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Millions of tourists visit the “Shrine to Texas Liberty” each year, but for many San Antonians, the Alamo and the Alamo Plaza represent the clash of history with commerce and downscale tourism – a sacred place whose meaning is lost in vehicle traffic, sidewalk barkers and street preachers.
The City of San Antonio is working to establish a vision and guiding principles for redefining Alamo Plaza, a process that continued Tuesday night with a meeting of impassioned citizens hosted by the City’s Alamo Plaza Advisory Committee.
The meeting drew close to 160 people – descendants of Canary Islanders, historians, schoolteachers, downtown residents, representatives of the Texas Nationals Movement, the San Antonio Living History Association, and others. Some even came dressed in historical costumes (see top photo).
The advisory committee was formed in march and began staging meetings in May and hopes to compete its work in November, which includes updating the City’s Alamo Plaza Study Committee of 1994. Recommendations made then, a large majority never enacted, included termination of vehicle traffic through Alamo Plaza.
The 1994 committee report proposed closing Alamo Plaza East to vehicles, as well as Alamo Plaza West from north of Crockett Street to south of Peacock Alley, and Houston Street from the east corner of Broadway to the west corner of Avenue E, except for service vehicles.
City officials in the mid-1990s also sought to acquire leasing space on the first floor of buildings or acquisition of the buildings on the Alamo Plaza West in front of the Alamo, including the Crockett Block, the Palace, Woolworth’s, Gibbs and the U.S. Post Office.
City leaders are now gathering public input to issue a request for qualifications next December for the eventual creation of a Master Plan Team, with recommendations to the City Council slated for May/June of 2015.
Those in attendance broke into small groups to discuss the City’s vision, guiding principles and themes and goals, drafting ideas to eventually propose to the whole group.
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The Advisory Committee’s planned updates include inclusion of a document giving background information on more than 300 years of history of the Alamo Plaza. There also has been discussion of forming a foundation or organization to manage the public and private interests of the Alamo area experience. There was general agreement during the meeting to add interpretive and directional signage plan for the Alamo area experience and the Alamo Plaza Historic District .
The City seeks to “include strict guidelines in the Interpretive Plan for appropriate experiences in the Alamo experience area, addressing street preachers, food and other vendors, street performers, living history interpreters and special events to ensure top-quality visitor experiences.”
“One word we’ve heard tonight is connectivity,” said Marise McDermott, a committee tri-chair serving with District 1 Councilmember Diego Bernal and San Antonio Conservation Society President Sue Ann Pemberton. “Yes, this is about Alamo Plaza, but it’s also about the ancillary parts. To me, it seems people want a deeper experience. This is not an ideological but a thoughtful debate, and our role is to listen and to guide the process to reflect the community.
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“Alamo Plaza should be seen as part of the Decade of Downtown for San Antonio,” she added. “We want to put the lens on it. It’s so symbolic in so many ways over so many years.”
A main point of contention at the meeting involved one of the City’s guiding principles: Whether the 13-Day Battle of the Alamo in 1836 should serve as the nexus of all things Alamo Plaza.
Some citizens said no, instead calling for an Alamo Plaza that gives equal consideration to indigenous life before the arrival of the Spaniards as well as the century-long presence of the Mission San Antonio de Valero that dated to 1718 as is now given to the Battle of the Alamo.
One guest, a sixth-generation San Antonian who said an ancestor helped build the facades and windows of the San Antonio Missions more than 200 years ago, said he did not feel the committee represented him in the plan to restore Alamo Plaza.
“My main concern is with visitors and how to engage them,” said Armandina Sifuentes. “I would like for this committee to emphasize the history of the Alamo prior to 1836. We need to recognize the activity of the residents who are here. I’d like to see the committee rename it the Plaza de Las Islas — the Plaza of the Canary Islands.”
Others expressed concern with the multi-tiered ownership of the Alamo and Alamo Plaza. While the Alamo is owned by the state of Texas, the City owns and controls Alamo Plaza, and private property owners exist in several retail and commercial spaces along the plaza.
San Antonio native and tourism industry employee Christopher Toepel said the City’s guiding principle to stress “connectivity and wayfinding” was a good way to envision a perfect entrance to Commerce and Alamo streets while limiting auto and tour bus access and improving movement of vehicles and pedestrians.
“I would like to see walking tour guides in Alamo Plaza,” he added, echoing other meeting attendants.
Many people are turned off by the carnival feel to Alamo Plaza as a tourist attraction.
“When visitors come here, they’re not coming for John Wayne movies, but for the story of survival,” said Gary Foreman, a historical preservationist. “It’s not about a regional or local dispute, but a story of sacrifice. People want to understand the human condition and the universal desire to inquire about why people do what they do under certain circumstances.”
He cited other historical sites such as Gettysburg National Military Park and Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine as good examples for Alamo Plaza organizers to emulate.
“If you tell the story well, everything else will expand,” Foreman added.