Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Voters want to know how their elected officials will handle the redevelopment of Alamo Plaza, and they had the opportunity to ask Mayor Ivy Taylor and Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) just that last night at an impromptu mayoral forum in Southtown.
They both support the partial closure of nearby streets and agree that many proposed elements of the plan need further discussion. Taylor said the glass walls that would surround the plaza need to be reevaluated, but Nirenberg took a stronger stance: "... The walls do need to come down."
The $450 million Alamo Master plan has proven to be a controversial topic for San Antonians, as many have expressed strong criticism of preliminary renderings released last month through online comments, op-ed articles, online petitions, and more. Proposals to remove and relocate trees from the courtyard, relocate the 1930s Cenotaph, and erect glass walls are among the most contentious topics.
With the City Council vote scheduled Thursday on a few preliminary elements of the master plan, the topic of the Alamo arose Tuesday during a short mayoral forum at the Lavaca Neighborhood Association meeting at Freetail Brewery. Members of the neighborhood group asked the candidates three questions, including if they would be willing to approve language that would direct master plan designers to keep Alamo Plaza a public and open space accessible to people and vehicular traffic.
Taylor believes street closures are necessary in order to preserve the physical structure of the Alamo.
"From what I understand the movement along the street is impacting the integrity of the physical building, so I'm fine with those basic concepts and that framework," she said. "The wall is probably still up for debate. The access points, that's one of the issues we certainly are re-looking at as well as the trees and shade."
Nirenberg agrees that less vehicular traffic through the grounds of the Alamo "is a good thing," and that it's important to add language to the plan to make sure that traffic points don't adversely impact neighborhoods.
"The timing is critical because the Legislature is meeting and we are asking them for $75 million, so we as a community need to approve a plan," Taylor said. "There will still be plenty of opportunities for additional input and to tweak all the specific design elements."
Taylor said the plan's framework focuses on general concepts that will continue to highlight the Alamo as "the heartbeat of our downtown," and that the design focuses on all the layers of history that have occurred on the site, not just the infamous Battle of the Alamo.
"One thing is clear, we all agree that we need to restore the integrity and the sanctity of the Alamo and the Alamo Plaza," Nirenberg said. However, part of that sanctity also includes "respecting what's been happening in the space." Keeping the trees also is part of the equation, Nirenberg said, and he wants them to stay.
"[It has been] a civic space, a public space, a place where there is vibrancy, life, and public experience," he said. "I am convinced from an aesthetic but also from a civic standpoint that the walls do need to come down. Democracy has its public places and sometimes it's not always pretty and those are the things that we have to live with but I think we can find a balance to restore the sanctity of the Alamo but also respect the public nature of it."
After three public meetings at the Henry B. González Convention Center where several citizens, architects, and others expressed mixed reviews of the plan's renderings, designers have scrapped the idea to relocate the trees that currently take root in the historic Alamo Plaza, and they have added several entry points north of the plaza instead of directing all inbound traffic to enter through a south gate.
"What we will be doing on Thursday at the City Council meeting is approving a framework for making improvements to the Alamo Plaza," Taylor said. "This is a window in time that we've waited for for a long time and we can't let it pass us by. I know change is difficult."
Members of the design team, which is overseen by local, state, and Alamo Endowment officials, will present four plan elements to City Council for conceptual approval Thursday. Approval would allow for: two street closures, the repairing and relocation of the Cenotaph, view shed protection for the area behind the Alamo, and the conveyance of leasing management duties for the plaza to the Texas General Land Office.
Nirenberg said he's had several conversations with other Council members about inserting language in the plan that "doesn't allow there to be so much wiggle room." He wants Council to weigh in on the big decisions, rather than leave them for the design team and City staff.
"This is ultimately a policy-making decision – a decision that you elect people to make directly, and that we need to make on behalf of the [people] of San Antonio and Texans," Nirenberg said.
During the event Thursday, Taylor and Nirenberg also answered questions about the balance of development and historic preservation in changing neighborhoods such as Lavaca, which has seen property values rise dramatically in the last few years.
Both candidates support affordable infill housing initiatives. Taylor, who worked in affordable housing for 12 years, said the housing proposition in the 2017 municipal bond is the first step toward innovative housing solutions.
Nirenberg stressed using the framework of SA Tomorrow, the comprehensive master plan aimed to guide the city toward smart, sustainable growth, to develop policies that would disincentivize sprawl.
The train tracks that run through the historic Lavaca neighborhood have long been an issue with residents, who are tired of being woken up by their loud horns. Several Quiet Zones have been established in the area, but they don't always prevent train operators from using the horn.
Taylor and Nirenberg agreed that Council districts and neighborhoods should work together to enforce Quiet Zones, but Nirenberg added that he wants freight traffic to be moved out of the city entirely.
Freetail Brewery invited Nirenberg to the neighborhood meeting, according to Lavaca Neighborhood Association board members. In the interest of fairness, the group also extended the invitation to Taylor, who planned to be at her headquarters watching the Spurs game. She was able to stop by the meeting beforehand.
Taylor and Nirenberg will face off in the mayoral runoff election on June 10, as will incumbent Council members and their challengers in districts 1, 2, 6, 8, 9, and 10. Early voting begins on Tuesday, May 30 and ends on June 6. The last day for San Antonio residents to register to vote in the runoff election is Thursday, May 11. For more information, click here.