Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
The City of San Antonio’s Planning Commission voted 5-1 to approve a 50-year ground lease with the Texas General Land Office (GLO) and nearby street closures on Wednesday associated with the redevelopment plan for Alamo Plaza.
The Historic Design and Review Commission (HDRC) voted 8-1 to repair and relocate the Alamo Cenotaph and approved the conceptual plaza design.
During the rare, joint meeting of the two commissions, 16 total commissioners asked questions from the long dais. Many had concerns about plaza access and handling of the Cenotaph, but they were largely supportive of the plan.
Planning Commissioner June Kachtik abstained from the vote, citing a lack of detail in the plan, and her colleague Jessica Brunson voted no. HDRC Commissioner John Laffoon also voted no.
The redevelopment plan, if approved by City Council on Oct. 18, would result in the closure of a portion of South Alamo Street, the repair and relocation of the Alamo Cenotaph roughly 500 feet south, managed pedestrian access to the historic plaza footprint, new parade routes, and a study of the possibilities for a world-class museum in renovated historic buildings across the street from the Alamo.
By closing streets to vehicular traffic, the plaza can extend south to Commerce Street, Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said. Treviño, who is an architect, also served on two committees closely involved in formulating the plan.
The roughly one-acre historic mission footprint is the only portion that would require managed access, Treviño said. The rest of the six-acre plaza would remain open and free – in terms of access and admission.
“Everything that is free today will be free tomorrow,” Treviño said, adding later that the plan doesn’t remove any part of the area’s history but “makes room for it all.”
The lease agreement includes a “robust” dispute resolution process if the City finds that the State is in violation of the lease, said City Attorney Andy Segovia. “If the GLO tries to build an amusement park, and of course I’m exaggerating, we’d have authority to terminate [the lease].”
The design team made a presentation Wednesday to City Council and reviewed the entire plan and lease agreement. The plan received general support from most Council members, but most still had some concerns regarding the Cenotaph and directing access to the historic plaza to a single entry point.
The Texas Historical Commission (THC) has purview over the state-owned buildings but HDRC will provide input on that plan. THC also will review plans for the Cenotaph. It’s unclear how or if the buildings will be renovated to become part of the new museum or whether some will be demolished; an in-depth study on the structural and historical integrity of the buildings will be conducted before plans are designed for the museum. City leaders, commissioners, and conservationists have advocated for the buildings’ preservation, but the final decision on the their fate is pending that study.
“It’s not time to do a lease until you know what you’re leasing,” resident Frank Adelman, who sat through the more than four-hour meeting, told commissioners during the public comment portion.
At least three commissioners, including Kachtik, agreed that there seemed to be more questions than answers about the plan.
More details will become clear in later stages of the design, Treviño said, approval of these steps allows the process to continue.
Wednesday’s vote grants preliminary or conceptual approval of the Cenotaph relocation and plaza design. HDRC will review the specific location and final design at a later date.
“Anything on City property would ultimately have to come back before final approval,” said Shanon Shea Miller, director of the Office of Historic Preservation.
The design is meant to inspire reverence for the site and tell more of the story than the 13 days of the 1836 Battle of the Alamo, said Eric Kramer of Reed Hilderbrand, one of the consultant firms the City of San Antonio and State of Texas selected to work on the project.
More than 20 citizens signed up to speak, most with the same concerns voiced by City Council members.
San Antonio Conservation Society representatives called for stronger language in the lease agreement that would protect the historic buildings across from the Alamo.
The plan pays respect to the hundreds of years before and during the Battle of the Alamo, Conservation Society Vice President Patty Zions said, but there is little discussion of its importance in the 19th and 20th centuries “as a public plaza.” The Woolworth building in particular has a place in civil rights history as the location of an integrated lunch counter in 1960.
Native American groups asked to participate in processes to ensure that the City follow federal guidelines for disturbing burial grounds. Some descendants of those who fought or died defending the Alamo in 1836 said the Cenotaph should not be moved “one inch,” but other descendants said they agreed with the plan.
“Repair it where it sits,” said Lee Spencer White, president of the Alamo Defenders Descendants Association. “Leave it where the blood is” on the battlefield.
Designers say moving the Cenotaph while delineating and lowering the original footprint of the plaza will help create a “sense of arrival” for the battlefield called for in the approved master plan.
If approved, the plan would establish one main entrance to the historic plaza that would be open 24 hours every day. Two auxiliary entrances would be opened to allow for increased access during high-traffic events downtown. When the museum is closed – from 6 p.m. to 9 a.m. – there would be six total access points.
The plan’s formulation was supervised by several committees set up by a joint agreement among the City of San Antonio, GLO, and Alamo Endowment in 2015. The endowment has pledged to raise a vast majority of the anticipated $350 million-$450 million needed to complete the project.
Technically, HDRC decisions must receive final approval from City Manager Sheryl Sculley or the director of the Office of Historic Preservation – or she could defer the matter to a Council vote.
“This is the beginning of a very, very big decision,” HDRC Commissioner Anne-Marie Grube said to the audience right before the vote. “I implore you all to involve your next generation. You’re all talking about who you descend from and I don’t see any young [people here] … which will be the next generation to actually enjoy this.”
Her comment was met with disapproving groans from the audience and someone said from the crowd: “They got school.”