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Mayor Ron Nirenberg wants to move slowly on any final decision on the future design of Alamo Plaza while he and others focus attention and energy on defeating efforts by the firefighters union to radically amend the City Charter on Nov. 6.
If the three ballot measures devised by union leaders were to pass, San Antonio would see its council-city manager form of government significantly diminished and rendered subordinate to citizen petition and referendum initiatives, not unlike what voters approved in California decades ago, now widely viewed as a failure.
The original timeline called for a final vote for or against the Alamo plan by late summer or fall, but the proposed redevelopment to the Alamo Plaza has generated controversy, leading to considerable speculation around City Hall about how a decision made now might impact voters in the midterm elections.
I believe a delay is a mistake, although I originally shared the mayor’s view that City leaders should clear all other business from the public agenda, which actually proves to be impractical. City Council needs to meet and move on issues weekly to keep the proverbial trains running, and sidetracking the Alamo plan comes with its own set of risks.
One is internal dissent. Publicly, not much is being said, but one key person who is said to strongly disagree with Nirenberg is Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), who has been directly involved in the project for more than four years as a member of both the Alamo Management Committee, which unanimously approved the plan on Sept. 4, and the Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee, which approved the plan one week earlier.
Treviño has not come out in direct opposition to the delay, but he’s made it clear in conversations inside and outside City Hall that he supports moving ahead with the original timeline. He is said to believe City staff shares his view, yet take their cue from the mayor on politically sensitive issues. Delayed projects, any architect will tell you, often become dead projects. Treviño is an architect.
Another reason is momentum. San Antonio has tried and failed to redevelop the Alamo Plaza on multiple occasions over the years, and again and again, has failed to give the state’s most iconic historic site and the city’s most important civic plaza the attention it deserves.
Why risk failing again? This time San Antonio has the opportunity to forge a productive partnership with the state of Texas, which manages the Alamo, and win sustained funding from the Texas Legislature, funding that is essential to the long-term viability of the project. Without the state’s partnership and funding, we can forget the most influential philanthropists here and outside San Antonio raising $200 million or more to complete the project, which will include a world-class museum and visitor center.
Last week Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush resorted to Twitter to publicly call on Nirenberg to join him in giving final approval to the plan. Such a public ploy suggests more private reasoning failed, and the two are no longer in sync on the timing.
San Antonio already faces a continuing challenge from conservative state legislators on issues ranging from annexation to taxing authority to other home-rule traditions. Do we want another fight on our hands? No one knows if the state could successfully move to condemn the property around the Alamo. I’d rather not fight that legal battle.
There are plenty of thoughtful people in San Antonio who remain wary of key elements in the proposed interpretive plan. Their concerns should carry weight throughout the process once a plan is approved, but such concerns don’t merit stopping the project in its tracks. I’ve written before that none of us will get our way on such a complex project. Nothing truly transformative can be accomplished on the Alamo Plaza unless a lot of smart, strong people agree to compromise.
A number of constituent groups that originally opposed the plan have seen their needs met, or partially met, and have come to support the plan. Ideally, that kind of process will continue. Some opponents will never be appeased, especially those who actually argue the Alamo Plaza is just fine as it is.
Some fear a backlash from the “don’t move the Cenotaph” protesters. While loud and rude, they don’t necessarily represent a large constituency. Many aren’t even city residents. They don’t have a vote and they don’t deserve our fear.
A post-Nov. 6 vote by City Council could end up creating the hostility it was meant to avert. If union officials prevail, as they did in misleading thousands of San Antonians into believing they were signing petitions supporting firefighters, a politically weakened mayor and city manager will be in no position to hurry an Alamo plan approval through City Council before election results are certified.
Such a move might be technically legal, but it would strike citizens as a cynical maneuver and backfire. And while no Council decisions are grandfathered, per se, union officials will have much harder time exciting voters about challenging past Council decisions made before the election. By waiting until after the elections to decide the Alamo plan’s future, city leaders just might embolden union officials to make the Alamo Plaza their first test of expanded petition and referendum powers.
Union officials have no particular stake in the redevelopment of the Alamo Plaza. The union’s goal from the start has been winning leverage at the collective bargaining table by provoking political disruption, and now, targeting the mayor and city manager.
No one would have imagined in June 2017 that the newly elected mayor would face such a hostile and serious challenge so early in his first term. Like it or not, he does. Navigating the next 40 days until early voting commences on Oct. 22 will not be easy, but logic suggests it would be easier with the Alamo redevelopment plan a done deal.