? And going in both directions?
    9. One small point–personally, I’m going to be sad to lose the opportunity to see the Alamo any time I want–any time I go downtown I always divert down S. Alamo to see it. Going to miss that.

    All in all, much better than I anticipated, looking forward to the fine tuning going forward. Everyone, please be open to all ideas and be respectful of those with whom you disagree. We can do this in a civilized way, can’t we?

    • Well said, mrk! Thanks for the information from the meetings not available to those of us who couldn’t attend. I agree, hopefully with respectful discourse, this new Alamo Plaza can become a great success.

    • Great summary for those of us who could not attend. And your open-mindedness to all possibilities is inspiring. Thank you!

  7. We cannot let them tear down that wonderful collection of historic buildings. How horrible that they would even put that up for proposal.

  8. Grand Plan is their expectations. “They” aren’t from here….why aren’t locals experts doing the interpreting and planning? Or at LEAST folks from Texas?
    And Grand Plan again RE-invents reality. The Alamo Battle losses of our 168 fighters is NOT grand on the scheme of Grand National Parks memorials. Gettysburg was 50,000 and the Planners are trying to compare the Alamo to that.
    I like the simplicity and honor of our beloved Alamo just as it is. And the fact that San Antonio has a small-town feel and a sacred, special, non-grand feel at the Alamo.
    Say thank you. Have another nice party for them. Wine and dine ’em. And then, send them back to London, Cambridge, St Louis, Philadelphia, etc.
    We can do it all by ourselves, Folks.

    • You must not have seen the crap served up by our “local experts” recently.

      Go have a look at what they’re building at Hemisfair to see what said experts can come up with. It’s embarrassing.

  9. Really not seeing how Losoya can be a three lane street. It’s a glorified alleyway as it is. Even if you removed the sidewalks, which would be a horrible idea.

  10. Remember the… Plaza!

    Let us not forget that Alamo Plaza is a Plaza, which by definition is an open urban public space. Our Plaza has been the heart and identity of San Antonio for over 150 years. It is (part of) a World Heritage site because it’s the manifestation and symbol of cultures… clashing, then uniting, and ultimately evolving into a proud and great city. Great cities deserve great, open space.

    While it’s vastly more thoughtful and intriguing than the previous masterplan proposal and a commendable step in the right direction, the current proposal still attempts to close off Alamo Plaza during the majority of the day and night by “managing access.” This time it’s enclosed with shorter glass walls and fences hidden in the bushes. “Managed access” is still closing Alamo Plaza, and it is in conflict with the stated and worthy goal of “enhancing connectivity.” Alamo Plaza must remain open for the citizens of San Antonio and the world to gather, to remember, to celebrate, to protest, to parade, to eat lunch together, or just to walk through.

    It is not that difficult. I know that we can be fully respectful of the 13 day clash of cultures in 1836, celebrate and preserve the 300 year history of San Antonio, and create a vibrant, open, free, and safe Plaza for the 21st century. The GLO does not own Alamo Plaza. It is San Antonio’s, and we must decide what kind of city we want to be.

  11. What species of trees are those?

    I have never seen trees that tall in San Antonio.

    I believe that there could be a disconnect somewhere between St. Louis and San Antonio or London to San Antonio.

    If it will actually look like that within the next 25 years it will be a pretty neat spot.

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