City Council is set to vote Thursday on a revised Alamo Plaza redevelopment plan that will give the state of Texas effective control of the Alamo Plaza for the next 100 years, yet council members have had only a few days to review the revised lease terms agreed upon by the City and General Land Office. The public will get no such opportunity before the plan’s adoption.
The Alamo Management Committee and the nonprofit Alamo Trust, which is controlled by a seven-member board of directors, conduct negotiations and other business behind closed doors, so the media and public have not been able to independently observe and report on developments on a new lease agreement.
Those negotiations were required after the demise of the controversial Alamo Master Plan in September 2020 when the Texas Historical Commission denied a permit to relocate the Alamo Cenotaph, a move that led to further unraveling of the plan.
Alamo Trust CEO Doug McDonald had resigned his position rather than agree to a second contract, and the private philanthropists who pledged to raise $200 million or more of the funds needed to complete the $450 million project resigned in protest.
The new lease, which I am absorbing far more quickly than I am comfortable doing in order to share my general views in advance of the planned City Council vote, notes that 200 stakeholder meetings and 51 often-contentious public meetings were held in San Antonio and around the state prior to the City Council’s final approval of the plan in October 2018.
There were no public meetings scheduled before Thursday’s vote. The revised plan is certainly far less ambitious and controversial than the predecessor plan, but why the rush to push it through so quickly? If City and Alamo officials learned anything in the years preceding approval of the last plan, it’s that the Alamo, the site’s history, and how the story is told generates intensely emotional feelings among a spectrum of community groups.
Winning public approval of yet another plan to redevelop the Alamo Plaza and protect the Alamo buildings and grounds would seem to be an important step to take before going to a vote. An estimated $38 million from the City’s 2017 bond will be used now to redevelop Alamo Plaza with the Cenotaph in place. A public investment of that scope would seem to necessitate thoughtful efforts to win public buy-in and understanding of the project’s new scope and timeline.
Why such a hurry and a vote Thursday? I have my own suspicions, supported only by years of watching from a front-row seat. Many in San Antonio are suffering from Alamo exhaustion. Decades of failed plans to redevelop the plaza have left people skeptical, if not cynical, about the likelihood that the neglected civic plaza, the underwhelming historic site, and the adjacent entertainment attractions will ever give way to something better, something equal to the story that has helped define San Antonio and its peoples through the centuries.
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Many doubt it will ever happen, so all parties would like to show progress and hurriedly sweep away the ashes of the last burned-out deal to make way for a scaled-down plan. Mayor Ron Nirenberg, I imagine, wants a new deal with the state inked in advance of the May 1 City election.
GLO Commissioner George P. Bush is said to be done with the Alamo for reasons of his own. It’s hardly proven to be the kind of project that burnishes a politician’s résumé. Bush has been preparing for some time to challenge Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is under criminal indictment and a separate federal investigation, in the next Republican primary.
Bush and his longtime nemesis, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, will appear jointly at a Friday press conference on the Alamo Plaza to unveil the famous 18-pound cannon newly installed on the former battlefield. That suggests the two have reached a political accommodation. A Thursday Council vote; a Friday photo op; a new Alamo Trust CEO, Kate Rogers, in place. Progress.
What remains to be seen is whether Patrick will deliver this legislative session on his promise made after the Texas Historical Commission denied the Cenotaph permit and private philanthropists bowed out to secure state funding to move forward with a new “world-class museum.” I have my doubts and wish Rogers luck persuading some of the state’s wealthiest patrons to come back into the project.
The new lease appears to offer vaguely worded intimations that the historic Crockett, Old Palace, and Woolworth buildings will survive this next go-around, but the GLO is no longer obliged to construct the “world-class museum” by 2024 as previously agreed upon and stipulated as a condition for taking permanent control of British rock musician Phil Collins’ extensive Alamo artifacts collection.
I am analyzing the lease terms on the fly and a planned interview with senior City officials Wednesday did not materialize, but City Council with a hurried vote Thursday will be committing future city councils for the next 100 years to terms few, if any of us, can cite with authority now. There is a $50 million penalty the City agrees to pay if it decides at any time in the future to withdraw from the arrangement. The City of San Antonio does not have and will never have $50 million to set aside to cover a historic mistake. So for now we are left to hope this arrangement is a sensible one and that it endures to the benefit of us all.
Who among us can take yet another defeat at the Alamo?
Disclosure: Kate Rogers is a former member of the San Antonio Report board of directors.