This is the week many have been waiting for: The Alamo Plaza brain trust and its team of designers, preservationists, and placemakers will unveil the draft site plan for the redevelopment of the historic plaza.
Local media, including the Rivard Report, will be briefed next week, and the public will get its first look at the plan when the four-year-old Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee meets Thursday, June 7, from 6-8 p.m. to receive a presentation of the draft site plan, its central elements, and the timeline for moving forward with public hearings and City Council consideration.
That meeting is open to the public, and it’s clear that the principals have learned from the ill-fated plan presented more than one year ago. For starters, Thursday’s public meeting will be held in the Witte Museum’s Prassel Auditorium at 3801 Broadway St., a far more accessible locale for most than the Henry B. González Convention Center, site of the 2017 limited public hearings.
This year, a full schedule of public hearings will be held throughout the 10 City Council districts, meaning everyone lives close to at least one meeting locale. Locations are forthcoming, but four public input meetings are scheduled for June 18, 19, 20, and 21 from 6:30-8:30 p.m.
The Alamo Plaza project ranks with the San Antonio River Improvement Project in terms of historic, cultural, and economic importance. Citizens have invested $384 million to date in the San Antonio River, and with the Park Segment of the Museum Reach still to be undertaken it will ultimately exceed $500 million in cost, with an almost incalculable return on investment in terms of city-building along its 13 miles.
The Alamo Plaza carries an estimated price tag of $350 million, with $200 million coming from private donors, but the truth is the project could cost more if a world-class museum and visitors center eventually replaces the hodgepodge of buildings on the plaza’s west side that currently house entertainment businesses, which will move to a still-undisclosed location elsewhere downtown.
We can debate which project – the San Antonio River or the Alamo Plaza – will matter most to the redefining of San Antonio as a 21st-century city with an urban core as welcoming to locals and visitors. Together, the two projects are essential elements of the rare UNESCO World Heritage designation given to the Alamo and four Spanish-colonial Missions in 2015.
What is not subject to debate is that the Alamo Plaza project has proven to be far more contentious with many more conflicted stakeholders and a highly engaged public.
None of the stakeholders will get everything they want, but if there is a single bond that joins them all, it should be that the status quo is an urban embarrassment – a significant historic site and central civic plaza, its great potential left untapped in a state of neglect for decades.
It would be tragic if conflict over elements of the redesign devolve into a level of social and political conflict that derails the redevelopment. That is possible, but everyone involved should realize such an outcome would say more about this city to the rest of the world than any of us would like to live with in the coming years.
I write this as someone who was flabbergasted by the plan first unveiled more than one year ago that called for cutting down heritage trees and enveloping the Alamo’s historic footprint in locking glass walls. I also remind myself that the clock is ticking and perpetual disagreement that thwarts progress will cause state leaders and donors to lose interest and take their money elsewhere. I am prepared to join others and give ground to gain ground.
That’s especially important this year. Let’s not allow San Antonio to become a city where angry firefighter union officials run City Hall, and where discord makes us paralyzed to urban renewal and progress.
The brain trust I mentioned is not an easy sentence to diagram. It consists of the Alamo Management Committee, which is overseeing the project and includes two representatives from three entities: the Texas General Land Office, the City of San Antonio, and the nonprofit Alamo Endowment. The Endowment was organized to raise private funds for the redevelopment project and preservation of the Alamo as well as educational initiatives, and it exercises significant political influence over the project; and the Alamo Trust, formerly known as the Alamo Complex Management, which the General Land Office formed to take over day-to-day management and custodial responsibilities from the Alamo and its grounds from the Daughters of the Republic of Texas in 2015.
While the Daughters lost a bitter battle with state officials to perpetuate their century-long custody of the Alamo, they did win a court battle to retain ownership of the collection of 38,000 books and manuscripts, maps, artworks and photographs, and more that today is housed in the Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library in the Presidio Gallery in the Bexar County Archives Building at 126 E. Nueva St., site of the former Federal Reserve Building here. The treasured archive’s relocation is a reminder that the Battle of the Alamo, while most famously fought over 13 days in 1836, remains a pitched engagement even today.
As the new design is shared and then considered in the coming weeks, city leaders would be wise to visit the one other urban streetscape in the United States that is a World Heritage site: Independence Hall and its contemporary National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, designed by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. San Antonio should aspire to achieve the same heights in Alamo Plaza.
First we have to agree we want to move forward.