About one month from today, project leaders behind the Alamo Master Plan will have a more informed and comprehensive idea about the future of the Alamo and its surroundings, Preservation Design Partnership (PDP) Design Director George Skarmeas said Thursday.
He told the group of about 300 people at the Plaza Club for the Family Service Association‘s Inaugural Journey Luncheon – “The Alamo Transformation: Past, Present, Future” – that a team of historians, scholars, and archaeologists are working to uncover up to 10,000 years of history at the site in order to transform it into a location that’s reflective of its unique historical and cultural significance.
For now, the project is just in a “discovery period,” Skarmeas said.
“…before (we) do anything (we) need to do significant research – get (our) facts straight. You don’t use speculation, you don’t do interpretation without evidence, and you do it in a scientific way,” he said. “We need to have significant historic research and carefully targeted archaeology to put together the picture the way it used to be.”
Once they accomplish that, he said, other plans will be able to take shape. The master plan draft is expected to be completed by mid-2017, with construction to begin in 2021.
A “soft opening” of the new Alamo Plaza is not expected to happen until 2024.
“What we would want to be able to see one day, (is that you’d be able to) close your eyes there, feel the breeze, (and feel like) you’re now in Mission de Valero, you’re in the Alamo,” said Becky Dinnin, panelist and director of the Alamo. “Perhaps the part of the story is the 1836 battle that brought you there, but so much more happened there. …This is the story that’s so exciting and that we’re so anxious to tell, but we have to do it right.”
The 8-year effort is “arguably one of the most important, historic preservation projects in urban America,” said Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard, who moderated Thursday’s panel.
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), whose district is home to the Alamo, and State Sen. José Menéndez (D26), who has played a critical role in gaining funding for the project, were among those who attended.
PDP is working on the master plan with Grupo de Diseño Urbano, an international design firm that is also working on the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project, and Fisher Heck Inc., a San Antonio-based firm that has restored many historic buildings and contributed to restoration projects throughout the country.
The firms are also collaborating with the Alamo Master Plan Management Committee, which consists of City Manager Sheryl Sculley, Treviño, Gene Powell, and Ramona Bass from the Alamo Endowment, and Anne Idsal and Kim Barker from the Texas General Land Office.
A key part of the process is a thorough archaeological study of the site by a team led by Pape-Dawson Engineers Senior Archaeologist Nesta Anderson, who will work with City Archaeologists Kay Hindes, Jake Ivey, Steve Tomka, Shawn Marceaux, and Mary Jo Galindo.
The group will begin work at two dig sites next to the Alamo this summer to unearth the centuries of human history lying dormant under the Alamo’s foundation, giving project planners more perspective on the site’s original infrastructure, among other things.
The excavation, coupled with comprehensive historical research, will allow the master planners to make mindful decisions regarding the future of South Alamo Street, for example, and the three buildings that the State purchased across the street from the Alamo that house unrelated tourist attractions.
The Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse at the north end of Alamo Plaza has been targeted by some as an ideal location for an Alamo museum or visitor center, but Skarmeas said doing so would draw visitors away from the original entry point to the Alamo.
“If you put critical activities in the federal building at the north end, you don’t have the ability to capture your audience, (and) guide them through the site carefully,” he said.
Some, like an audience member on Thursday, were concerned that, through the planning process, some of their ancestors’ stories would get lost and not be told in the finished site. “Who is going to have a final say on the history of the Alamo (that will be portrayed)? Are you going to change history?” they asked.
“When it comes to a historic site…we need to first get all of the stories in place and connect all of them together and we’re not the experts in history,” Skarmeas said. “In our view this should not be an individual that says this is how were going to tell the story of 1836, it should be the experts who tell us, ‘here is what happened’ and there’s going to be a collaborative effort to come up with the actual product.
“Nobody intends to change anything, we need to hear the experts tell us what happened.”
The planners are working toward a specific vision for the sacred site, one that seems not-so-sacred amidst the sounds of street traffic and tour buses on the busy Alamo Plaza roadway.
“A lot of research is going to have to happen from the City side, from traffic studies to what do we do with our buses and how do we deal with public transportation, what are the other (paths) through downtown – that’s not lost on any of us,” Dinnin said. “Those are all challenges that are, of course, going to take a while.”
Politically, the City will have to make a series of difficult decisions regarding these elements and more in the Alamo Master Plan, Rivard added, which will gauge its commitment to bring the project to fruition.
Right now, the average time a visitor spends at the Alamo is about 8.5 minutes, Dinnin said. The site’s transformation will ideally keep visitors engaged for much longer, allowing them to appreciate its significance.
“We’re hoping … it will be a place where you can hear yourself think, you can stop dead in your tracks because it’s a sacred place. It’s a place that has very complex historic dimensions. It’s a place where life was celebrated and lives were mourned, and there (were) conflicts, blood, battles, a number of things,” Skarmeas said. “You have a wonderful urban setting of San Antonio in that location that brings all these pieces together. So, (the Alamo) becomes a nexus, an important piece that hopefully is going to stitch a lot of pieces together in the city.”
Planners hope to gain some funding for the project from the 2017 municipal bond, even though exact project costs have not yet been determined. Skarmeas said that the team has already been performing cost evaluations on certain aspects of the job that are deemed necessary.
So far, the effort has received about $42 million from the City’s budget allocations and dedicated funding from the Texas Legislature. More private and philanthropic donations from a fundraising campaign run by the Alamo Foundation are anticipated.
As there are many San Antonians with ties to the Alamo and its history, the Management Committee and the Master Plan team view public feedback in this initiative as an essential component. Citizens are encouraged to share their thoughts or ask questions about the project at the first of several public meetings on Tuesday, Aug. 2 from 6-8 p.m. at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, located at 900 E. Market St.
While many people, including Skarmeas, are eager to watch the Alamo evolve, he said patience is the key to making sure “we do this right.
“We need to go one step at a time and find out what the original mission was all about,” Skarmeas said. “We have descriptions, we have photographs, we have maps, we have journals, we have a number of things, now we need to put together the picture and try to be as accurate as possible.”
Top image: From left: Director of the Alamo Becky Dinnin and Alamo Master Planner George Skarmeas discuss their vision for the Alamo. Photo by Camille Garcia.