Compromise on the Alamo Plaza Design is a Good Thing

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Alamo CEO Douglas McDonald attempts to talk down a crowd of citizens opposed to the revised Alamo master plan.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Alamo CEO Douglas McDonald speaks to a crowd of citizens opposed to the revised Alamo master plan.

In the hyper-partisan environment we endure these days, the concept of compromise has gotten a bad rap. But a willingness to compromise is critical if we are to reach a community decision on how to re-envision Alamo Plaza.

As a retired San Antonio district engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation, I hosted or attended several hundred public meetings and public hearings throughout my 45-year career. Two types of people generally attended those meetings: people who are anti-government, anti-progress, or just “anti;” and those who typically have one singular issue about which they are very passionate.

The vast majority of citizens – at least the ones who pay attention at all – just assume that the logical, rational project solutions developed by professionals will be implemented. Trying to engage the vocal minority is often doomed to failure, as its members are not able or willing to have a give-and-take discussion to try to find acceptable compromise.

Consequently, the information gathered at these meetings is skewed toward these extreme or specific views, and the professionals are left to sort through the input for any useful nuggets that could be incorporated to improve the final product. Don’t get me wrong – there are occasions where nuggets of ideas at meetings do result in a better final product.

As one of those professionals my initial goal was always to try to develop plans that could garner consensus. We engineers sure do like to find solutions. Generally, however, as in the case of the Alamo Plaza solution, the transportation project issues were too complex to reach consensus. So, my fallback position was always to do my best to at least find an acceptable compromise.

With the level of acrimony we’ve seen so far at the Alamo Plaza meetings, I fear that we may miss a multi-generational opportunity to upgrade the plaza to complement the World Heritage Site designation that has been bestowed upon our San Antonio missions. That would be a tragic missed opportunity, both for San Antonio and for Texas. We must find a way to step back from rigid and entrenched positions and be willing to listen to and entertain other viewpoints. Remember your mother’s admonition in childhood to “play well with others.” No one kid should ever expect to always get their way on the playground – or in real life.

So, here are my compromise suggestions:

First, I am glad the designers have recognized the critical need for shade in the plaza. While we won’t realistically see the dense forest depicted in the recent presentation, some locally compatible trees should be included in the plaza plan – a great and practical compromise.

Second, I like the idea of relocating the cenotaph to near the existing gazebo – a compromise between leaving it as it is, usurping visual space in the heart of the plaza and competing with the Alamo facade for attention, and unacceptably moving it several blocks away. The placement of the cenotaph 500 feet to the south would help create a grand south entry ambiance coming in from Commerce Street.

The Alamo Cenotaph

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The Alamo Cenotaph

Third, I worry about downtown connectivity, but feel the closure of Alamo Street – with improvements to Losoya – is a viable compromise critical to providing an appropriate experience in the plaza. Vehicular noise constantly rumbling past the plaza would detract from the reflective and reverential plaza environment planners desire and interfere with pedestrians strolling around the site soaking up the historic context. My further compromise solution to address some people’s desire to continue to have the historic Battle of Flowers Parade pass by the front of the church would be to install permeable pavers along the western part of the plaza, with removable bollards at Houston and Commerce streets which could be removed only for the parade and limited special occasions.

My final compromise solution would be to salvage the facades of the existing historic buildings along the west side of the plaza, but gut the interiors to allow construction of a modern, high-quality educational museum that will tell the whole story of the San Antonio area – not only the famous battle, but also the larger and much longer historical context of the region, from centuries before the advent of European immigrants to recent times, including recognizing the Woolworth lunch counter integration.

Obviously, not everyone will agree with all of my suggestions, but perhaps these ideas can form the basis of an open dialogue – remember, no one can expect to get everything they want from a reimagined Alamo Plaza. But at the end of the day, we should be able to find a solution we can all at least accept and be proud of for decades and even centuries to come.

My bottom line: Let’s make compromise great again.

17 thoughts on “Compromise on the Alamo Plaza Design is a Good Thing

  1. John – Excellent perspective on the vocal minority that opposes everything. Your compromise proposals are exactly what Alamo Plaza needs.

  2. City Manager Sculley has requested changes to the proposed plan. This includes potentially dropping the gates from the proposal, saving the buildings, and has floated the idea of building the museum in back of the mission. The Express News ran this story a few days ago. I happen to think she didn’t go far enough. I think Mr Kelly’s idea of closing the plaza to all traffic while making an exception for the parades is a good idea.

    Mr Rivard himself found time to publically tell the Mayor that he could do better in keeping the citizens involved in this process. He said the Mayor could do better, even though he probably already knew that the process would include public input. with Sculley and sometimes Nirenberg.

    The Rivard Report should strive to do its best, this time they didn’t.

  3. City Manager Sculley has requested changes to the proposed plan. This includes potentially dropping the gates from the proposal, saving the buildings, and has floated the idea of building the museum in back of the mission. The Express News ran this story a few days ago. I happen to think she didn’t go far enough. I think Mr Kelly’s idea of closing the plaza to all traffic while making an exception for the parades is a good idea.

  4. Just my opinion, but I like Alamo Plaza just fine how it is. Why spend tens of millions to fix something that isn’t broken.

  5. just bulldoze the whole thing, rebuild the Alamo in Stone Oak and sell tacos out of it. Downtown is a cesspool

  6. Good suggestions! Thank you for your input. Compromise is the way to go, always.
    Losoya is so narrow that it’s hard to imagine that working as a 2-way street, and the construction would be pretty disruptive. But, that may be the best way.
    Keep talking…politely.

  7. Jimtx—But it is broken. Believe me, my first visit to the Alamo in 2014, our whole group of out of towners dubbed the experience the A-LAME-O. Yep, we did.

    The junk across the street, and how you just pop into the ‘tomb’ aka the shrine and don’t know what to think or feel. ON a later visit my parents, whom I couldn’t find forever, had found the movie overview tucked in a corner. Now when I bring visitors, I start there. Texans and locals take for granted that they know the story of the Alamo but for many of the rest of us, all we know is we are supposed to Remember the Alamo, but we don’t actually …yet…. know why. The Alamo / and new Museum / Redesign can fix all that.

    John Kelly – I like the above ideas just fine — and I’d be even okay with some of the buildings being removed if a really good and architecturally interesting building took the place for a museum. I really thought it was smart for the planners to poll locals and out of towners because you are right, the people who come to meetings are not necessarily reflecting a larger opinion.

    I’m very excited for the Alamo plaza revision… San Antonio needs it more than the naysayers know.

  8. Finally the word I have been waiting to hear! Compromise! Thank you.
    I agree with all you have said and find it acceptable. However to take it a step further: I love the idea of movable bollards. I travel often to cities with historic centres. Many of them have removable bollards so during work hours on weekdays they are down and evenings and weekends they are up. Seems like a win-win. Also, those buildings across the street are also historic, sad they carnival atmosphere, but they could become the museum?
    Yes as a child I remember thinking, wow, it is such a big deal for such a small building. I got over it and respect what it meant, not how big it is not.

  9. I’m no traffic engineer, but if they decide to close Alamo st. I see Laysoya st being oneway going North from Market st to Broadway and Presa one way going south from Martin st to S Alamo st in Southtown. This would allow for more vehicles to travel in both directions north and south through downtown.

  10. Thank you!!!! Amen to reusing the historic buildings. Isn’t that what the city did with the Municipal Auditorium/Tobin Center? My husband and I have also talked about using bollards to make the plaza space more flexible and to achieve compromise between the two camps.

    Compromise is inevitable because we are attempting a transformation from the “is this it?” experience to one the Alamo deserves, an experience of grander respect and space. But we cannot ignore the reality that, for decades, the sacred space was surrounded by commercialism. Compromise is the only solution that balances the two realities.

    Here’s another suggestion for closing the street: Could the asphalt surface be replaced with fundraising bricks? Don’t like the idea of my cat’s name at the Alamo, then what about limiting the bricks to those names with documented stories of ordinary people who embodied the spirit of the Alamo in their life and deeds?

    We need to see the redesign leadership embrace compromise. Without it, the project seems doomed.

  11. I liked David Lake’s architectural perspective in the June 9th Rivard Report ( It emphasized that the redesigned Alamo Plaza is for residents, not just for tourists. Alamo Plaza needs to be part of city, not just a destination for others.

    John Kelly’s call for compromise is appropriate, but his “compromise” still treats the Plaza as separate from the city, not as an integral part of it. I like his points 1, 2, and 4: more trees, move the cenotaph, and maintain the facing facades — they are city history, too. But, yes, gut the buildings for a museum.

    The stickler is item 3: street closure. Walking areas are good, but barriers shut the city out. Using bollards is part of a potential plan, but simply rerouting traffic elsewhere without an overall multi-modal downtown transportation plan is not enough. Can’t anyone take a look at the area as a whole, and think about what downtown transportation we will need when cars are only part of our transportation picture? What’s the future role for scooters, bikes, walking, buses, and so on. What should it be, both for tourists and locals?

    Yes, we need to keep the Plaza open for Fiesta parades, but also need to give access to the International Women’s Day March and other important city events. That means no fixed barriers and no sunken plaza in front of the Mission. Don’t embalm the Alamo for tourists only. It’s part of our city, too.

  12. I second Mr Kelly’s suggestions, but with proviso that complete downtown traffic plan be completed before Alamo Street is closed.
    As to Gates, fencing, and walls – not appropriate. What.would be good in that department would be well-separated glass panels indicating the overall lines of the 1836 mission walls and the south defensive works but not to interfere with pedestrian circulation.

  13. I agree with consensus. That is different than compromise. The ART is developing fresh ideas not directly connected to the prior ideas. Do not keep score. Even if parts are similar agree to move forward with the likable parts for an acceptable blending of ideas. Additionally, with inclusive focus keep your eye on the prize. You cannot solve everything. I used to work for John at TxDOT. This is an excellent approach that can be incorporated as part of
    a consensus. This may require more public engagement than just the required components. Meet monthy, assign homework in bite size amounts, move forward. The spirit of the Alamo is the essence of being America. It is what it is. The historical must blend and retain itself not remake itself. I look forward to seeing the successful condense being built soon. There are many things to accomplish make the Alamo a place never to forget as well.

  14. John Kelly demonstrates again the wisdom that made him the most effective district engineer in San Antonio’s modern era. IMHO each and every compromise position he states should be adopted.

  15. Tear down and remove all the buildings on the West side of Alamo Street. Return the Alamo Courtyard and The Plaza in the greatest extent possible to the way it was at the time of the Battle behind the Walls of the Mission. . Remember the importance of the Alamo as a global beacon eternally unifying the spirit of all who fought each other to the death at the Battle of the Alamo, to proceed on to build Texas and our nation. Nothing could be greater than for the Alamo to celebrate the battle that was responsible not only for Texas, but to the completion of formation of the USA. It’s a history of two sides, one, the story of indigenous Native Americans and Spanish Colonial Missionaries who built The Alamo, and second, the Texans that we’re invited to settle the failed Mission Lands. It’s time for Texans to do this right. Let’s celebrate the heritage and importance of both sides of the Alamo Battle, and memorialize as they were in 1836.. Very few historical sites in the World are as important as the Alamo. It’s time to honor the Shrine which is the Alamo, the way all those who died at the Battle of the Alamo deserve to be honored.

  16. Alamo Plaza should be a world class plaza but is far from being world class. Vehicular traffic vibrations are detrimental to the Alamo. My heart fell when I was on a business trip out of state and the people I met said “ I went to the Alamo but it really wasn’t much to see, I thought the area was going to be this grand place”. The story of the Alamo and birthplace of Tejas is not well represented with cheesy tourist business and low budget designs. It should be a beautiful space that tells the story in a world class setting. Many cities around the world have world class spaces that are not UNESCO sites such as Rockefeller plaza or Chapultepec Park. Step it up San Antonio.

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