If the Alamo Master Plan Committee is really serious about the conceptual plan being a work-in-progress subject to design challenge and change, it should bring a simplified proposal to City Council for approval on May 11.
It’s clear that the public wants City and State leaders to honor the site and its rich history, but does not want to be walled out in the process.
A modified design would assure unanimous passage by City Council and send a strong signal to State officials and the Texas Legislature that the project is on track and worthy of the requested $75 million funding in the new budget. It also would defuse community tensions and signal to citizens that City and State leaders want greater consensus in moving forward.
Simplifying the conceptual plaza design at this stage will serve to greatly reduce the community dissent and tensions with the draft master plan. In time, a strong case could in theory be made for removing trees and erecting glass walls, but in the short two weeks that most local design professionals and members of the public have had to digest the conceptual master plan, it is clear that a compelling case has not yet been made in a way to win over a majority of citizens.
What does a simplified design look like? I see four elements:
Signify the Boundary Walls of the Alamo and Mission San Antonio de Valero
Archaeologists should conduct the dig so a clear plexiglass walkway can be installed in-ground to give plaza visitors a direct view of the wall footings and an understanding of the boundaries and dimensions of the mission and battle site. That means locating the North Wall in its proper place, bisecting the Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building, not East Houston Street as now presented in the preliminary renderings.
Discreet above-ground glass panels etched with historical data can serve as contextual guides as people move from one point in the plaza to another. In-panel multimedia audio and video options should be explored. The panels should be removable.
Table the Glass Walls Concept
The preliminary renderings by George Skarmeas and his team at Preservation Design Partnership (PDP), the Philadelphia-based firm that is leading the project’s design, enclose much of the Alamo Plaza in walls of glass. The proposed design has been officially described as “preliminary,” but design professionals and members of the public who oppose the idea have expressed fear that State and City officials will not accept any fundamental changes once City Council approves the preliminary concept.
It seems ill-advised to proceed with any concept that has been so poorly received and considered publicly for such a short time period.
I suspect the glass walls are really meant to serve as security barriers that give the Texas General Land Office a tighter grip on the plaza property and a greater ability to control public access. Yes, the Alamo is a “soft target,” in the language of security experts, but so are countless other urban historic landmarks in this and other countries with World Heritage sites. That’s the price of living history. Put it behind locked glass and you have a static museum display rather than a civic destination.
Historic battles from Bunker Hill in Boston to Charleston in the South are recalled with reverence without walls. It’s the mix of urban life and historic sites that makes each place unique.
The question of security and State control, especially if City officials intend to deed the land in front of the Alamo to the State, is one that can be debated over time, with considerable public input. Eliminating the glass wall as an issue now simplifies the process. The concept could still prevail in time.
Leave the Trees
Let’s agree to leave undisturbed the heritage trees on the Alamo property. It’s possible, of course, that not every tree can be saved, but there is a big difference between sacrificing an individual tree or two for the greater good and starting out with a concept that assumes significant tree removal. Let’s instead plant a park bench or two for every tree, and give people shaded places of respite to sit and consider history and their surroundings.
A public conversation about the plaza’s trees and ample shade can be had over a longer period of time. Eliminating wholesale tree removal from the debate to create an open, lifeless plaza also will reduce opposition to other elements of the plan.
Putting on hold plans to build glass walls and “relocate” mature trees, in my opinion, will make it easier for many people to go along with closing the plaza to vehicle traffic and relocating the Cenotaph.
Get Real About Traffic
It doesn’t help the committee’s credibility to blithely wave away concerns about traffic flow with the plaza shut off to vehicles. Claiming that workarounds will only add seconds to their downtown travel is not credible. Dealing with the existing problem of horse-drawn carriages mixing in with vehicle traffic should be part of the alternative proposal on any proposed traffic fixes. Perhaps the carriages can continue to exist in and around the redesigned plaza and Hemisfair, but they don’t have a place on the already stressed main streets of downtown.
One Final Public Hearing
Let’s move forward with a plaza redesign that relocates the entertainment businesses and establishes a museum and visitor center in their place. Leave some space for a restaurant, café, and bar. Develop the southern reaches of the plaza as an outdoor beer garden and restaurant.
There will be one more public hearing this Tuesday, May 2, starting at 6 p.m. at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, Room 301. It won’t be easy to get there, but it is one more opportunity for more members of the public to comment, and for the public to get a sense of whether the committee is responding to public opinion.
Councilman Roberto Treviño, the District 1 representative and a member of the Alamo Plaza Master Plan Committee, was the only elected official I noticed at the last public hearing. Mayor Ivy Taylor and the other nine members of the council were not there, and are not likely to attend this meeting, either.