It was an unusual marriage when in 2018 San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Texas General Land Office Commissioner George P. Bush together vowed to transform the Alamo Plaza into a world-class historical destination.
The surprise union took years of work on both sides before it was consummated and a contract was signed. Statewide elected leaders, all Republicans for more than 25 years, have acted with increasing hostility toward big-city mayors and city councils. Yet this partnership was seen as one of mutual benefit: the State promised tens of millions of dollars in funding for the project, while the City promised to close South Alamo Street and convey the Alamo Plaza to the State via a long-term lease that could last 100 years.
Until death do us part.
Now, a little more than two years after the Nirenberg-Bush vows, the $450 million Alamo Master Plan in its original form is, in the word of Fort Worth philanthropist Ramona Bass, the lead fundraiser on the project, “dead.” San Antonio’s marriage with the State, at best, is on the rocks. It happens.
Nirenberg and other City Council members in a special meeting Thursday considered their few options. Deputy City Manager Lori Houston presented two. One is to renegotiate a less ambitious agreement, knowing the Cenotaph will not be moved and nearly half the promised project funding is gone for good. Another is to let the lawyers for both sides work out an amicable divorce.
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), who has served as the City’s lead on the project since its inception and who chairs the Alamo Management Committee, would like the City to try to salvage as much of the original Master Plan as possible. A divided City Council seems undecided, but unlikely to line up with him.
I humbly suggest a third option: a six-month trial separation with a lot of counseling. City leaders would be wise to hit the pause button and see what transpires in the 2021 Texas legislative session come January. To not do so risks becoming once again the victim of the state’s biggest homewrecker, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
Patrick on more than one occasion has threatened to use his legislative power to transfer authority over the Alamo from the Bush-led GLO to either the Texas Historical Commission, a citizens committee Patrick has successfully influenced, or even another state agency. The GLO, meanwhile, wants the City to close South Alamo Street next year and recognize the long-term lease giving the State control of Alamo Plaza.
The City could honor its promise, close the street and hand over the plaza, only to see Patrick wrest away control of the Alamo and Alamo Plaza and use his bully pulpit to make sure the historical presentation is limited to the myth-riddled version peddled for the better part of two centuries. That would render the Alamo transformation a total failure.
The City should realize its only leverage in this troubled marriage is its ownership of the street and the plaza. There is no way to transfer those assets to the State now and guarantee an eventual outcome where San Antonio benefits.
Patrick already has wreaked substantial damage to the San Antonio-GLO union, serving as the de facto populist leader of the open carry mob that rallied around the Cenotaph and gave it far more value, symbolically and historically, than the 1930s monument merits. If the goal was to intimidate Texas Historical Commission members, it worked. THC Chairman John Nau repeatedly delayed a vote on the permit to move the Cenotaph and, when he finally called an open hearing and vote, he allowed Patrick to blatantly dominate the proceeding.
Patrick, meanwhile, has targeted Bush on several occasions, perhaps regarding him as a potential adversary in a future race for governor, or someone who represents the traditional Republican Party as it existed before the Trump era. Bush’s response is hard to fathom. He basically vanished on the eve of the THC vote and has been absent ever since.
In the wake of that Sept. 22 vote, Bass resigned her seat on the Alamo Management Committee, the City-State project oversight entity, and was one of multiple Texas philanthropists who resigned from the Remember the Alamo Foundation, thus killing the initiative to raise $200 million or more in private donations to help fund the project.
Back in early October I wrote a column headlined The Alamo Master Plan seems like another lost cause. We can take the word “seems” out now and ask whether the Alamo Plaza will ever be redeveloped beyond its current mishmash of tourists, traffic, and carnival attractions. It’s a question best left unanswered for now. Better to wait and watch events in Austin before making any decisions that will carry profound consequences, for better or worse.
There is a way forward for Nirenberg and City Council, a way for the City to bring about significant improvement to the plaza without waiting on the State. I’ll outline that possibility in a Monday column.