“How would you describe the experience a person has visiting the Alamo now, versus what you recommend?” Castro asked.
Philip Myrick, the senior vice president for the non-profit Project for Public Spaces, a New York consultancy that specializes in helping cities find ways to transform public spaces, paused before answering diplomatically.
“I would say it is an experience that misses on several levels. The average person gets their first impression by standing in front of the Chapel, people take a photo of the Chapel and think that’s the Alamo, some go into the museum, come back out, and then they sort of stop and look around for what’s next, and there is no next,” said Myrick, pantomiming a befuddled visitor.
“Our interviews with passersby were in the range of, ‘we think it’s great, but we wish there was more to do,’ and I think that’s why residents don’t use it more,” Myrick added. “There isn’t a range of experiences to enjoy. There are impediments on all sides to the enterprises inside the buildings becoming a unified part of an experience as a district.”
The confirmation that very few locals frequent Alamo Plaza and that many visitors experience a letdown will not come as a surprise to city leaders working to transform downtown San Antonio. But the recommendations Myrick and PPS presented to the Council and later in the evening at a standing-room only public meeting held at the Central Library, clearly left the Mayor, Council and city staff listeners excited about the possibilities.
“It’s really not operated at the level of a great public place,” Myrick told Council.
Among the PPS recommendations and options:
* Close Alamo Street to vehicle traffic in front of the Alamo in the evenings and on weekends, allowing a more authentic plaza experience to develop. “The Plaza really isn’t a plaza,” Myrick said. “It’s surrounded by streets and traffic. Reclaim the district as a place that makes pedestrians a priority.
“We’re not proposing street closures,” he said. “We are proposing street sharing, perhaps closing at night and on weekends. You can start experimenting with these ideas now.”
* Consider relocating the Cenotaph to a location outside the Plaza, perhaps toward the side or rear of the Alamo grounds to allow the Plaza to become an open public space that can host large people gatherings. Use the Plaza to host more entertainment and music events, including street performers.
* Establish the adjacent Plaza de Valero as a distinct pedestrian environment adjacent to the Alamo Plaza “Right now there is no sense that Mission San Antonio de Valero was once located there,” Myrick said.
* Make Plaza de Valero a more social environment while allowing the Alamo Plaza to convey a sense of “sacred space”. Amenities such as comfort seating, sidewalk cafes and restaurants would keep people in the Plaza for a longer period, boost local businesses, and leave visitors more satisfied with the experience.
“The Plaza de Valero is your really big opportunity,” Myrick said. “Right now there is no place to stop and linger.”
* Design a gateway, perhaps guarded by cannon, for pedestrians entering the Plaza, creating a greater sense for people they are entering a special place. Different colored pavers could be used to designate the true Alamo grounds to help people understand the Battle of the Alamo unfolded over a larger area and not inside the Chapel. A second color of pavers could designate Plaza de Valero to show the original footprint of the 18th century Spanish mission that preceded the 19th century Alamo.
* Eliminate curbs that now interrupt the pedestrian experience in the Plaza. Find ways to denote the path of the Camino Real, the original Spanish roadway that went through the Mission grounds.
* Establish a highly visible interpretive center in the Plaza to orient visitors. Improved signage is also advised. Launch more activities, educational programs and events appealing to children.
* Build a structure that marks the South Wall-Low Barracks and the Palisade. Add more interpretation of where the North Wall once stood. It’s now a privately owned parking lot.
* “Show off the acequia, and put back the trees that were on both sides of the acequia originally,” Myrick said. “Tell the whole story.”
District One Councilman Diego Bernal praised the plan for “respecting the cultural significance” of the Alamo Plaza and its potential to become a destination that will attract a diverse flow of locals as well as visitors.
“I always use the old joke that no one shows up anywhere and asks where all the other tourists are,” Bernal quipped. “With this, we’re essentially taking the pre-eminent tourist attraction in our city and redesigning it for locals, and thereby maximizing its potential for both.”
“The great cities of the world are visited by tourists, but you don’t get the sense that tourists are the majority of the people in any of those great cities.”
The May 12 bond election gives voters the opportunity to make a significant investment in San Antonio, including the downtown. $1.2 million of the bond will be dedicated to initiating the transformation of Alamo Plaza. It will take many millions more to realize the PPS vision, but the payoff for locals will be far greater than whatever is invested.
It’s not unreasonable to imagine Castro cutting the ribbon on a transformed Alamo Plaza and Plaza de Valero on May 1, 2018. That’s the real birthday, when the hallowed grounds first named Mission San Antonio de Valero and now the Alamo will be 300 years old.