Facing a Deadline, Alamo Plaza Planners Promise an Evolving Design

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This daytime rendering shows the pedestrian plaza that South Alamo Street (looking north) could become.

Courtesy / Texas General Land Office

This daytime rendering shows the pedestrian plaza that South Alamo Street (looking north) could become.

It isn’t easy finding your way to a second floor meeting room at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center for a 6 p.m. public hearing, but the presence of more than 300 citizens Tuesday evening was a testament to people’s strong feelings about anything to do with the Alamo.

It’s a curious contradiction: The plaza itself is a tawdry place, and the small chapel and Long Barracks are all that visibly remain from the Battle of the Alamo in 1836. Few visitors walk away impressed. There is no real recognition that the site was home to an early 18th century Spanish mission, or for thousands of years, part of Yanaguana – indigenous land close to the San Antonio River.

Yet a majority of the more than 50 people who signed up to speak at the hearing felt compelled first to establish their multigenerational family ties or other connections to San Antonio and then to speak in opposition to various aspects of the conceptual master plan. Organizers allowed many to speak long after their three-minute time allotment had expired, and a planned two-hour meeting stretched to three and a half hours.

It was a cathartic session for many. Everyone has an opinion about the Alamo Plaza redesign, and I delivered mine in a Sunday column headlined, A Public Plaza is More Than Dirt and Glass. I see a plaza [and a downtown] in need of many more shade trees and human amenities, such as park benches, drinking fountains, and public art.

Members of the public identified themselves at the hearing, while many professionals in the development and design community are expressing their misgivings with the conceptual master plan in a less public fashion.

A number of those professionals declined to comment for publication. The Rivard Report remains open to individuals who want to post their comments or submit a proposed opinion piece supporting or critiquing the master plan.

Tuesday’s three principal speakers on stage at the Convention Center were Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), an architect and the downtown representative on City Council; Gene Powell, Alamo Management Committee tri-chair and member of the Alamo Endowment Board; and George Skarmeas, director of Preservation Design Partnership (PDP), who is leading the design team.

I listened closely as they took turns speaking and reacting to members of the public. This was the second of three public meetings scheduled before the “preliminary vision” is approved by City Council on May 11, in time for the Texas Legislature to consider allocating another $75 million in funding for the project. The final public hearing will be held next Tuesday at 6 p.m.

What I heard was mostly encouraging. As the three project leaders spoke, they went to great pains to describe the Alamo Plaza redesign as a conceptual master plan completed on a tight deadline, the work of many national and local experts, and representatives from the three primary stakeholders: the state of Texas and General Land Office; the City of San Antonio; and the Alamo Endowment, which is charged with raising as much as $225 million in what ultimately could be a half-billion dollar project.

They stressed that proposed changes to the plaza’s physical space will be subject to modification. Programming elements for the plaza will be decided during the multi-year redevelopment process, although a solution for Fiesta parades already has been reached with passage around the back of the Alamo. Parade members will pause between the Alamo and the Menger Hotel for the ritual laying of the wreath to honor the Defenders.

I interviewed all three of the presenters in the days after the public hearing to gauge their mood and reaction to both public and private criticism of the master plan.

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) moderates the event as Preservation Design Partnership Design Director George Skarmeas responds to a community members concern.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) moderates the event as Preservation Design Partnership Design Director George Skarmeas responds to a community members concern.

“When people walk into the Alamo Plaza they don’t feel they are standing in a sacred place, a place where the Defenders gave their lives, the place where 1,500 indigenous people are buried,” Powell said. “We need to restore that sense of sacred space.

“I don’t think anybody understands how difficult a task it is that we are serving two constituencies: One is the local constituency and those people see the Alamo a certain way, while the rest of the public outside San Antonio sees the Alamo in a different way,” Powell added. “For locals, the plaza is a public space. Visitors, especially those who have been to other iconic battlefields, are expecting a certain decorum and reverence. It’s like walking into a church – you instinctively lower your voice because you know you are in a scared spot. Nobody lowers their voice when they step into the Alamo Plaza.”

Treviño said many people are confusing the conceptual master plan with finished design documents.

“It’s been a fast-paced process, but we acknowledge and respect the fact these are just the first steps and we have much more to discuss and design,” Treviño said. “The community has also spoken up. People want all the layers of history respected, but this master plan first has to tackle the physical environment before we can tell the stories of all the people that account for all these many layers of history and all the stories we want to tell.”

Treviño said the current team of experts and stakeholders continues to abide by the guiding principles produced by a 21-member Citizens Advisory Committee in December 2014. Those principles were approved by City Council months before a decision by Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush to oust the Daughters of the Republic of Texas as managers of the Alamo and to give the state ultimate say over the historic site.

While the guiding principles were met with near-universal approval locally, moving from there to an actual blueprint for plaza redevelopment has proven to be a greater challenge.

“The state wants a secure, dignified area, and locals want lots of public space,” Powell said. “I can’t find an iconic battle site that has both of these elements at the same time. We have the intersection of a public plaza and a sacred battlefield. How do we do two things at once? It’s very complicated. What we came up with is that the buildings now housing entertainment attractions become the museum, and the space in front of the Alamo and the battlefield becomes a sacred space that can be controlled, yet without the public being restricted. Then a very significant space south of there in the plaza becomes a great public space.”

“I am personally committed to preserving that balance,” Skarmeas said, discussing the master plan’s goal of creating a “sacred space” honoring the Battle of the Alamo and all the history that preceded it, and an activated public space that can serve as a central gathering destination for locals and visitors, and connect the plaza to Hemisfair.

“It’s a delicate balance, and it requires people to move to the middle ground,” Skarmeas said. “Nobody gets exactly what they want in every respect. We meet in the middle. It’s essential. Windows of opportunity like the one that now exists come along very rarely. This is San Antonio’s opportunity, the one it has been waiting for so long to happen. If it does not happen now, when?”

Treviño praised the depth and range of the master plan team, describing them as “a mix of serious thought leaders,” some national, some local, all guided by the locally-crafted principles for the site’s redevelopment.

“We are seven years away from opening the museum,” Powell said. “This is a conceptual master plan. Operating plans won’t be finalized for years. That’s when you will settle on hours of operation, a pedestrian gate on the north side, and all the other design details, whatever is decided.

“We are not at the point of the plan where we have answers to every question,” he added. “The operator will be the state, the GLO, and it will determine many of the operational details. Right now the state sees the Alamo as a very soft target, and they are looking at security very seriously.

“If we don’t get this done it will be hard to start it again,” Powell said. “We’ve been trying for 75 years to get something going. Now is the time. When we get on the other side [of the legislative funding decision], there will be plenty of time to work on this and get it just right.”

12 thoughts on “Facing a Deadline, Alamo Plaza Planners Promise an Evolving Design

  1. Powell’s belief that locals want a plaza and visitors that have been to other battlefields want reverence and decorum makes it sound like us locals have never been past Loop 410! I do think us locals probably have a better understanding of the need for shade trees most of the year, and the ability to sit in the shade and think about our patriots shouldn’t detract from the reverence. Moving assemblies to the property beyond the Alamo footprint behind the church makes sense to me. The Battle of Flowers began as a celebration of the independence we gained at the Battle of San Jacinto, but quickly turned into a fiesta with no decorum or reverence, so detouring it a few blocks shouldn’t bother the revelers, anyway.

  2. The sacredness of the site occurs in the chapel. The rangers require you remove your hat, when you enter. From my visits, the voices considerably drop, and I believe one can be escorted out by the rangers if they perceive non-sacred noise and activity.

    I am still worried that Mr. Powell and co. will want to erect those damnable glass walls. The laughing and raising of voices outside will be sacred enough for me (and, if the rangers detect any nonsense outside the chapel, I’m sure they and SAPD Park Police/ GLO Texas Rangers / peace officers, will deal with it accordingly)

    Keep The Cenotaph in place! (disassemble and repair it in place too!) Repair the Alamo chapel and surrounding structures! Build a sacred cenotaph to the indigenous peoples! More trees (cottonwoods, if they can thrive! Do not remove mature trees!)! No damnable glass walls (graffiti-prone, bird-killing, people-inhibiting structures)!

  3. I believe the guests can be called to reverence with well placed signs around the battleground area reminding them to show respect for those that lay beneath them. The glass walls are the worst idea I could imagine. It throws a modern facade in front of and iconic ancient landmark. Besides that they will end up covered in dirt and graffitti. Build authentic reproductions of the walls or sections of the walls to demarcate the fortress interior. Make everything based on an authentic theme that can assist visitors as they travel back in time in their mind, envisioning the heroes of Texas in their desperate battle. Make the site respectful by showing it respect.

    • Blood was shed on the plaza, but there are no actual bodies buried there. The battlefield itself is what we are treating with reverence and respect. There are bodies of earlier inhabitants buried in front of the church. The Alamo defenders’ bodies were all burned in the funeral pyres, now located underneath structures on Commerce Street.

  4. Simple question: Has Mr Powell offered to recuse his company from any work on the Alamo Plaza project, regardless of whatever form it takes? Is his passion bigger than his concern for the bottom line? Otherwise, I see a HUGE conflict of interest here…

  5. Much of the plan exhibits a huge step forward in making the Alamo site into something we can be proud of instead of having to apologize to visitors who are underwhelmed. However, many have pointed out the absurdity of the glass walls (impractical, difficult to keep clean, incongruous, breeze-inhibiting) and the baking hot plaza created by ripping out heritage trees in interest of “recreation” (although historic preservationists discourage any attempts to recreate historical details that are gone). The design team members have countered with their design rationale for these ridiculous features without acknowledging the opinions raised and the potential for modification.

    If these are the type of “details” that can later be reconsidered, then let’s proceed with the master plan. However, do not take our support of the “concept” of the plan as acceptance of these design ideas.

  6. The bottom-line for many “locals” like myself is that we see no need to remove trees, close roads, and wall off behind glass something we see and feel everyday as we pass by on our way to work, dinner, or nightly walk. The grounds around the Alamo have been a plaza much longer than they were every a makeshift fort for independence. And, please, I want Robert Trevino to tell me how traffic will negotiate through town when S Alamo is cut off, and will there be flowers laid on the grounds next Fiesta?

  7. This may have been covered in earlier presentations, but I am curious about the selection process. What was the basis for making the selection of this plan and this design group — was it the credentials of the design team or the proposal itself? Were other architects and designers invited to submit proposals? If so, how were they chosen? Or was this an open call for proposals, a general competition open to architects and designers generally? And who made up the committee that made the decision finally? So many people are offended by the glass walls and the idea of walling people out, and the appearance of the glass, such a clash with the old stones of the church and the walls of the convento. One of the things that’s absolutely important is accuracy and honesty with regards to presenting the historical elements, whether that be in distinguishing what is original from what is a later reconstruction or in the location of the elements, such as an acequia. You can’t drop in an acequia because you want to introduce a water feature; one can be included only where archaeologists and historians have determined it to have been. It would seem you would have to make a decision at the outset about what historic period you are attempting to present and how you are going to include the history preceding that period. If you are going to present the plaza as a battlefield, then you cannot interrupt it to show the preceding history through a slick pane of glass, can you? And the battleground can’t be a flooring of concrete blocks. Why sacrifice shade trees for something else just as inaccurate? Perhaps more architects and designers and historians are needed to help in guiding the choices. I hope you won’t be rushed into making a decision now, not the committee or the city or the legislature.

  8. “We are seven years away from opening the museum,” Powell said. “This is a conceptual master plan. Operating plans won’t be finalized for years.”

    In June, 2014, Phil Collins announced that he was donating his Alamo collection to the Alamo under the stipulation that a museum for housing it be completed in 7 years, otherwise, Collins would take his collection back. So the planners have only four years to build the museum, not seven. (Unless Collins has since changed his mind.)

  9. I weighed in with a lengthy comment to Bob’s op-ed and have thought a bit more about how the current master plan seems to fail to address the pedestrian approach to the Alamo grounds from Bonham south of East Houston. This part of Bonham more or less follows the highly significant Romero led angle of attack during the Battle but it is currently marred by the 3-star (yes, people actual rate parking lots) Crockett surface parking lot that sprawls all the way east to Bowie from Bonham.

    A museum planner walking in cold to this scenario would almost certainly recommend re-developing this massive surface parking lot as a new museum, to allow a museum structure to be purpose-built. I think it’s what Phil Collins would want – a signature building that could help provide new perspective on the Alamo battle (including the significant Romero attack approach) while also addressing an urban blight (a surface parking lot) and protecting a number of historic structures on Alamo Street from disturbance or destruction. A new Alamo museum orientated to Bonham south of Houston would also help to frame this part of East Houston Street as a museum district (noting the Fire Museum opposite that the master planning does not currently address).

    It’s worth considering a new purpose built museum on Bonham south of Houston not only considering the cost but also the likely the damage done to historic structures in trying to retrofit buildings on Alamo Street for a museum and rooftop garden – as well as the potential to put priceless artifacts at risk with such a retrofitted structure.

    Historic buildings on Alamo Street would have to be substantially re-worked to mitigate entirely new HVAC, security, ADA and other visitor demands (and roof loads) that these buildings were never designed for.

    Current design images also don’t address some of the drawbacks of a rooftop garden on Alamo Street looking east. Yes, there would be views of the Alamo, but it looks like the views might be substantially muted if not dominated by the surface parking lot on Bonham:
    https://www.google.com/maps/@29.4258997,-98.4875028,31a,35y,79.87h,79.01t/data=!3m1!1e3

    In addition, views east would not allow diners to enjoy a sunset, and views west from the proposed site are dominated by the monstrous (and vacant) parking garage immediately behind the building on Losoya: https://www.google.com/maps/@29.4256912,-98.4861549,39a,35y,298.05h,77t/data=!3m1!1e3

    In contrast, a new purpose-built museum (better for artifacts) with a rooftop garden facing west could allow new views and perspectives of the Alamo grounds and Alamo Street streetscape as well as allow diners to enjoy sunsets. A rooftop garden here would also help to mitigate some of the challenges related to the noise of various rooftop mounted HVAC systems clustered along the alleyway between Losoya and Alamo a (I count approximately 12 building HVAC units to contend with compared with the Crockett Hotel’s one).

    There’s clearly other parking options nearby (the garage on Losoya etc) but only one substantial lot near the Alamo showing much potential to be re-developed as a purpose-built and signature museum. If this master plan is mainly being driven by the need for a new museum space for the Phil Collins collection as some have contended, the best move is likely to help create a museum district by redeveloping the Crockett surface lot as a new museum, no jacket – er, jackhammers to historic structures on Alamo Street required.

  10. I don’t hear the designers accepting the plain facts about the ugliness and impossible heat of the “dirt-like” area that dominates the sketch, or the awfulness of the glass walls and limited entry.
    Why is the state so hung up on security?
    Why should the Alamo be anything like any other “iconic battlefield?” This site is unique. It’s actually not a battlefield, not anymore. A vibrant city grew up around the building, the Alamo, and the vibrant activity on the Plaza is just as important, and has endured much longer than, the thirteen days when it was a battlefield.
    It’s silly to pretend the Alamo is in any way like Gettysburg, which one of the designers mentioned. It isn’t out in the countryside; it’s in the middle of a living city!
    This is killing life and and activity for a sterile, not particularly reverence-inducing attempt to eliminate 200 years of history and development.
    Have any of these guys heard of Jane Jacobs? Life at street level is just as important here as it was in Greenwich Village. We have life now. Why would you kill it off?
    Keep the trees, for everyone’s sake, ditch the glass walls, and forget about the huge empty space where no one will ever stroll as imagined in that sketch because they would wilt in the heat.

  11. Re: “the decorum and reverence” people expect when visiting The Alamo… This made me think (and chuckle) about all the visitors I’ve encountered and their consistent reaction, “It’s so much smaller in person!” They aren’t underwhelmed by the plaza or surrounding areas, they are surprised by the size of The Alamo itself. Expanding the grounds/physical area around The Alamo won’t change that.

    Or perhaps I only encounter shallow visitors… 🙂

    On a random note, having one entrance/exit to a large walled off structure seems dangerous in this day and age.

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