Gift shops, amusement rides, and wax museums make up the businesses at Alamo Plaza.
Gift shops and other businesses occupy buildings on the west side of Alamo Plaza. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Architects are a breed apart. I should know: I’m one of them. As a result of an intensive design-studio training method that we experience first as undergraduates, we architects look at the world a bit differently.

We learn a design process that results in a final product only after studying, proposing, and modifying, repeating those steps as much as we need to until we find the “right” solution. As a result, we tend to look at everything in terms of process: the world that we see, natural or manmade, as the result of change laid down in layers over time.

We are most intrigued by places that are the result of long, complex processes. We tend to love old, complicated cities because we try to analyze and imagine how they came to be. San Antonio, compared to most North American cities, is rich in layers of history, and in no place in this city are there more layers than Alamo Plaza.

Center-city residents are also a different breed. I should know: I’m one of them. While I don’t live in downtown proper, I live in Lavaca, the “oldest existing residential neighborhood” in San Antonio, barely a quarter mile south of the Tower of the Americas.

Whereas most San Antonio residents come downtown only infrequently, we use the city on a daily basis. I work near downtown. I meet friends for lunch or coffee on Houston Street. I walk my dogs in and around the construction zone that is Hemisfair, I participate in the occasional political protest in front of the Alamo.

We live here because most things are close, and its a rare day that I venture further north than Hildebrand Avenue. Additionally, many of us believe an urban lifestyle isn’t just a convenient and pleasant way to live, but that to do so is also more sustainable. Use your legs to run errands rather than get behind the wheel of a car. If you have to drive, find the closest destination. Reuse existing buildings rather than paving over what’s left of the Hill Country.

As a result, hardly a week goes by that I’m not driving or walking through Alamo Plaza, right in front of the Alamo, as part of my routine. I slow down, I dodge the tourists, I reflect on how many San Antonians have trod that ground.

As a representative member of both the fellowship of architects and also of center-city residents, I’m disappointed to report that the new Alamo plan does not respond to the concerns or needs of either group.

For architects, the essence of a classic plaza is a clearly defined place. Most plazas that are admired for their beauty are clearly defined by buildings.

You know when you’ve arrived at the Piazza Navona in Rome, or the Zócalo in Mexico City – from a relative narrow street, you burst into a wide expanse. You know you are there. The edges are clear. Some of the buildings at the edge are unremarkable. Some are palaces or churches. Each building, and the lives of its users and inhabitants, contributes to the sense of a definite, clear, and unique place.

Piazza Navona in Rome
Piazza Navona in Rome Credit: FlickrCC / hI_1001

The new Alamo Plaza plan suggests – as one of its confusing and occasionally self-contradictory “options” – that the western edge of the plaza, composed of commercial buildings by some of San Antonio’s best architects of the 19th and 20th centuries, be demolished entirely, to somehow recreate the sense of the original boundaries of the Alamo mission compound. The 3D renderings are evidence of the spatial confusion that would result: You can’t tell from the renderings if you are inside or outside of anything.

And, though I can’t believe I’m writing these words, I have to say the new plan has too many trees. You can’t see the space, or its edges, for the trees, the designers apparently having decided to overcompensate for the ill-advised proposal in the previous Alamo Plaza plan to remove the existing trees. Surely a balance can be found between important vistas of the Alamo chapel facade and the comfort of being able to sit under a shade tree.

The Zócalo in Mexico City Credit: FlickrCC / Antony Stanley

The new plan also favors one portion of the Alamo’s history at the expense of all others: the 1836 battle. Successful plazas have different historical layers. The examples of the Piazza Navona and the Zócalo are both similar to Alamo Plaza in that their overall forms are a distant echo of much earlier periods in history. The Piazza Navona preserves the shape of the 1st-century CE Stadium of Domitian, while the Zócalo keeps the basic form and orientation of the main ceremonial space of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital city.

In either case, as with Alamo Plaza, the very shape of the current space tells us not only about its historic origins, but more importantly how the space itself has remained important to the city and the lives of its inhabitants. Like it or not, part of the history of Alamo Plaza is about American free enterprise, and how the space of the plaza began as a religious institution but later became a forum for commerce.

The current plan also is unclear about how the demolition of the buildings only at the western edge of the plaza will recreate the sense of the Alamo compound at the time of the 1836. If the plan were consistent, which it isn’t, wouldn’t it be logical also to demolish the Gibbs Building (now Hotel Gibbs), the Hipolito S. Garcia Federal Building, and the Medical Arts Building (now the Emily Morgan Hotel) at the northern edge to further the goal of recreating the original compound? And what about the symbolic importance of the Fiesta parades route in front of the Alamo? Is that a part of our history that won’t be told anymore?

The Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building located at 615 East Houston Street. Photo by Scott Ball.
The Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building located at 615 East Houston Street Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

For center-city residents – and here I’m getting personal about how the new plan would affect me and my neighbors – the plan makes downtown less livable. The strange proposal to open the plaza by night but limit and direct access during the day would create a virtual dead end for residents who use the plaza as a pedestrian route. I’m all for limiting traffic along Alamo Street by reducing lanes and lowering permitted vehicular speed, but cutting off traffic on Alamo Street and now even part of Houston Street will worsen traffic congestion in the eastern side of downtown for a radius of several blocks. Losoya Street becoming two-way will not suffice; it already is overburdened as a southbound one-way street.

I would perhaps be more sympathetic to the goals of both the original and current plans if I really felt that drastic action was necessary to somehow “save” Alamo Plaza. Neither the Alamo chapel or the plaza itself are threatened except, perhaps, by the zealous lot who have brought us to this point.

At this moment, in its present form, the plaza tells a compelling story of multiple layers of history and the process by which urban spaces form and grow over time. Tweak the paving, narrow the vehicular lanes, turn the buildings on the western edge into a museum. Plant a few more trees, let the raspa vendors set up where they always have, keep the bandstand and Cenotaph where they are. The paraphrased words of architect and writer Robert Venturi most clearly express my opinion: Alamo Plaza is “almost all right” just as it is.

Darryl Ohlenbusch

Darryl Ohlenbusch is a registered architect, an instructor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and a Lavaca Neighborhood Association board member.