Edward A. Ornelas for the Rivard Report
City Council voted 9-2 Thursday to approve a historic overhaul of the Alamo Plaza that includes a plan to create a single entry point to a portion of the public plaza and relocate the Alamo Cenotaph, two of the most contentious elements of the multimillion-dollar plan.
Councilmen John Courage (D9) and Clayton Perry (D10) voted against the plan after more than three hours of passionate citizen testimony – 57 people signed up to speak before Council – and two hours of Council members' comments.
"When the 2.1 million visitors [per year] come to the grounds of the Alamo," Land Commissioner George P. Bush told City Council before its vote, “they are underwhelmed. "Instead of coming onto a historic battlefield of valor, they are welcomed by nothing but distraction."
This plan, Bush said, changes that and gives those who lived, fought, and died there the respect they deserve. And while many have tried over the past decades to improve the plaza, he added, "none have gotten this far."
Technically, City Council voted to close adjacent streets, pursue contracts for the repair and relocation of the Cenotaph, and approve a 50-year lease and management agreement with two 25-year renewals, with the Texas General Land Office (GLO). These actions allow the plan as a whole to move forward.
Officials hope to complete the redevelopment in 2024, exactly 300 years after the Alamo, originally the Spanish colonial Mission San Antonio de Valero, was established.
"This is a historic moment and a turning point that finally gives the Alamo the reverent treatment it deserves,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said. "The commercial nature of Alamo Plaza [as it is today] has made that difficult."
There have been several protests against relocating the Cenotaph roughly 500 feet south, and many local urban designers have vocally opposed fencing off the historic plaza footprint in front of the iconic mission to manage access aimed at preventing "distractions" such as protests, street preachers, souvenir vendors, and other casual pedestrian traffic that exists today.
Courage suggested an amendment to the proposed lease agreement that would keep the Alamo Cenotaph in its place, and Perry later proposed an amendment to include no less than six access points to the plaza.
"There is no legitimate need to move the Cenotaph," said Courage, who also objected to managed access to the historic plaza. Other plan elements, such as programming and heightened security, could help resolve "that underwhelming feeling that people have."
Those changes would have led the GLO to abandon the long-negotiated lease agreement, said Hector Valle, special counsel for the GLO.
Such amendments would come outside the transparent, cooperative process between the City and GLO, Valle said, and "violate this historic partnership."
Perry and Courage were made aware of that before they proposed their amendments. They were the only members to cast votes in favor of each others' motions.
In partnership with the GLO and Alamo Endowment, the City will close a portion of South Alamo Street and other surrounding streets to vehicular traffic; re-route parades; and study the possibilities for a world-class museum in renovated historic buildings across the street from the Alamo. The plaza will remain free to enter, but visitors will access it from a single point inside or near the museum.
Most of the estimated $350 million to $450 million plan will be funded through private donations to the Alamo Endowment, a private nonprofit which can start fundraising in earnest now that a plan has been approved, officials said.
So far, the Texas Legislature has allocated $106 million to the Alamo and Long Barrack restoration and development of the master plan, the City of San Antonio has contributed $38 million toward infrastructure improvement surrounding the plaza, and the Alamo Endowment is committed to raising at least $200 million to implement the plan.
The design is intended to inspire a better sense of history and reverence in order to tell a more complete story of the 1836 Battle of the Alamo and beyond, Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said, and has evolved to incorporate community feedback through more than 200 public meetings in San Antonio and throughout the state.
"This should not be a drive-through experience," said Treviño, who served on the Alamo Citizens Advisory and Management committees and is credited with working with Fiesta San Antonio and parade officials to reach a compromise on the new parade routes and ceremonial activity zone for the annual festivities. The plan doesn't remove the more than 10,000 years of history on the site; rather “we’re simply trying to make more room" for it, Treviño said.
The underlying vision and guiding principles of the plan were developed in 2014 by the Citizens Advisory Committee, he said, and the master plan follows them. The interpretive design no longer includes the controversial "glass walls," a more radical Cenotaph relocation, and a tree-less plaza that was suggested last year.
The San Antonio Conservation Society and the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects say the entire public plaza should remain open to the public. The Conservation Society collected more than 7,000 signatures of citizens concerned about the plan that was proposed.
The City should not give up one of its greatest "civic spaces" without knowing more details about what that will look like, Conservation Society President Susan Beavin said. The group has also asked Council members to commit to preserving the historic buildings. Many have, but that commitment is not included in the lease agreement. Click here to download the version approved by City Council.
Alamo Citizen Advisory tri-chair Sue Ann Pemberton said the elements approved by Council on Thursday did not include the final details because they have yet to be worked out.
"We all have many questions and the design is not perfect, but the design is not finished," Pemberton said.
The Historic and Design Review Commission granted conceptual approval to the plaza design and Cenotaph relocation last week. Alamo designers, hired by the City and GLO, will come before the commission at a later date for final approval. HDRC decisions must receive final approval from City Manager Sheryl Sculley or the director of the Office of Historic Preservation – or Sculley could defer the matter to a Council vote.
"Which side you choose is basically going to seal your fate," said Brandon Burkhardt, president of This Is Texas Freedom Force, who has joined the Alamo Defenders Descendants Association (ADDA) in protest of moving the Cenotaph. Burkhardt said his organization would campaign against Council members who voted in favor of the relocation. "Their political days in Texas are numbered. ... We will make sure that they are not re-elected," he said.
As a result of threatening messages directed at Alamo officials, public meetings regarding the plan featured enhanced security measures, they have said.
“There will be a day, there will be a time that we’re going to have to confront this,” ADDA President Lee Spencer White told City Council, referring to when the Cenotaph is moved. White said the so-called "threats" are "trumped up" and should not result in law enforcement's undue aggression or violence toward protestors. "I don't need any more Alamo defender blood on that sacred ground.”
Asked by the Rivard Report if he expects to see further protests surrounding the Alamo and the Cenotaph, Nirenberg said, "I would expect nothing less from the Shrine of Texas Liberty ... I would expect controversy and discussion to continue long into the future.
"Years from now we will remember the date that San Antonio took deliberate action to preserve the Alamo for future generations," he added. "That, to me, will be the story of this City Council."
The Cenotaph's relocation is required as part of the plan, Assistant City Manger Lori Houston said, to honor the original footprint of the mission's plaza and prevent it from obstructing views of the Alamo and Long Barrack. The 1930s sculpture honors the people who died defending the Alamo and is not part of the original footprint.
Once repaired, the Cenotaph will still be "a centerpiece to Alamo Plaza," Houston said, at its new location in front of the Menger Hotel.
Other descendants of Alamo defenders, however, support the plan – including the Cenotaph relocation. "Please go ahead and vote yes," said Angel Crockett, fourth-great-granddaughter of Davy Crockett.
The design team last year dropped a previous proposal to move the Cenotaph to a location closer to Market Street and the San Antonio River after hearing fierce opposition, Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) said. "Public engagement is what kept it in the plaza."
He praised Burkhardt, who had already left the meeting after hearing Courage and Perry's amendments fail, and other protesters for leading the charge to keep the Cenotaph closer to the Alamo.
"It's not that I'm fully satisfied with the Cenotaph [location]," Brockhouse said, but he refused to jeopardize the entire plan "over my personal [opinions]."
The Texas Historical Commission (THC) has purview over the historic buildings owned by the State of Texas, where the "world-class" Alamo museum will be located. A third-party consultant will analyze the architectural and historical inventory of the buildings and produce recommendations on how to move forward – to demolish all three, save some, or keep all as part of the museum.
HDRC will have a chance to review THC's recommendations on the museum's design, and THC must review plans for the relocation of the Cenotaph, according to officials.
The lease agreement, which allows the City to maintain ownership of the plaza, has a conflict resolution process built into it so the City can challenge management practices if the State veers outside of the established master plan guidelines.
The State has the option to purchase the property from the City at the market-rate price, but City Council would have to approve that sale, according to the lease.
"This is your City at work," Treviño said after the vote. "This shows that when challenged with incredible opportunity to really make history ... we can partner to create a place that is going to honor the history of the Alamo – that is finally going to do something that hasn't been accomplished for generations.
"It's about time."