Courtesy / Texas General Land Office
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.