Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Most San Antonio City Council members on Wednesday said they support the framework of the multimillion-dollar Alamo Plaza redevelopment plan, but some said moving the Alamo Cenotaph or blocking access to the historic plaza could be a deal breaker.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4), and Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) signaled overall support for the plan. It was the first time Council has discussed the latest version of the Alamo plan in a public session.
Before their scheduled Oct. 18 vote on the plan, Council members mulled the general design and lease agreement developed by consultants and officials that would, if approved, close a portion of South Alamo Street; repair and move the Alamo Cenotaph roughly 500 feet south; manage pedestrian access to the historic plaza footprint; re-route parades; and study the possibilities for a world-class museum in renovated historic buildings across the street from the Alamo.
View the full presentation here.
The plan will help tell a complete history of the most sacred site in Texas, Treviño said, and allow visitors to more “clearly understand where you’re standing. That is the primary goal.”
Nirenberg said concerns about locals being blocked off from the plaza were unfounded, and the plan allows for keeping the Alamo a “civic space” in downtown San Antonio.
“We must have 24/7 unhindered access to the plaza,” he said. “That is true with this plan.”
Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) said he, too, supported the plan, but still hoped to find a better compromise on the new location of the Cenotaph. Councilwomen Ana Sandoval (D7) and Shirley Gonzales (D5) said they were concerned about pedestrian access and asked designers to look into alternatives to fences and railings.
For Councilmen Clayton Perry (D10) and John Courage (D9), those elements are essential.
“What we’re providing with this plan is a porous place,” Perry said, but it needs to be completely open to pedestrians. His “line in the sand,” he said, was the managed access to the plaza.
If approved, the plan would establish one main entrance to the historic plaza through the museum 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.
Sandoval said she understood why visitors would need a guidance to a grand entrance, but “I also want this plaza to better serve the residents of San Antonio and they don’t need to be guided to the formal entry points.”
The pedestrian barriers, which are yet to be designed, in addition to the the remains of the original walls under glass and lowering of the historic footprint itself contribute to an enhanced “sense of arrival,” 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.
When it votes, Council technically will be deciding whether to approve the City’s closure of surrounding streets, its ground lease and management agreement with the Texas General Land Office (GLO) for the plaza, and contracts for the repair and relocation of the Cenotaph, but Council members will be taking into consideration the entire plan.
Two City commissions were scheduled to vote later Wednesday on different elements of the plan. The Historic and Design Review Commission was set to review the plaza access design and Cenotaph relocation. The Planning Commission was to vote on recommendations for the street closures and lease and management agreement that Council will consider.
Update: Those commissions approved their respective elements of the plan. Read our coverage of that meeting here.
“While the HDRC does not have purview over the historic buildings owned by the State of Texas, HDRC will review and provide comments on the recommendation” to the Texas Historical Commission, which must review and approve proposed plans for the buildings and the relocation of the Cenotaph, according to City agenda documents.
Wednesday’s vote by HDRC was preliminary; a final plaza design and placement of the Cenotaph will come before the commission at a later date. Technically, HDRC decisions must receive final approval from City Manager Sheryl Sculley or the director of the Office of Historic Preservation – or Sculley could defer the matter to a Council vote.
The design is intended to inspire a better sense of history and reverence in order to more completely tell the story of the 1836 Battle of the Alamo, officials say. The interpretive design has changed little since planners presented it in June, but no longer includes controversial “glass walls,” a more radical Cenotaph relocation, and a tree-less plaza that were presented in renderings last year.
City Council approved the conceptual master plan in May 2017.
Throughout the summer there have been several protests regarding the relocation of the Cenotaph, and the design community has been vocal in its opposition to closing the plaza to foot traffic, citing decades of open, casual access since the military outpost walls came down.
Perry outlined his concerns about repairing and moving the Cenotaph, including that the 1930s sculpture could be damaged in the process and that it’s safer and cheaper to restore it in place.
The cost and process of repairing and relocating the Cenotaph “has yet to be studied,” City Manager Sheryl Sculley said. Treviño assured his colleagues that the Cenotaph will be in good hands.
But Courage later added that moving the monument “from the actual bloodstained battle[field] to an area away” from the historic mission footprint is disrespectful to the defenders’ sacrifice. He also joined Perry and Gonzales in his suspicion of the lease agreement that gives control of the plaza over to the GLO for potentially 100 years.
Gonzales said she was concerned the City was “selling the farm” to the State.
The proposed lease is for 50 years with two, 25-year renewals, City Attorney Andy Segovia said. The City maintains ownership of the plaza and it has conflict resolution process built into it so that the City can challenge management practices if the State veers outside of the established master plan guidelines.
The State has the option to purchase the property from the City at the market rate price, but City Council would have to approve that sale, according to the lease.
“At the end of the day … we will be very proud of what we accomplished this year,” Nirenberg said.
Development of the plan’s elements were 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 most of the anticipated $350 million-$450 million needed to complete the project. The Alamo Citizen Advisory, Management, and Executive committees overwhelmingly approved the basic concepts that have been in the works since 2014.
“What you’re seeing today is nothing new,” Treviño said. “It’s a response to these vision and guiding principles” developed in 2014 by a board of citizens.