The Alamo Plaza Plan: A Review of an Ambitious Proposal

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A rendering shows the conceptual plaza which provides areas for public expression surrounding the Alamo Cenotaph.

Courtesy / Texas General Land Office

A rendering shows the conceptual plaza which provides areas for "public expression" or protests surrounding the Alamo Cenotaph.

It’s the conundrum that locals have lived with for generations: San Antonio’s most iconic public space and scene of its most memorable days, the Alamo Plaza, is one of the city’s least reverent historic sites and cluttered civic spaces.

How to address stewardship of the Alamo and the plaza’s unrealized potential has set off one of the most contentious, at times bitter public debates in San Antonio as the Texas General Land Office, the City, and the Alamo Endowment seek to promote a second-generation draft Interpretive Plan and broker the city’s many unconvinced interests.

Opponents of the draft plan include some of San Antonio’s most prominent historic preservationists, architects, and developers, and across the aisle, an unruly number of citizen protesters who regard almost any change, particularly relocation of the Cenotaph, as desecration.

Signs pleading the committee not to remove the cenotaph are held up throughout most of the meeting.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Attendees hold up signs opposing the relocation of the Cenotaph during the June 20 Alamo Master Plan public meeting.

Many of us watching from the sidelines simply want an Alamo Plaza that is much more than it is today: a worthy World Heritage historic site with a more honest narrative that unites rather than divides people; and a beckoning civic plaza that is home to time-honored Fiesta traditions. We want a plaza as inviting to locals as tourists.

Nothing, however, would be more tragic than community opposition preventing the redevelopment of Alamo Plaza and causing it to be left in its present state. To advance the project, people from all sides will have to compromise.

The design team set out to create a transformative plan, which has been met with substantial opposition that at times has descended in meetings and public hearings to  “get-out-of-town” nativism. Many in the design and preservation community here have objected to being presented with a draft Interpretive Plan when they wanted to be consulted much earlier in the process.

Like everyone else, I have an opinion.

The Cenotaph

Disassembling, restoring and then moving the 1930s Cenotaph a few hundred feet south to a place in front of Menger Hotel has generated the most shouting and sign waving at public hearings. Yet the monument is not some remnant of the Battle of the Alamo, and it sits on land no more or less sacred than other parts of the plaza.

Nice touch: The plan’s lighting scheme as seen through newly planted trees will make the Cenotaph a much more memorable viewing experience after sunset.

Proposal: Restore and move the Cenotaph, opening views to the Church. Place shaded park benches in places people can sit and reflect on what the monument represents.

Closing Alamo Street to Vehicle Traffic

Many locals oppose closure of the plaza to northbound vehicle traffic. The larger issue, all but ignored in this debate, is that we should be working hard to reduce the volume of vehicle traffic downtown. That can only be accomplished with 21st century mass transit options. San Antonio has little to show on that front. VIA Metropolitan Transit has not played a role in the plaza redesign or in discussions about closure to vehicle traffic.

A transit line running north and south on Losoya from the Witte Museum/Brackenridge Park to the Blue Star and back, like the FreeMallRide buses that ply the 16th Street Mall in downtown Denver, would be a game changer for San Antonio. Mass transit running night and day would make closure to most traffic feasible. It also would enhance economic development all along the way, and reduce drunk driving.

I write “most traffic.” The use of bollards that can be automatically lowered or raised would allow for a trial period of closing South Alamo Street to vehicles on weekends and on weekdays except for morning and evening rush hours, giving the City and VIA time to design and fund a modern bus line. The plaza could then stay open for the Battle of Flowers parade.

A rendering showing the lowering of the plaza surface which is proposed to be 12 to 16 inches below street level.

Courtesy / Texas General Land Office

A rendering showing the lowering of the plaza surface which is proposed to be 12 to 16 inches below street level.

One reason the design team wants permanent street closure is so it can lower the surface of the plaza closer to its original grade when Mission San Antonio de Valero was built. That would make Church and Long Barracks preservation easier, and create a sense of sacred space for people upon arrival. A smaller perimeter would allow for preservation of the streetscape and allow a quieter pedestrian-only space around the Church and Long Barracks.

Planners have left out bicycle lanes through Alamo Plaza and on the proposed two-way conversion of Losoya Street. Does San Antonio want to undertake an urban redevelopment project that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and not make San Antonio more bicycle-friendly?

Proposed vehicle circulation around the perimeter of the plaza.

Courtesy / Texas General Land Office

Proposed vehicle circulation around the perimeter of the plaza.

Nice touch: Lowering the ground level in a more limited space will help create a more sacred space, especially after curbs, islands, sidewalks, a mishmash of elevations, are eliminated.

Proposal: Install bollards, design a street closure pilot project for managing Alamo Street closure that accommodates morning, mid-day, and evening rush hour traffic. Add bike lanes, permit scooters. Do not detour Fiesta parades. City Council should find an innovative way to create a public-private partnership with VIA, business owners, and cultural zone supporters to fund a dedicated bus line attractive to locals and visitors alike.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Pedestrians cross South Alamo Street.

Closing Houston Street East of South Alamo Street

This closure should be easier to manage than closing Alamo Street because East Houston Street’s eastbound traffic leads to, well, Houston Street, and passes by the most inactive property surrounding the Alamo. It, too, could be done with bollards, a pilot project, and managed closures so the public can become accustomed to the change and City officials can collect and measure real data instead of just updating vehicle count studies.

Nice touch: The esplanade-like walkway along Houston Street toward the plaza creates a sense of place that is totally absent from the site today. The Church facade viewed at a distance seems more sacred. Removing the rear walls around the Alamo’s back gardens creates new views and will attract pedestrian traffic to the north side and east sides of the Alamo.

Proposal: Close East Houston Street as a pilot project with bollards. Remove the garden walls.

Creation of a Museum and Visitor’s Center and the Plaza’s Historic Buildings

The longtime presence of carnival and entertainment attractions housed in the historic buildings that line the western side of Alamo Plaza has led to considerable remodeling of the building interiors. Most of the intact history is in the facades and outer walls. In Dallas or Houston those buildings would give way to something new and bold to house the Alamo artifacts collection of Phil Collins, and tell the stories of the Mission era, and the indigenous era prior to the arrival of Spaniards. It would include education and learning facilities and an event center.

But this is San Antonio, where old buildings endure. The buildings create a space between the plaza and the Losoya tourism scene. The plaza would become more of a destination for locals if locally owned shops, cafes, bars, and restaurants with outdoor patio seating took root here.

The museum can be placed elsewhere and thus make a much-needed contemporary architecture statement downtown. Why not build it on the Crockett parking lot behind the Alamo? That option has never been publicly considered. The lot and the Shops at Rivercenter are both owned by New York-based Ashkenazy Acquisition. As its name implies, the company is a buyer, not a seller, but a long-term lease or sale of the land would enhance the value of their other properties. Underground parking below the museum could meet the demands of the Crockett Hotel.

Some have said the Crockett lot is the first-choice for entertainment businesses that will move off the plaza. Can Ashkenazy find space inside The Shops at Rivercenter? It’s already one big, air-conditioned tourist hangout, yet one filled with many businesses that seem to be barely surviving.

Customers walk outside the Shops at Rivercenter in downtown San Antonio.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Customers walk outside the Shops at Rivercenter in downtown San Antonio.

I have been a periodic and skeptical visitor to the mall since the former Dillards’ space was reopened with H&M, a second food court, and some tourist attractions. The mall is a respite for visitors from the South Texas heat, but only a few of the stores seem to be thriving.

Why did San Antonio’s tourist mall need a second fast food court? I visited again Friday at 1 p.m. The food court businesses in the former Dillard’s space were nearly empty. Most of the shops in the mall were empty, too, while few in the crowd of people walking around were holding purchases.

Proposal: Rethink the museum location and open discussions with Ashkenazy, which could generate more business if it makes room for the tourist attractions inside a single air-conditioned space.

The Alamo Plaza as a ‘Managed Space’

A commentary under the byline of Mayor Ron Nirenberg, City Council Roberto Treviño, and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolf was published in the San Antonio Express-News this weekend that appears to reject the design team’s plans to manage the public space between the Alamo Church and Long Barracks and the proposed museum on the western side of the plaza. Any plan to fence off, limit access, or otherwise secure the area will meet significant opposition when the plan finally comes before City Council for a vote.

This rendering shows plant beds that can be used with discreet fencing for controlling the flow of pedestrian traffic.

Courtesy / Texas General Land Office

This rendering shows proposed plant beds that can be used with discreet fencing for controlling the flow of pedestrian traffic.

Security is always a concern, but many locals suspect other motives in creating some sort of controlled access, perhaps an effort to rid the plaza of vagrants, street preachers, skateboarders, and others. If the Alamo is a vulnerable target, so to some degree are the other four Spanish Missions. So far, our best national defense against acts of terror has been a mix of smart policing, intelligence gathering and sharing, and preserving a free and open society that does not breed terrorists.

Conclusion

Everyone will have to give ground to make the Alamo Plaza work as sacred ground and a beckoning civic place. It’s an exercise better undertaken without distrust of outsiders, or the belief that any of us can have it all. One guiding principle I would add: the status quo is unacceptable. The Interpretive Plan should be seen by its creators and the San Antonio community as a well-intentioned and provocative work-in-progress. Its best ideas should be adopted, while other elements rejected or amended.

The ultimate decisions are in the hands of Mayor Ron Nirenberg, City Manager Sheryl Sculley, City Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), and Land Commissioner George P. Bush, and the members of the Alamo Endowment. Members of the Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee also should have a say. The Alamo Plaza will be the most important redevelopment project undertaken in the closing years of the Decade of Downtown, and the end result will say a lot about whether we can come together to build a better city.

29 thoughts on “The Alamo Plaza Plan: A Review of an Ambitious Proposal

  1. Thank you for this thoughtfully written piece, Mr. R! Music to my ears!
    I hope all of these ideas bear fruit! There are surely a lot of people who have been thinking these same things, but few in position to do anything have been listening.

  2. This “they’re not listening” lie persists. Has anyone seen the personal attacks and screaming abuse the presenters are taking? They should adopt public meeting rules that govern council meetings. I someone has to be ejected, so be it.

    As for the plan, we’ve been through this downtown before with TriParty. Not everyone gets what they want. If your idea of compromise is not accepting any ideas from the other side, you’ll be left behind. The same thing happened in the 90s.

  3. As for the architect crowd that seems to be wounded and worried about mobility, where were they when H-E-B closed South Main?That went against many of the concepts of urban design. And where have they been over the years as we have lost more sidewalk space to hotel driveways and outdoor patios?

  4. Great report. I agree 100% with what you said. The Centopath should be relocated. I prefer it centered on the promenade leading into the plaza from Commerce Street. But that would eliminate the traffic flow compromise. To make the old post office building a new museum would be the most ideal situation. That building is beautiful and prominent. BUT to locate a museum in the rear on that empty lot would be perfectly fine. It would create great pedestrian traffic in a fairly blighted area. I for one am behind your ideas. Can you find out the issue with purchasing the post office building? BTW, either scheme would keep the old buildings and they can be renovated as you suggested. I just feel San Antonio being who they are, this thing is going to explode in our faces and will be marginal at best. I hope not.

  5. There is an Architectural reason to move the Cenotaph. It competes with the modest Alamo façade. If you trace the axis from the post office across the plaza to where the team wants to place the Cenotaph, you will find a good reason to place it there, and restore some solemnity to the placement. That’s right, draw a line from the South entrance of the post office and place the Cenotaph on the axis. Sound design theory from the time the Alamo was built.
    Further accentuation of the shorth axis from the Alamo entrance across the plaza will encourage the same formality, and enhance the Alamo at the same time, as it’s position on the minor axis of the plaza hinders it’s importance.

    Mark E. Kellmann, Architect, NCARB

    San Antonio, Texas

  6. in closing Alamo plaza in front of the Alamo and moving traffic to Loysoa street it can’t happen as this street is not wide enough to handle it with cars /trucks busses and the amount of pedestrians that will be walking.
    Then they are saying that the Fiesta parade will still go in front of the Alamo but we can’t have the Cenotaph there is stupid they want to stop vehicle traffic in this area except for Fiesta events. they need to change that idea as well

  7. I personally have no interest in what happens to the Alamo, but it is a well known consistency that the “unruly” populace is far more often on the mark when it comes to keeping historic places alive and vibrant. A healthy mistrust of outsiders is an essential criteria in this regard. And…..No RR, we as a citizenry do not HAVE to do anything! A choice to leave somthing meaningful in place IS an act of the sacred.

    But I can see it coming…a Fiesta Alamo theme park. To some across the border..and across town.. it might be a fitting end to a lost battle.

  8. Yes to moving the Cenotaph. Yes to bollards. Keep the western buildings and put museum there or close by.

    Delineate Alamo mission walls/fortifications by widely spaced apart linear glass panels, each etched with historical information and/or artwork. The intent is not to interfere in any way with pedestrian access, but to enable visitors to understand the extent of the original complex.

    • I mentioned the glass markers to Architect Lewis Fisher at the AIA Christmas party. Random panels turned 90 deg. from the linear boundary with storylines. They mark the boundary without enclosing it.

  9. I challenge everyone that agrees with moving the Cenotaph. Did your relatives fight at the Alamo on the side of Texas? Do you understand what the cenotaph is? Just for those of you who think it’s just a monument, it’s a tomb representing the bodies of those that fell. It’s basically a war memorial. And you don’t move war memorials. I don’t care where their bodies were drug off to and burned. They fell at the Alamo. Period.

    I don’t feel that if you didn’t have blood on the ground on behalf of Texas, you have no business even voicing an opinion on it. It’s THEIR ancestors memorialized, not yours. Frankly, it disgusts me.

    • It’s not a war memorial, it’s a cenotaph. I think we should put wheels and a motor on it, put a trailer in the back, and drive tourists around. Wouldn’t that be fun?

      • You do understand what the definition of a cenotaph is, right? Let me break it down Barney-style for you:

        ce·no·taph
        ˈsenəˌtaf
        noun
        a tomblike monument to someone buried elsewhere, especially one commemorating people who died in a war.

        What was that last bit? “ESPECIALLY ONE COMMEMORATING PEOPLE WHO DIED IN A WAR.”

        Now, what is the definition of a war memorial?

        war me·mo·ri·al
        wô(ə)r məˈmôrēəl/
        noun
        a monument commemorating those killed in a war.

        So the cenotaph is a war memorial. Geeze, Jaime.

        • RC,

          As usual you are wrong,
          and on top of it, you are being condescending –

          ˌkän-di-ˈsen-diŋ-lē\ adverb
          showing or characterized by a patronizing or superior attitude toward others.

          The Cenotaph is in the wrong place – always has been. It will be moved to a more appropriate, reverent location. Period. Get over it.

          • Carl;

            Talk about condescending! Evidently it had to be broken down for him to understand it. If you find that condescending, then that is on you. How can it be in the wrong place? It’s dedication said specifically:

            The Cenotaph will stand on the spot where the Defenders fought to the death. It will represent art’s stonement for the encroachment and plaza upon hallowed ground. On the East side – facing the rising sun – heroic figures of Travis and Crockett will stand guard. To the West will appear Bowie and Bonham – and soldier figures cluster about the leaders. To the North – facing the Federal Building – the stately figure of Texas will rise, holding the shields of the Republic and the United States, to mark the union of the two in 1845.

            That is where they died. Not where they were drug and burned. Where do YOU consider to be more appropriate? a more “reverent” location?

            if you don’t like my comments, then don’t read them.

        • No, it’s a cenotaph. It would be a really good idea if they installed plumbing in it so it could also be a water fountain, which is what Alamo Plaza needs. With a lower fountain near the ground for people’s dogs. Then it could be a cenotaph/water fountain! Super useful instead of being just a big ugly pile of marble!

    • I worked across street from The Cenotaph over 60 years ago. It has always been something “that needs to be moved.” If moved to the area in front of the Menger Hotel, it might be discovered that more of those who died at the Alamo were in fact closer to the new home of the memorial. Moving it away from the basic view of the Alamo will not change its importance, only the view of the Alamo. Lighting up the Cenotaph in the evening also adds importance to its new place on the Plaza.

      Thanks Robert for a great article.

    • My great great great great grandfather led the forces at the Battle of San Antonio, led the center forces at the Battle of San Jacinto and served as Vice President of the Republic.

      I support the moving of the centopath.

  10. And on top of that, with all the talent that we have here in San Antonio, why not stick with the talent that is vested in our community, instead of someone who has nothing to do with San Antonio.

    • “If you don’t like my comments, don’t read them”. RC

      Another brilliant retort, RC.
      No, I love to read your comments because they are so inane and absurd. It’s like watching the Three Stooges minus one, or a train wreck.
      So according to you, all 180+ defenders of the Alamo died right where the Cenotaph is located? No!
      As noted previously, the Cenotaph WILL be relocated.
      Move on!

  11. You are absolutely right about including long-term transit in the mix. The city needs a Brackenridge-to-Blue Star transit option for locals as well as for tourists.
    Expand parking facilities at both ends and perhaps also near Hemisfair could reduce downtown congestion considerably. Bollards plus lanes for bikes and scooters would also help. I appreciate your test-it-and-see-if-it-works approach. And yes: move the Cenotaph. It’s an eyesore that belongs at the edge of a public plaza, not in the middle of it.

  12. Jim Spickard…The Cenotaph definitely is NOT AN EYESORE! Your statements are disrespectful and arrogant. Have you ever really looked at it — at the beautifully carved figures of our heroes? Also, Alamo Plaza is much, much more than a “public plaza.” It is sacred ground. Our Alamo Defenders’ Cenotaph is perfect exactly where it is now. Repair it where it stands and leave it alone! It does not block the view of the Alamo…it enhances the view. And, most importantly, it honors the men who died there. Repair the Alamo and Long Barracks, use the old buildings across the street for a library, do not dig into sacred burial grounds in order to lower the ground level, do not dig up our 100+ year old live oak trees and plant different, less attractive and most likely smaller ones. Do not fence in the plaza, or tear down the rock walls that stand around the back of the Alamo grounds. The Alamo does not need to be reimagined. Restoration and repair of the buildings and Cenotaph, plus eliminating the sideshows across the street and putting the library at that location would be adequate.

    • I feel the Alamo World Heritage Project should be the ultimate goal of San Antonio. This project would include historical businesses as after the likeness of Colonial Williamsburg and their Historic Triangle thus including the Missions, Riverwalk and trail. Historical preservation will add to a possible 20 mile area restricting some traffic. I can see an exceptionally historically correct live characters used much like Colonial Williamsburg and Texas Cultures incorporating the arts and hands on exhibits, lectures, archeological digs allowing the community to volunteer. I see a much bigger picture for the Alamo and San Antonio. The Spanish influence also needs to be a part of San Antonio’s story and the historic Trail. It will be amazing!

  13. The potential relocation of the Cenotaph may make way for a more complete and robust masterplan that unlocks the true embedded potential of the overall Alamo site and visitor experience.
    Visitor, as defined by the Guiding Principles & Vision is both local residents and tourists alike. Final decision on this and many other aspects of the final plan will be forthcoming.
    The Cenotaph is very important to me. William Sutherland, Alamo Defender, was my double cousin. My great, great, great, grandfather, Judge William Menefee, Signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence, was his uncle and namesake.
    All stakeholders must be willing to compromise.
    The status quo is unacceptable. We can and must do better.

  14. The discussion of the redesign of Alamo Plaza brings us back to the same problem that San Antonio has had for years, public transportation. Less able bodied people will have a hard time walking the distances that some are wanting in downtown SA.
    I really like the idea of dropping the ground level of the area. Moving the Cenotaph, adding lighting, trees and seating near it would be a great improvement.
    I really don’t like the idea of glass panels mentioned in one of the comments having anything to do with the Alamo. No offense but glass information panels remind me of department store signs.
    I don’t understand why people feel the parade has to go in front of the Alamo. SA can party anywhere. The Alamo is a very old structure that needs to be protected from the hazards of traffic being too close. Old buildings suffer from the vibrations of traffic.
    We need to step back and take a look at not our memories of the plaza but what is best to preserve it for the future.
    That being said if we do not address our public transportation problem many locals and tourists alike will not be able to visit it anyway.

  15. Only make S Alamo closed to traffic. Leave the other streets as they are. Use an old building for the museum. What about access to the Menger Hotel? No one mentions that. The street closures would make their Valet parking entrance and front door impossible to use.

  16. This is certainly interesting
    Mayor usurps process in advocating Alamo status quo
    Greg Brockhouse, For the Express-News July 25, 2018

    The recent commentary by Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Councilman Roberto Treviño and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff opposing restricted access to the reimagined Alamo site undermines the City Council, the Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee, and the project’s goals of meaningful public participation and input (“Alamo Plaza must remain a public space,” Sunday).

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    The mere fact that we, the mayor’s council colleagues and his Citizens Advisory Committee, have to read about his thoughts via the newspaper versus engaging us face to face is shameful.

    It is easy to understand the frustrations of many in the city who have trust issues with the leadership at City Hall, as I have felt the same firsthand. It is clear Mayor Nirenberg and city leaders continue to struggle with community engagement and transparency.

    Read More: https://www.expressnews.com/opinion/commentary/article/Mayor-usurps-process-in-advocating-Alamo-status-13104864.php

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