Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Sweeping changes for Alamo Plaza were presented to City Council on Wednesday, including permanently closing a portion of Alamo Street, replacing the entertainment businesses across the plaza with a 120,000 sq. ft. high-tech museum, moving the 1930s Alamo Cenotaph, creating a single entrance, and enhancing two public green spaces to strengthen the site’s physical connection with its past and San Antonio’s future.
George Skarmeas, design director at Preservation Design Partnership (PDP) hired for the Alamo Master Plan, said these “preliminary concepts” will let the plaza tell visitors a more accurate story about the events that took place here over the course of more than 10,000 years.
The proposed ideas represent “a dramatic cultural change here,” Alamo Endowment Executive Director Becky Dinnin told the Rivard Report.
Should these ideas make it into the final plan – which is slated for completion in late May 2017 – the plaza would be closed off to functions such as Fiesta events, parades, protests, and other public gatherings that currently take place on the grounds, allowing for a more solemn, revered site. That also would mean an end to the tradition of erecting a large Christmas tree in the plaza every year.
The project as a whole will cost between $200-300 million dollars, according to Alamo Endowment Board member and Alamo Management Committee Chairman Gene Powell.
If the schedule holds, Alamo Plaza will be redeveloped by 2024. The master plan is an effort by the City of San Antonio, Texas General Land Office, and the Alamo Endowment to jointly fund and plan the redevelopment of the Alamo complex, plaza, and surrounding downtown district.
Master planners want to close off the plaza to major events and traffic to conserve the sanctity of the church, arguably the plaza’s most significant asset. The Alamo is the “the guiding light of our plan,” Skarmeas said.
“It’s deteriorating before our very eyes,” he said. “(We need to find out) if there are vibrations that are being created (by traffic and other activity) that are being transferred to the building.”
Through orthophotography, which uses high-resolution digital cameras to record the building, and the use of black paper on the church floor, the design team discovered a “daily loss of fabric” in the limestone walls.
“White dust and little chunks of stone (are falling) on the floor,” Skarmeas said, calling attention to the fact that air conditioning and added moisture have contributed to the structure’s deterioration.
“We need to think about it carefully and (use) the best experts in world to protect it for the next 300 years,” he said. “It’s essential to the city and essential to history.”
Master plan officials said that state law requires that access to the Alamo is free to the public. However, admission could be charged for the new Alamo museum, which will be located in the state-owned historic buildings across the street.
Returning the Alamo to a sacred state by closing off streets is pivotal to reestablishing the dignity that the site deserves, Powell said. He and Skarmeas mentioned other battleground sites such as Gettysburg, Valley Forge, Vicksburg, and the beaches of Normandy to emphasize that everyday or celebratory activities are not conducive to the preservation of historic locations.
“It’s too busy down there, we see too much,” Councilman Mike Gallagher (D10) said. “The plan to clean this up and recapture the historic courtyard … make it more historic and take away some of that distraction that exists right now … is absolutely what we must be doing.”
In its current state, visitors come to the Alamo from many directions, Skarmeas said, making it “a porous site with no sense of place.” He added that directing all visitors to the site through the south gate entrance would enhance the experience and make it more authentic.
Skarmeas and the master plan team also proposed turning the garden behind the Alamo into a public park, restoring several acequias around the site, building a restaurant and a reception space on the roof of the new museum, and repurposing other buildings to accommodate events.
“I can’t think of an adjective to describe how important this is for our state and nation,” Mayor Ivy Taylor said. “(The Alamo) is a national treasure here in our backyard and investments are needed to preserve it and capitalize on its presence.”
City Manager Sheryl Sculley and Assistant City Manager Lori Houston are working on relocating businesses across the street from the Alamo to a new “entertainment district.”
“Lori (and I) are in conversation with the Alamo Endowment and those who own businesses so that they know that we care and are willing to work with them to relocate them to an appropriate place,” Sculley said. “We are creating an area where they can conduct their business and service the community.”
The City allocated $17 million for the project last year, with another $19 million pending in the 2017 municipal bond. The design team will meet with leaders in Austin during the next several months and request an additional $75 million from the Legislature, Powell said.
“The Alamo is one of the most iconic sites in America, and there is layer upon layer of history at this site,” he said, adding that the 1836 Battle of the Alamo was not the only important event in the site’s history.
“Indigenous people were born here, lived here, and died here … around 1,500 are buried here,” he added. “Then the fathers went home to Spain and turned over the building to indigenous people … then came the defenders of the Alamo seeking liberty and freedom … then the city (we know today) grew up around it.”
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) and Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) agreed that embracing a new mindset with the Alamo master plan is instrumental in changing the way people experience and understand the Alamo.
“(These are) transformative opportunities … it’s positive development,” Treviño said, adding that the Alamo and all its layers “will be brought to life in a new way.”
Viagran emphasized the importance of telling a holistic story and recapturing this new “reimagining.”
“This will require a paradigm shift for all of us that have only known one thing this entire time,” she said. “(We’re) just scratching the surface right now.”
Skarmeas and Powell spoke about utilizing new technology to produce a unique visual representation of the site and its history.
Powell described an experience where tourists would come to the museum in the Crockett Building, look at the Alamo through a window, and see its history being told through a “hologram” or some kind of digital projection.
“We start in 1700 with indigenous people camped in a compound, then walls start to come up, and a church goes up. Then defenders show up for the Battle of the Alamo and Santa Anna’s troops tear down the walls,” Powell said. “Then comes modern San Antonio and it’s 2017 – in 20 minutes with the whole site in front of us.
“We can tell that 300-year story with technology to help everyone understand what happened here,” he added. “(It would provide) a better appreciation about what this site is all about.”
The Alamo master plan team plans to hold a public meeting in 2017 to present these concepts and additional strategies.