Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
With almost no discussion of a plan they have spent years studying, members of the Alamo Citizen Advisory Committee on Thursday quickly approved the proposed design for Alamo Plaza's multimillion dollar redevelopment.
The committee voted unanimously for street closures, unanimously for a new Fiesta parade route, and unanimously on moving the Alamo Cenotaph – despite a sea of "Don't do it" signs and shouting from audience members. Ninety-two percent of committee members voted in favor of managed plaza access for a formal point of entry, and 96 percent approved of an analysis of nearby historic buildings to become an Alamo museum, while the Alamo site plan, and a master lease agreement were approved unanimously.
The vote follows almost three months of study and discussion of the latest version of the plan, which has been so controversial among certain stakeholder groups that committee members requested that the votes on each element remain anonymous indefinitely out of concern for their safety.
"They want to be able to go home in peace," Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said Thursday afternoon. Treviño is a tri-chair of the 29-member committee – of which 26 members were present for the vote. One member, Phil Bakke, sent a proxy, Wendell Hall, to vote on his behalf. Mardi Arce of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park and Frank Ruttenberg recused themselves, and Warren Wilkensen was absent for the vote.
Many of the committee members have been working on the plan since 2014; at least two worked on a previous effort in 1994. Officials attributed the lack of discussion from the committee Thursday night to that longstanding familiarity with the plan and issues surrounding the Alamo.
"I just want to say thank you," Treviño said to the committee members. "This is the beginning of [a long] process."
The Texas General Land Office (GLO) manages the Alamo and Long Barrack. The City owns the plaza and surrounding streets. Closing and conveying the streets to the GLO would require a City Council vote, which Mayor Ron Nirenberg estimated will take place in mid-October after the Historic and Design Review Commission and Planning Commission make their own recommendations.
Recent public meetings and social media posts have become heated enough to warrant enhanced security measures, including bag checks and metal detectors.
More than 100 people attended the meeting at City Council chambers, a location selected because of its established security procedures, Treviño said earlier this week. It was originally slated to take place at UTSA's downtown campus.
About six uniformed San Antonio Police officers surveyed the crowd, and officials suggested that more were in plain clothes amongst the audience. Many attendees were there to protest the more controversial elements of the plan: closing off sections of South Alamo and East Houston street, repairing the Alamo Cenotaph and relocating it about 500 feet south, and managing pedestrian access to the plaza through a new museum's entrance.
Most were there to protest moving the cenotaph. A half dozen people were removed for shouting out in protest during the meeting, which did not feature a public comment session.
The 1930s memorial to the defenders who died in the 1836 Battle of the Alamo currently sits adjacent to the Long Barrack. Designers have said it blocks or distracts from some views of the church. It's also a more modern addition to the plaza that honors one side of the battle. Descendants of the defenders and members of the activist group This is Texas Freedom Force say the hollow tomb is sacred and that moving it would disrespect the dead.
Officials removed This Is Texas Freedom Force Vice President Brandon Burkhart from the meeting after he shouted at committee members and Treviño for supporting the relocation.
"First and foremost the advisory board needed to know [our protest] because they've been shielded from a lot of the comments against moving the Cenotaph and parts of the plan," Burkhart told the Rivard Report after the meeting. An example of that, he said, was Treviño presenting letters from various groups – including the Fiesta Commission – that were in support of the plan.
"We can show him thousands of letters [petitions] ... that do not support his plan," Burkhart said. "We knew they were going to [approve] this no matter what. ... Now they have no clout as far as the people of Texas, and we're going to make that known."
His organization and others are planning legal action, he said. That could be similar to the current lawsuit looming over the Confederate statue that was removed from Travis Park.
"The Alamo defenders didn't quit just because they were outnumbered and faced unbeatable odds. They stayed and fought," he said. "We don't have the word quit in our bloodline or in our vocabulary."
Managing access to the site is a design feature that some urban planners and architects have taken issue with because they'd like to see it continue to be part of daily civic life. In order for the plaza to essentially become an outdoor exhibit of the museum, designers have said, it can no longer support all manner of activities at all times of the day. Visitors will have to enter through the museum during hours of operation and then through six gates that open in the evening. Protests and other activities common in the plaza would no longer be allowed and instead would likely occur near the Cenotaph.
Leaders of the Battle of Flowers Association, Fiesta Flambeau Parade Association, and the Texas Cavaliers – once strongly opposed to the proposed re-routing of parades and ceremonial activities – have agreed to changes to accommodate the plaza's redevelopment.
The committee's recommendation moves to the six-member Alamo Management Committee, which will make its own recommendation to the Executive Committee made up of two members, each with veto power: Nirenberg and Land Commissioner George P. Bush. The management committee vote could happen as soon as next week, Treviño said.
“We all owe a debt of gratitude to the Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee for the many hours they have put into the process of transforming the Alamo into a site that gives proper deference to its history," Nirenberg said in an email. "[Some] members of the committee have literally spent years volunteering their time. I thank them for their service, and I look forward to their continued involvement in the next phase of development.
"The committee’s approval marks important progress, and we still have several key steps ahead. We cannot afford to rush, and I will do my part to ensure that we get it right. I am confident the final plan will make us all proud."
Also among the crowd were a few people holding “Keep Calm y Join Manos" (hands) signs that were passed out by Alamo staff.
The Alamo Master Plan is being developed under an agreement between the City, the state's General Land Office, and the Alamo Endowment. Each organization has two representatives on the Alamo Management Committee. The nonprofit endowment has pledged to raise private funds for the estimated $420 million project.
"This is history in the making to get us back to what the Alamo should be," Bryan Preston, GLO director of communications, said after the vote. "It's long overdue and we're happy to be where we are at.
"I was not surprised at all by the overwhelming votes," he said. "The fact is this committee has been working on this project for four years. ... Tonight's vote reflects the hard work that they've done."
Another key element of the plan is for a museum at the western edge of the plaza, where three historic buildings currently sit. They will be analyzed for their historic and structural viability, and a determination will be made about incorporating them into the museum. One, all, or none of the buildings could be demolished, designers have said. The Management Committee has begun the process of hiring consultants for the building analysis and museum design. Meanwhile, work will begin soon on the renovation and preservation of the Alamo church itself.
Committee member Ann McGlone, who also served on the 1994 committee, said she could not support the building study because it leaves open the possibility of their demolition.
"I hate to go down that path and I hate to predict that," McGlone said.