City, County, TPR to Partner on $26 Million Renovation of Alameda Theater

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A family passes by the Alameda Theater on their way East on Houston Street. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

A family passes by the Alameda Theater on East Houston Street.

The City of San Antonio, Bexar County, Texas Public Radio, La Familia Cortez, and a host of community partners hope to turn the long-vacant Alameda Theater into a new venue for cultural programming and new headquarters for the nonprofit radio station by 2020.

The renovation and construction project will cost $26.4 million, according to preliminary estimates presented to City Council on Wednesday afternoon. Final details regarding building design, organizational structure, and budget will be finalized over the next months and years.

Two floors will be added to the non-historic backstage structure for TPR’s headquarters, and at least one broadcast booth will be visible from the adjacent San Pedro Creek, which is undergoing a $175 million renovation project of its own.

Preliminary rendering of TPR's proposed headquarters off of San Pedro Creek.

Courtesy / Killis Almond Architects

Preliminary rendering of TPR’s proposed headquarters off of San Pedro Creek.

The City hired a team of consultants to perform a feasibility study for the mixed-use venue to find out if such a venture would be sustainable. According to Michael Kaiser, who led the team from DeVos Institute of Arts Management, the short answer is yes.

Council members were enthusiastic, but cautiously optimistic that the latest plan to rejuvenate the 1949 Mexican-American theater would yield actual results. It’s been vacant for 30 years despite several previous plans and monetary investments from the City and County.

“We’re not the first to try this,” said Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), who was part of the negotiation process. “[The] Alameda is finding itself [with] just the right kind of timing to make this work. … It’s a theater that is really going to be programmed by the community.”

But by keeping the initial programming and budget modest, establishing a strong nonprofit board, and hiring the right staff, Kaiser said the Alameda has a chance to become “the leading Latino theater in America.”

Kaiser is the former president and CEO of the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. and widely credited with financially rescuing the performing arts venue in the early 2000s. He recommended to Council that a nonprofit should be formed to curate, rather than create, programming for the space in partnership with cultural institutions such as National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures, Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, ARTS San Antonio, Instituto Cultural de México, Centro de Artes, TPR, and other organizations that play a role in promoting Mexican-American culture and history.

“We believe we have a negotiated conclusion that satisfies all our goals,” City Manager Sheryl Sculley said of the multi-year process that was initiated when TPR approached the City about moving downtown from its location at 8401 Datapoint Dr. near the Medical Center.

TPR has committed to raise $5 million toward the project, about $5 million could be gleaned from state and federal historic renovation tax credits, and the remaining $16.4 million could come from the City and County tax reinvestment zone on Houston Street, Assistant City Manager Lori Houston told Council. The not-yet-formed nonprofit board will manage the theater, which will be set up by private partners, would also seek philanthropic dollars.

“We also engaged La Familia Cortez to help us with this project because we wanted to make sure that we really maintain the historic theater, we honor its mission and its history, and we allow the theater to continue as a standalone theater,” Houston said. “[The theater] and TPR could co-exist and do programing to enhance each other.”

TPR is looking to expand its reach into the community as well as its workforce, Houston said, adding that the station plans on almost doubling its positions. TPR will also host coverage and information about events at the Alameda on its website, a win-win for each entity to engage new digital audiences.

A small 160-seat theater on TPR’s side could host panels, town halls, and other engagement events in a more visible, central location. The renovation plan would add a movable wall between the Alameda and the smaller black box theater for larger stages when needed by either side.

The proposed floor plan for the Alameda Theater and TPR's new headquarters.

Courtesy / Killis Almond Architects

The proposed floor plan for the Alameda Theater and TPR’s new headquarters would add about 1,500 sq. ft. to the facility.

The Alameda’s 2,000-seat theater will be reduced to 1,000-1,500 to accommodate a larger stage and more modern uses.

Programming for the Alameda is far from set in stone, Kaiser and Houston emphasized. One of the key differences between this plan and previous efforts will be “far more community engagement,” Kaiser said.

Community input meetings will be held throughout April and May. A master lease and funding agreement is expected to come before City Council for a vote in June. The design process is expected to take about a year and a groundbreaking is slated for summer 2018.

La Familia Cortez have been instrumental in the preservation of The 60-year-old Alameda Theater.

Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / Rivard Report

La Familia Cortez has been instrumental in the preservation of the 60-year-old Alameda Theater. The historic murals will be restored if the proposal is approved by City Council.

“There have been other efforts to restore the Alameda that didn’t work quite as well as we hoped they would,” said Councilman Joe Krier who questioned the financial sustainability of the project.

Kaiser recommended the nonprofit start with a “modest” annual budget of $2 million with one-third coming from three revenue streams: ticket sales, private events, and philanthropy. That budget can “grow gradually over time only as we show success,” he said.

Now that the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts is self-sufficient, arts donors wouldn’t have to choose between the Tobin and the Alameda, he noted.

“If we can create the Alameda as we’re describing,” Kaiser said, “there are opportunities for funding from national [public grants and private foundations] that we’ve never had the opportunity to ask for money from before.”

However, the City and County would each likely have to contribute $300,000 each in the first few years to get the organization off its feet, Houston said, but those numbers are still being worked out.

The presentation about the Alameda project took place right after another major project broke ground just one block away: The 23-story Frost Bank Tower is part of a historic public-private partnership and also situated along the San Pedro Creek.

City staff and most of City Council agreed that the timing for the Alameda seems perfect.

“[This is our] best shot at really making this historically and culturally significant facility a relevant and active part of downtown,” Sculley said.

And it’s about time for cities across the nation to start making such investments, Kaiser said. “This country has underinvested substantially in Latino culture. There is no cultural institution in America that is Latino-based that has a budget of more than $7 million. And that is both outrageous and embarrassing.”

This story was originally published on March 29. 

One thought on “City, County, TPR to Partner on $26 Million Renovation of Alameda Theater

  1. It seems clear as day (and more apparent with every Chalk It Up Fest or Siclovia): the Alameda Theater project, new Frost Tower, San Pedro Creek as well as greater downtown would benefit from Houston Street being closed to traffic the two blocks between Laredo to Flores.

    All three emerging projects anticipate new and very high levels of pedestrian activity orientated to this small section of Houston Street throughout the day. Unfortunately, proposed Houston Street design work (specifically new on-street parking / sidewalk carve-outs on Houston Street planned to be constructed near the new Frost Tower) will actually narrow and worsen already bad pedestrian conditions here, including by removing VIA services permanently from this section of Houston Street.

    The image of the Alameda Theater above that leads this story depicts just how bad walking and rolling conditions are on Houston Street between Laredo and Flores currently with just one family on the sidewalk. Imagine when this particular sidewalk narrows further with the planned additional on-street parking on Houston Street near the new Frost Tower. Or with increased traffic on this historic downtown street as generated with new planned offerings and work space along with the removal of VIA options.

    The three new projects — Alameda Theater, Frost Tower and San Pedro Creek — deserve the pedestrian urban design / a walking street in these two blocks of Houston that residents and visitors of other cities are enjoying, and that cities everywhere are creating and expanding. For example, AT&T is currently promoting that blocks of streets in downtown Dallas be closed to traffic to support public (including employee) walking and gathering spaces and street level commercial activity near their expanding headquarters — similar to what is envisioned with the new Frost Tower on Houston Street, but, as AT&T knows, human amenity that cannot be achieved on street sections that prioritize or mix traffic and parking directly with desired high pedestrian activity. Imagine cars parked by or passing your table frequently in your favorite restaurant or coffee shop.

    San Antonio residents and visitors deserve ADA accessible, well-designed, amazing pedestrian blocks and gathering spaces, as well as street-level pedestrian conditions that improve and not worsen with new major projects. The current blanket political pledge governing this Council to preserve (or take more) street space for cars and build more parking at any public cost (even where preservation goals and desired human activity warrants better pedestrian design and management) is contrary to urban planning work in every successful U.S. city, including Dallas.

    San Antonio could do better — anticipating pedestrian demands and potential conflicts or hazard on Houston Street between Laredo and Flores that additional on-street parking near the new Frost Tower will worsen and that pedestrianizing these two blocks / mere 800 feet would vastly improve. Families, visitors, residents, and employees deserve to be prioritized in these two blocks of Houston Street that connect the Alameda Theater, new Frost Tower and San Pedro Creek with the rest of downtown. Two blocks of Houston Street envisioned as a space for people by three separate projects but that have not yet been planned or managed as a safe and inviting pedestrian space and gateway by the City.

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