Public Delivers Strong Criticism of Alamo Plaza Redesign

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This rendering shows Alamo Plaza (looking northeast from above) at dusk.

Courtesy / Texas General Land Office

This rendering shows the proposed Alamo Plaza redesign (looking northeast from above) at dusk.

Preliminary renderings of the Alamo Plaza redesign spread like wildfire through the San Antonio community last week, sparking heated comments, strong criticism, and both far-fetched and well-thought out suggestions for the $450 million master plan.

Proposals to relocate the 1930s Cenotaph, remove shade trees from a large portion of the courtyard, and erect glass walls that limit the plaza from casual pedestrian traffic drew the most fire in online comments and during public feedback sessions.

Some of the approximately 320 attendees at Tuesday night’s session called the “postmodern” design “sterile.” One compared it to the fabled Emperor’s New Clothes, which drew applause and laughter from the crowd Tuesday night.

“The difference [is that the tailor] was trying to fool people,” said Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1). “We have experts that know what they’re doing.”

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

District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño (center) moderates the meeting as Preservation Design Partnership Design Director George Skarmeas (left) prepares to answer a question from a concerned attendee.

The overwhelming response from the community has prompted organizers to hold a third input session at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center on Tuesday, May 2 at 6 p.m. in Room 301.

This was the second of two public meetings scheduled before the “preliminary vision” was to go to City Council for approval on May 11, in time for the Legislature to consider allocating another $75 million in funding towards the project. Designers and backers stressed that these plans for the physical space were subject to modification and that the programming elements for the plaza will be part of future steps in the multi-year process.

“We all have to remember this is a conceptual plan this is not a baked plan that we’re finished with,” said Gene Powell, Alamo Management Committee tri-chair, who is also a member of the Alamo Endowment Board. The Endowment is charged with raising about $225 million in philanthropic funds to complete the redesign.

More than 50 people signed up to speak Tuesday night, and they were asked to keep their comments to about three minutes – most did. By 8 p.m., only about 25 people had spoken.

While some attendees on Tuesday praised some elements of the design – the displays of the original walls under glass in the ground, shaded acequias and walkways, and the 130,000 sq. ft museum were among the most popular – challenges still remain in citizens’ hearts and minds.

Public leaders of the effort and design team members answered questions and, at times, defended elements of the design that they said were keeping with the visioning and guiding principles for the plan that were completed by the 21-member Alamo Plaza Advisory Committee and adopted by City Council in October 2014 after several public meetings.

The design is meant to protect and honor the sacred site, said George Skarmeas, director of Preservation Design Partnership (PDP) who is leading the design team, and the “10,000 years of history … under our feet” before and after the 1836 Battle of the Alamo.

Philadelphia-based PDP was hired by the City of San Antonio, the Texas General Land Office (GLO), and the Alamo Endowment to design the multi-million dollar joint master plan for the historic site.

Community members criticized the plan for not including enough entry and exit points to the plaza – the current design has one primary entrance to the courtyard and a few secondary entrances to the museum and garden behind the church – and not including enough shade.

Some audience members suggested that a more “historic looking” wall be built, but Skarmeas explained that the security of the glass walls will serve to protect the delicate artifact that is the Alamo, yet will preserve the “precious ability that you have today to have a visual connection.”

The audience was not convinced that the additional 120 trees along the boundaries of the courtyard would provide enough shade for visitors in the courtyard.

Under the plan, the 60-foot Cenotaph would be moved stone by stone to a spot that designers and some historians say is more befitting of the monument to the lives lost during the historic 1836 Battle of the Alamo: at the location of a funeral pyre, where the dead were burned, off of Commerce Street.

Some community members, like Brad Brewer, see the decision to move the Cenotaph as “more [of an] aesthetic preference than a historic attempt.”

What’s clear is that San Antonians have a “visceral feeling about their ownership” of the Alamo, Powell said, but the GLO – and, therefore, all 20 million Texans – actually own the site. “How do we maintain this place for San Antonians [and Texans] to enjoy but at the same time return the reverence and sanctity to the place?”

Powell’s comments on restoring the dignity to the grounds also drew applause from the audience.

Alamo Endowment Member Gene Powell gives remarks in front of The Alamo. Photo by Scott Ball.

Alamo Endowment Chairman Gene Powell gives remarks following the signing of an Alamo Master Plan contract in October 2015.

The new physical design of the space would separate that feeling of hallowed ground from the “free speech” use that the front of the Alamo is used for today, Skarmeas said. The plaza has hosted everything from abortion protests to gun rights rallies to concerts and Fiesta ceremonies, but the master plan would move most of those outside the southern wall of the courtyard – still in view of the Alamo, but not right in front of it.

Click here to view various presentations on the evolving master plan given to the public and City officials.

17 thoughts on “Public Delivers Strong Criticism of Alamo Plaza Redesign

  1. They need to really think about hiring a world-renowned landscape architecture firm to jump on board with the design team. They really need input from landscape architects in order to create a framework that honors the site and creates a better experience for the people. They’re the only ones that truly understand how to orchestrate theses elements together!!

  2. It doesn’t sound like they really took seriously the serious objections. They still think they’re right.
    There need to be many more than one more public meeting.
    The plan is still awful.

  3. Has anyone who thinks the glass walls are a good idea walked around downtown San Antonio other than on the River Walk? Glass windows of businesses all over downtown are etched with graffiti (and filthy). These walls will quickly become a mess from scratch marks.

    I still say it would be better to have walls that rise maybe 4 times a day for about 5 minutes to show the outline of the original compound. Maybe fountain walls would be best, but anything that can disappear and open up the plaza the plaza to the public most of the time. Plus, that would create a recurring event that would draw people just to see it happen.

  4. I also don’t like the big wide open blazing hot empty stretch of decomposed granite, but what I like even less is being denied the opportunity to drive by and see the Alamo anytime I want to. We’ve driven countless visitors down Alamo St when we didn’t have time to make a full visit. We’ve also diverted to drive down in the front of the Alamo just because we needed a shot of Alamo in our lives. I think what’s happening in this plan is the same thing that happened with the original Brackenridge Park master plan. Well meaning folks designing a park for somebody else. Figure out how people “use” the Alamo and then make that experience better. Don’t eliminate their uses to substitute with uses that no one wants. Absolutely get the carnival moved away and put in a museum but don’t take the Alamo away from the people and give it to the tourists.

  5. This forum ultimately went on for 3 1/2 hours. To their credit, the panel listened to each and every person who stood to speak. A number of people yielded their time to others who clearly were on the right track, but unable to complete comments in the allotted 3 minutes. My question is, did they actually hear what was said? If they did, the glass wall element will be removed from the final plan. There is a nearly 100% resounding NO to that aspect of the design. Many consider it architecturally incongruous with the site, but also a security risk in the event of a worst case scenario such as an active shooter on the grounds – unfortunately, we must consider these things.

    Most like the idea of the museum and housing the museum in the historic Giles structures, although a number lobbied to put the museum in the larger federal building. Everyone seems to understand that the Alamo is not only about the “13 days of glory,” but the greater history of all the indigenous peoples and tribes, Canary Islanders, Tejanos, Spaniards, and Mexicanos who consider this ground sacred. This is the cradle of our thriving and living 21st century city. This history must be told, accurately, not whitewashed. Folks also like the idea of the glass covers that will show us the original walls and other archaeological aspects that can be viewed as we walk above.

    Skarmeas may be well-meaning, but he has no clue about San Antonio weather or our culture. He suggested that rains will keep the glass walls washed. That drew a laugh. I guess no one let him in on the fact that in recent history we went about 7 years without rain. Someone needs to tour the gentleman from Philadelphia around downtown in the middle of July so that he can get a clear understanding that our heritage oaks are not only precious and revered for their longevity in our landscape, but also for their life giving shade. Acres of rock or gravel in front of the Alamo is a big nonstarter for most folks, as well.

    Closing more downtown thoroughfares like Alamo Street creates a hardship for locals who live and work downtown every day. It will be a disaster, much like the closing of Main and Soledad for the Main Plaza boondoggle. Toward the end of the evening, one knowledgeable speaker pointed out that isolating Houston Street would be extremely bad for businesses who are still trying to find ways to survive and thrive after the Tri-Party debacle of the 1980s. Without a master plan in place to improve mass transit beyond our woefully underfunded VIA system, our leaders should table any idea that makes it harder to traverse downtown. Unfortunately, we still need cars and parking. Those of us who like to ride our bikes do so at our peril, as bike lanes are eliminated almost as soon as they are striped. We are not a bicycling culture. Yet.

    The people who perhaps know Alamo Plaza best were also in attendance – the tour guides and the raspa vendors. They are all concerned that they will lose their livelihoods to this isolating plan. Are they to go the way of the Chili Queens? That would be a shame, and I would say that the majority in attendance last night agree. This sterile plan is viewed as removing the colorful fibers of our culture and community, and it does. No one will miss Ripley’s – RIP. Very few think moving the Cenotaph is a good thing. Part of what makes the Alamo still so powerful in 2017, is the exercise of our First Amendment privileges before that historic tableau. It is the optics. Providing a First Amendment area away from the plaza, tucked somewhere else on the acreage, misses this very important point. Tourists visit. The citizens of San Antonio de Bexar live and breathe it every day, every celebration, every gathering to mourn. Do not make our living breathing plaza a mausoleum.

    Finally, there is the cost. 450 million dollars is the estimate, raised from public and private sources. The question was raised and answered that there would be no federal monies contributed to this project. The same person who spoke to the issue of Houston Street, also pointed out that this was how the project is getting around doing an environmental impact study of the site plan. This revelation drew a gasp and was an “Ah-Ha” moment for those still on the floor at the 3 hour mark.

    I will bring up another number: 78207. Made infamous in 1968 as the poorest zip code in America, these most vulnerable residents of our city are still languishing. Those who are determined to shove this project down our collective throats should be able to blush, even a little, over this disparity in our city. I am not suggesting that we not pursue a preservation project and museum for the Alamo, I am simply saying that perhaps there should be a quid pro quo of public works, education, and jobs improvements for our most impoverished neighborhoods. A passionate young Millennial made this point at the forum, as well.

    Speak up, stand up for your rights. There will be another opportunity on May 2. Be there. If you can’t be there, then communicate with your city and state leaders. George P. Bush and the General Land Office are pushing this with an agenda in mind, a feather for the young Bush’s cap. Let’s make sure that our views are heard.

    • Well said, I completely concur. I would suggest using a row of embedded bricks to delineate the original grounds perimeter. It would be a practical and affordable substitute than a glass wall.

  6. I agree with MRK. I have driven visitors past the Alamo many times when they couldn’t take an afternoon off from their meetings or other activities or when they were literally unable to ‘walk’ to the Alamo.
    My first visit was as a young teenager. It was a surprise that the Alamo was only a few blocks from the Gunter Hotel and was within sight of the Post Office and Woolworths. How fantastic! A site where legends were made, and at the heart of a city!

    You want people to understand the importance of the Alamo?

    History is a part of our lives. If it is segregated and made so holy that it is unattainable it has lost its value. The missions were built, then secularized, to create cities. That was the plan for New Spain. The Alamo was a part of San Antonio at the time of the battle. San Antonio matured around the Alamo. The Alamo is a part of the city.

    The Alamo battle was about who controlled Texas. The Texians won and San Antonio grew, along with the country, then state, of Texas. Without that happening the Alamo battle would be a footnote in the history of Mexico.
    Keep the Alamo Shrine a part of downtown San Antonio. Don’t segregate our past from our future.

    You can talk all you want about glass walls, open spaces, moving of stone/stone monuments but you are distracting from the overall feel and history of the Alamo! YOU SIMPLY cannot take it back to the “way it was” by installing glass, add crushed granite etc! A N D… is there not a firm in TEXAS that can submit a plan !?!?!?
    I agree that keeping glass clean… is a monumental and expensive concept! Ask anyone who cleans glass for a living! You must NOT FORGET or even ignore the hot summers in SA! To do that is simply ignorant (not trying to be rude, please) Are you trying to limit visitors or encourage them to come! Even at night (closed) it attracks wonder and contemplation! THE ALAMO attracts visitors from all over the world… this plan will diminish the visitor numbers to be sure! Way too much money on a gamble! WAKE UP TEXANS!!!!!!!!

    • Quote from another article about this : In the words of Texas General Land Office Commissioner George P.Bush’s Master Planner George Skarmeas, “We cannot single out one moment in time.” Instead the Alamo would be transformed into a multi-cultural hodgepodge of world history. In fact, its very name would be changed. The site would no longer be referred to as the Alamo—instead, it would be known as the San Antonio de Valero Mission. I think changing the name is at best, appalling, for sure!

  8. There is another group of “experts” who were not consulted – the authors, artists, and reenactors who have researched the Alamo for years, and know every detail there is to know. It has been my good fortune to meet or correspond with many of them in my research of the Alamo’s role in the 1936 Texas Centennial. Few live in San Antonio, few will attend these meetings. I’m gathering as many of their remarks as I can to send to Bush’s boss.

  9. This is a repeat, but I like that people are speaking out and would add that current pedestrian uses of Alamo Plaza – a confluence of cultures if there ever was one – are what make Alamo Plaza one of the few great urban public spaces that still matter in the U.S.

    Along with joining others in being bothered by the painful design proposals, I’m troubled that the executive summary (all the public is able to access currently) for the new Alamo Plaza ‘master plan’ depicts public demonstrating as well as mobile vending as somehow attacking the ‘dignity’ of the Alamo or San Antonio – while seemingly deciding for us that a new rooftop cafe or the free fudge samples at the Alamo gift shop (or a nearby hotel and bar and shopping mall and surface parking) are somehow more decorous.

    As Bob Rivard raises in his recent commentary, Alamo Plaza is an urban space with traditions of public gathering including parading that the designers seem to have missed. It is also a space for exercising constitutionally guaranteed and individually determined public rights – what the Battle of the Alamo was ultimately about.

    The designers and others might not love people street preaching, panhandling, protesting, raspa vending, trinket shopping, photo posing, sitting under trees, wearing tank tops, riding bikes etc. (a good day out at Alamo Plaza involves at least these elements in the pursuit of happiness), but this is what active urban public life looks like. These practices and the urban public character of this area are not recent, noting the direction development took in this part of San Antonio in the years immediately following the Battle. Nor is touristic commercial development near the Alamo something without history – you can see for yourself in the comedy motion picture Viva Max filmed in 1968-9 (some of it filmed within and on top of some Alamo structures) that is approaching its 50th anniversary. You’ll find similar elements in important U.S. urban public spaces including Times Square or Greenwich Street near the 9/11 Memorial in New York. Pearl Harbor historic sites on the outskirts of Honolulu and similar are largely not appropriate models for the design and management of the area surrounding the Alamo, including as these are mainly drive-in, drive-out non-urban sites with no relation to the historically public and urban nature of Alamo Plaza.

    Noting the non-urban and more expansive ‘decorum zones’ the design team has drawn from with their proposals, the ‘before’ images of visitors and locals under the shade of mature trees and colorful umbrellas enjoying raspas from cart vendors on the Plaza (vendors approaching at least their 30th year of public practice if you don’t view them as an extension of the Chili Queens of the 1870s through 1930s and other street vending that has historically helped to make San Antonio’s public spaces and visitor experience remarkable), seem so much better than the rendered ‘after’ images showcased with the recent ‘big reveal’.

    Beyond questions of taste and judgement in framing Alamo planning work as Design TV, the new design images ‘revealed’ lean heavily on pedestrians for any vitality whatsoever. Yet the design images put people/the public in downright strange positions, with women clutching juice bottles (somehow better than raspas, a vending practice erased with the renderings) and a man in a sweater and backpack randomly pushing a bicycle across the desert terrarium – er, the now glass-enclosed Alamo Plaza.

    As miraculously as the new and orderly mature trees outside of the terrarium (replacing ‘disorderly’ existing mature trees lacking ‘dignity’?), these rendered folks are in the exact same position at night as depicted. It seems they have to keep standing as there’s really nothing else envisioned for them to do.

    I question the veracity of calling the Alamo work to date a master plan as what has been presented to the public lacks various essential planning elements, including a detailed study of pedestrian uses of the site and surrounds or any semblance of a pedestrian strategy (as potentially connected with a night time economy strategy for greater downtown, which the City is also sorely lacking). For example, where is that guy with the bike headed (where can he park it? How can he get out of the terrarium?). Where did those women get those juice bottles (and how will recycling be managed)? What will anyone do once the gift shop fudge samples are locked up for the day?

    It’s a bit concerning as the new Alamo design work is so heavily dependent on presumed pedestrian activity (a whole lot of standing around apparently) but with the designers making such sweeping proclamations about what is or isn’t an appropriate pedestrian use of a large and traditionally urban public space and right-of-way. Just as troubling, the designers seem to have run out of ‘great ideas’ for pedestrians when it comes to addressing the surface parking creating horrible pedestrian approaches to the Alamo from Bonham as well as East Houston Street – areas that mar the experience of visiting the Alamo but that the ‘master’ planning seems to ignore.

    The new executive summary borrows (without reference) from the now dated study done by Project for Public Spaces for the Alamo area which proposed back in 2012 closing some streets to traffic, including to help mitigate some of the damage being caused to the Alamo (that the latest executive summary also highlights). I think the City should pause current planning and do this immediately – close recommended streets to traffic near the Alamo via non-permanent interventions, if only just to study how the public uses the space in order to inform new proposals for the site, as well as to collect some of the data needed for a downtown pedestrian strategy and night time economy strategy.

    Regardless, the goofy ‘planning’ that the City has now received for Alamo Plaza must be taken for what it is – basically an infomercial (in keeping with the formula of Design TV) for structural glass, the laminate wood flooring of public works with some nifty uses but likely not appropriate as proposed. Noting, too, that ‘master planning’ typically does not stress a specific (and in this case a non-historical and non-local) building material choice – at least, not without some rationale or comparisons or data.

    I’m including below an example of what San Antonians should instead expect with City planning in 2017 – a recent draft pedestrian strategy (presented in its entirety to the public for comment and feedback, with reasonable notification and time to review) connecting with a night time economy strategy and other planning for an urban downtown district just 40 years younger than the Alamo, about the same size as San Antonio’s central business district and, like San Antonio, undergoing significant redevelopment.

    Note the data (including ten years of walking statistics for key streets in an area roughly a half-mile to mile in radius informing this plan; currently pedestrians in San Antonio seem only to be counted when they are hit by cars. Note also the aims for pedestrian conditions as well as commitment to international pedestrian design standards and urban qualities. This is how you plan to make a world-class site and city, not with structural glass.

  10. “The new physical design of the space would separate that feeling of hallowed ground from the ‘free speech’ use that the front of the Alamo is used for today”

    It feels like this plan has made the assumption that Alamo history stopped with the battle. That ‘free speech’ stuff and other activities that occur in the plaza are as valid of preservation as the history of the battle.

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