The local chapter of the American Institute of Architects voiced strong opposition Thursday to proposals to demolish historic buildings, close down streets, and control pedestrian access to the original footprint of the Alamo and its plaza as part of the multimillion-dollar redevelopment project there.
After designers and Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) presented to about 30 members of AIA San Antonio during a members-only meeting Tuesday night, the organization’s president, Jason Puchot, issued a letter to the mayor and City Council Thursday outlining the board’s consensus. Click here to download that letter.
City, state, and design team representatives have been making rounds to various groups across San Antonio to gather public and professional feedback on the plan aimed to enhance the visitor and local experience at the Alamo, one of five local Spanish-colonial missions that were designated UNESCO World Heritage sites. Click here to download a version of their presentation, which often changes according to the audience.
“Citizens need welcoming, well-defined public spaces that encourage civic participation and day-to-day interaction,” Puchot stated. “The plaza should be open to everyone at all times, not via controlled access.”
The letter recommends that all surrounding historic buildings be preserved and that “citizens should have the opportunity to walk, bike, drive, and use public transit in downtown,” a critique of the proposal to close the streets.
The local chapter is comprised of about 600 members, officials said. Members did not vote directly; rather the board took into consideration comments made during previous presentations and meetings about the redevelopment plan and reached a consensus, a spokesperson said.
“We didn’t come here to seek the endorsement of the AIA,” Treviño said Tuesday after the meeting. He is an AIA member and serves as a tri-chair of the Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee that is currently reviewing the proposed plan. “There’s going to be different opinions in this organization.”
The sentiment of AIA’s statement is similar to efforts of other informal groups of architects and conservationists calling for a re-do of the proposed plan, though the AIA is slightly more restrained than the “Don’t Wall Us Out” messaging their petition used. Prominent local architect Ted Flato of Lake Flato Architects and others continue to collect signatures for that petition, and a letter that will be sent to the Texas General Land Office, City of San Antonio officials, City Council, and the Alamo Endowment for consideration.
Designers and officials associated with the plan say the plaza would be open to the public 24 hours a day, seven days a week – with caveats. A museum planned for the western edge of the plaza would be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. During those hours, there would be “controlled access” to the plaza that directs foot traffic through a single entrance, likely through the museum. The plaza would become an open-air extension of the museum, hosting reenactments and other programming.
“You don’t have to buy a ticket to [enter the plaza] but everyone comes through one portal,” said Eric Kramer, principal of landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand which was hired to help design the project. Managing pedestrian access, he said, will facilitate “reverence and learning” at the site.
Before and after those hours, barring special events, the plaza would be “porous” with several access points for pedestrians, Treviño said.
But many in the design community, including the 11 AIA members who spoke Tuesday night, say that to be truly “open,” families, tourists, locals, protestors, street preachers, and anyone else not breaking the law should be allowed unfettered public access to the plaza at any time of the day.
“The current plan – though very, very thoughtful – is currently fencing us off,” Flato said. The proposal includes various railings and fences that surround the original footprint of the 1700s Mission San Antonio de Valero’s plaza.
The proposal seems to emphasize only that plaza and the famous 1836 battle, said William Dupont, an architect and director of UTSA’s Center for Cultural Sustainability. He would “prefer a little bit of balance of reverence that extends to periods before and after the Battle of the Alamo.
“Why can’t there be reverence for the [Battle of Flowers] Parade just like reverence for the Battle?”
The Battle is a point of reference for visitors to start with, Kramer explained, but the museum and programming will go far beyond that milestone.
Ultimately, the proposed “controlled access” and lowered plaza grade would create an environment of separation between the plaza and the rest of the city, designers say, and this intends to create a “sense of arrival” and “threshold.” But for some AIA members, this violates one of the 10 Principles for Livable Communities that call for vibrant public spaces, Puchot stated. Closing the streets limits transportation options, another principle outlined in the letter.
Irby Hightower, Alamo Architects principal, and Laura Jensen, associate architect at Lake Flato, both asked the design team to provide examples of similar sites that have fenced off access to public plazas.
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In her travels to such sites, Jensen said she’s “never seen a fence.”
At the nearby Hemisfair redevelopment project, Hightower noted, “we’re reopening streets,” so why close portions of Alamo and Houston streets at the Alamo?
“This is not your typical project,” Treviño said, referring to the history, burial grounds, and modern development at Alamo Plaza. “How can you compare it to something else? … We want to heal a lot of the unfortunate development that has occurred.”
Main Plaza, which required the closure of two downtown streets in 2008, approaches an example of how traffic can be managed, but “this is the Alamo,” he said.
In the redevelopment proposal – commissioned by the Alamo Management Committee and first released in June – designers suggest several “options” for the number of State-owned historic buildings to demolish, from none to all three that sit across the plaza on South Alamo Street. The ground floors of these buildings are currently occupied by tourist attractions and novelty/souvenir shops unrelated to the Alamo Plaza. The Alamo Master Plan calls for moving those businesses to a new “entertainment district” that has yet to be publicly identified and replacing them with a world-class museum.
Those buildings – the Woolworth, Palace, and Crockett – however, have their own histories to tell, several architects and the San Antonio Conservation Society have said.
The State will soon issue a request for proposals as officials launch an “international search for a visitor center/museum architect with a separate and concurrent solicitation for an Architect of Record for a local architect,” Alamo CEO Douglass McDonald told the Rivard Report on Wednesday via text. “The museum is 130,000 square feet of building space which will include 30,000 square feet of exhibit space, a 350-seat theatre and visitor center spaces.”
The 21 members of the Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee will meet again in August, but it’s unclear if they will be ready to signal support or dissent for the plan that soon, Treviño said, adding that they may not even take an official vote when they are.
“We want to give the committee the opportunity to have discussion, but since we’ve opened it up to the public … unfortunately some of the people that attend have been very disruptive and it’s been difficult for the Citizens Advisory Committee to have a discussion with one another,” he said, noting several outbursts of shouting that took place at public meetings.
“We may have to have a meeting where it’s more of an executive session with them only so they can speak freely and not be interrupted,” he said.
Ultimately, the Alamo Execuitive Committee, comprised of Mayor Ron Nirenberg and and Land Commissioner George P. Bush, must approve the final plan before implementation. Meanwhile, City Council has control over whether it conveys the streets to the State for closure. So if the plan includes a street closure, it will need a majority vote from Council.
There’s no timeline for when the plan or the street conveyance will come before City Council, Treviño told the Rivard Report. “What’s important is to make sure that we have the meetings and have the discussion. So to put that on a time clock is difficult.”
Treviño and members of the design team have scheduled several meetings with various organizations, including Visit San Antonio and the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Several AIA members told the Rivard Report that they were hoping for more of a discussion rather than a presentation on Tuesday.
Visit San Antonio’s board considered the plan during its board’s retreat on Thursday. In a statement sent to the Rivard Report, Board Chair Rusty Wallace said the board did not endorse or reject any specific design elements, but does support the planning process.
“The Visit San Antonio board of directors supports the Interpretive Plan formulation process for the Alamo,” Wallace stated. “The [plan] is committed to help establish an authentic experience for visitors and residents that will positively affect visitation to our destination and allow for an additional unique venue for events.”
This most recent effort to revive the plaza started in 2014, and City Council approved the conceptual master plan in May 2017. The concepts presented by the design team are a direct result of the original guiding principles developed by citizens, Treviño said.
The next public input meeting will be held Wednesday night at Thomas Jefferson High School Auditorium, 723 Donaldson Ave., at 6:30 p.m.
“Architects are leading and listening intently to citizen feedback. We encourage an honest and open dialogue and collaborative process,” Puchot concludes in his letter. “If we can do that, AIA San Antonio believes that we will arrive at a consensus that enables the Master Plan for Alamo Plaza to reach its full potential.”