Scott Ball / Rivard Report
City Council on Thursday voted unanimously in favor of the $450 million Alamo Master Plan, which initiates the hiring of architects to design the final physical space surrounding the Alamo and allows city and state officials to start work on key elements of the plan.
The vote moves several elements of the plan forward: restoration of the church and long barracks, partial closure of South Alamo and Crockett streets, relocation and restoration of the 1930s Alamo Cenotaph, and the conveyance of leasing management duties for the plaza to the State’s General Land Office (GLO).
The controversial glass walls that were proposed have not been approved. Those kinds of design details will be worked out in the coming months. Programming for the space and the museum, located in the adjacent historic buildings, also has not been developed or finalized. The design team has scrapped plans to remove or relocate the trees currently in the plaza, but they will need to be temporarily removed if the element of the plan to lower the elevation of the plaza by 18 to 24 inches makes it into the final design.
Various City entities will soon review certain elements including the Planning, Zoning, and Historic and Design Review commissions, the meetings of which are open to the public. Some elements of the plan will come back before City Council for final approval over the next weeks and months.
Click here to download the Alamo Master Plan.
The mayor of San Antonio, to be determined by the June 10 runoff election, and Texas Land Commissioner, currently George P. Bush, will approve the final design. This element of the joint agreement among the City of San Antonio, Texas General Land Office, and the Alamo Endowment, seemed to surprise some Council members, including Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5).
“When was the decision made that that [the final design] would not come back to City Council [for approval]?” Gonzales asked City Manager Sheryl Sculley.
Sculley explained the multi-year process that led to the City, State, and Alamo Endowment sharing the funding and design elements of the redevelopment and signing the 2015 agreement, which was approved by City Council.
“We don’t have sole decision-making authority. We’re doing this all together,” Sculley told Council.
Before voting in favor of the plan, Gonzales made a motion for an amendment that would add another guiding principle for the Master Plan team and architects to follow as they develop the final design:
“[The plaza should] remain dedicated to the historic use as a public, civic space,” she said.
Councilmen Ron Nirenberg (D8), who is Mayor Ivy Taylor’s opponent in the runoff, and Rey Saldaña (D4) supported the amendment. The need for solemn reverence and dignity at the site and the need for public access, Nirenberg said, are not mutually exclusive.
“Take down those walls,” Nirenberg said. “Part of [the plaza’s] history is being available and open to the public.”
Taylor said the last-minute amendment to the guiding principles, which were developed by a lengthy public process with a 21-member Alamo Plaza Advisory Committee, disregards that process. The amendment failed on a 8-3 vote.
“In all our hearts and minds … [we] hold that concept dear that yes, this is an important civic space for our community,” she said, “but I believe it’s important for us to respect the process.”
So far the City has contributed $38 million toward the redevelopment through bonds and annual budgets. The state has allocated $31.5 million so far, largely used for the purchase of the historic buildings that will become the museum, and there is a pending request to the legislature for an additional $75 million. The Alamo Endowment has committed to raise more than $200 million from private or foundation donors for the remaining balance.
City officials emphasized that Thursday’s action is not final approval of the plaza design, but now that the plan has been set in motion, the Alamo Management Committee – comprised of local and state officials and representatives from the Alamo Endowment – will begin the process of selecting the architectural team or teams that will develop the final designs for the plaza and museum.
City Council still has control over the street closures and the plaza itself. If Council doesn’t like the final design, it has the option of disallowing street closures and land conveyance.
Taylor noted that she “remains open to the full range of solutions that the design team or citizens bring forward.”
Thirty-one people signed up to speak to City Council on Thursday morning, with 22 speaking in favor of the Alamo Master Plan. This is in contrast to hundreds of individuals who showed up to recent public meetings, most of whom voiced their opposition. Many of the elements they spoke against are not part of what was approved by Council on Thursday, but there was strong opposition to closing the streets and moving the Cenotaph.
The 60-foot monument honoring those who lost their lives during the battle was installed in 1940 and was commissioned as part of the Texas Centennial celebrations. Its rusting, steel frame puts the piece at risk, officials said, and is in need of repair.
The measure approved Thursday starts the process of removal, Sculley said, but that’s still not a done deal. A new home for the Cenotaph has not yet been officially proposed, but some see a spot near the San Antonio River off of Commerce Street as the right fit.
The Historic and Design Review Commission will review the removal and relocation of the Cenotaph and make a recommendation to the Master Plan’s executive committee, of which the mayor and GLO commissioner are the only members.
Lee White is a living descendant of a member of the Alamo’s garrison that fought in the historic 1836 battle against Mexico General Antonio López de Santa Anna’s army.
“Their souls left their bodies right there in Alamo Plaza,” White said, adding that the funeral pyres on which the bodies of soldiers were burned were scattered throughout the area. “The Cenotaph has become our headstone.”
Most Council members were okay with finding a new, appropriate home for the monument.
“The Cenotaph was not part of the original plaza,” said Councilman Joe Krier (D9).
Councilman Mike Gallagher (D10) disagreed.
“This is a historical monument that has to be taken care of … I know it’s historical because it was put up before Councilman Krier was born,” Gallagher quipped. The two outgoing Council members often take good-natured jabs at each other’s age.
The street closures will not only create more public, pedestrian space, Assistant City Manager Lori Houston told Council, but will help save the damaged, crumbling walls of the Alamo cathedral.
“You will still be able to do everything you do at the Alamo today with implementation of this master plan,” Houston said.
Concerns about traffic congestion and disruptions will be addressed by several traffic studies, said Gene Dawson, president of Pape Dawson Engineers. The studies will look at the capacity of surrounding streets to handle the closures, ease of connectivity, and how future street projects will affect the area.
The Planning Commission must first review and make a recommendation for the street closures.
Another topic for future discussion by the design team, the public, and future City Council members will be operating hours.
“[The Alamo Plaza] should be accessible 27/7, 365,” Krier said, “there’s a perception that it’s not going to be.”
There will no longer be a single entrance point to Alamo Plaza, and the area will be more “porous,” Houston replied, adding that as the City develops how the right of way will be managed by the State, that decision will come before City Council.
“These [City Council] chambers used to be open as well,” Sculley noted, but security guards and metal detectors have been added for protection. “It is the day in which we live.”
The $450 million investment will need some level of protection, she said.
Earlier in the meeting, Gonzales said the walls and added security wouldn’t be needed if the plaza did a better job of educating people about the site – which is more than a battle ground with more than 10,000 years of history to explore.
If the design and programming can cultivate “organic respect for the space … we wouldn’t need to hire guards.”