The Texas Historical Commission’s refusal to approve relocating the Cenotaph leaves the City of San Antonio with two options, Assistant City Manager Lori Houston told City Council on Thursday. It can either work with the Texas General Land Office on a new vision of the project, or it can negotiate a way out of the redevelopment deal.
A Sept. 22 vote by the Texas Historical Commission against moving the Cenotaph, a 1930s-era monument in Alamo Plaza, has thrown the $450 million Alamo redevelopment project into disarray. A special City Council meeting was held Thursday to discuss where the plan stands.
“The parties understand that any path forward requires a change” to an Alamo Plaza lease and management agreements between the City and General Land Office (GLO), Houston said Thursday, adding that “a mutually agreed wind-down of the lease and management agreement remains an option.”
The recent turmoil over the Alamo is in essence a battle over the site’s past – or what part of its past will be most on display to future visitors. The struggle has pitted San Antonio officials, many of whom want full interpretation of the site’s multicultural history, against others like Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Texas Historical Commission Chair John Nau, who want a site more focused on the 1836 battle and the struggle of Texas revolutionaries against the Mexican Army.
Which vision will prevail depends in part on the City Council’s next moves.
The two paths Houston charted differ from those outlined by Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), the City’s longest-serving elected representative on the Alamo Plan. Trevino has said that the City should either push for the Alamo Plan as envisioned, including moving the Cenotaph, or get out of the redevelopment deal entirely.
Treviño wasn’t alone in wanting the City to hold strong to the full vision of the Alamo Plan that City Council approved in 2018.
Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) said the site should tell the entire story, including Spanish exploration, indigenous people, the role of the Catholic Church, the Camino Real and the development of Texas, the Texas Revolution, and the 20th-century fight for civil rights, all of which unfolded at the site.
“It’s heartbreaking to see people afraid of other people learning,” Pelaez said. “For all the talk of Texas toughness and values of bravery and love of history, to see the head of the [Texas] Historical Commission and the lieutenant governor fail so spectacularly at living up to those values just makes me sad.”
However, Mayor Ron Nirenberg, a key voice in deciding the outcome, showed little interest Thursday in unwinding the partnership with the GLO. The mayor said he doesn’t want to “lose the forest for the trees here.”
“Obviously, we have to modify our path forward because our plan, architecturally, design-wise … had the Cenotaph moving. That’s not gonna happen,” Nirenberg said. “But the plan itself and what we do with the Alamo Plaza is much bigger … than just the Cenotaph.”
Some, including Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4) and Councilman John Courage (D9), questioned why the City seemed unprepared for a decision blocking the moving of the Cenotaph.
“My question is after we were told that we couldn’t relocate the Cenotaph, what was the Plan B?” Garcia said.
Courage called for a version of the plan that adheres to the original principles to continue under “new eyes, new voices, new leadership, new direction.”
Others seemed willing to abandon the redevelopment entirely, arguing that the Alamo is fine as it is. Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) said that the Alamo is already the No. 1 tourist destination in Texas and argued that it doesn’t need hundreds of millions of dollars in improvements.
“I never wanted to engage in this plan,” said Gonzales, who voted in favor of the plan in 2018. “I never wanted to participate. I always felt like the City was getting under-advantaged and, not only that, but that we were getting insulted over and over again by the State telling us that we were not good enough, and that’s why they had to take over.”
Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) said the Alamo already inspires “awe and inspiration.” Perry and Courage were the only two on council to vote against the Alamo Plan two years ago.
“People aren’t coming down to the Alamo to take a look at what this what this whole site is, wanting to look at the whole history,” Perry said. “They’re there primarily for that battle and the people who died defending the Alamo.”
Council members took no formal action Thursday, instead calling a closed session to confer with attorneys about potential next moves.
GLO officials have been publicly silent about their plans for the redevelopment in the wake of the Cenotaph vote. GLO Deputy Director Hector Valle and General Counsel Jeff Gordon, both members of the Alamo Management Committee, were present at Thursday’s meeting but did not speak during open session.
However, Alamo Trust Chair Welcome Wilson Jr. and other officials did provide more clarity on the current makeup of the complicated web of nonprofits tied to the Alamo.
Wilson referred to information in a Oct. 23 email from former Alamo Management Committee Chair Gene Powell to other officials involved with the Alamo redevelopment. Powell’s email had stated that five members of what Powell called the “Alamo Trust Board” had resigned.
But Wilson said that “pretty much everyone is still on the board of Alamo Trust, except for Gene Powell” and that the resignations were actually from the board of the Remember the Alamo Foundation, “which was to be the fundraising entity for raising the money.”
A 2018 Internal Revenue Service filing, the latest available online, states the Remember the Alamo Foundation is a 501(c)(3) organization set up to “perform the functions of and to carry out and support the general purposes of Alamo Trust Inc.” Its board members in 2018 were Ramona Bass, Francisco Cigarroa, James D. Dannenbaum, Red McCombs, Lew Moorman, Nancy Perot, Powell, Jeanne Phillips, and Wilson. Powell’s email stated that himself, Bass, Moorman, Perot, and Phillips all resigned this year.
The departures from the foundation could put a damper on private fundraising for a visitors’ center and museum related to the project. Funding for the redevelopment is supposed to include approximately $200 million in private donations to match $38 million from the City and $106 million appropriated by the Texas Legislature.
“They resigned because [moving] the Cenotaph was key to their ability to build the museum as they envisioned,” Houston said. “We had several high-powered individuals in the state of Texas who saw the [Texas Historical Commission’s] denial as a major barrier to getting that museum done.”
Alamo Trust and GLO spokespersons have not responded to requests for information about the Alamo nonprofit. However, Alamo Trust this week updated the list of board members on its website, replacing an outdated list from 2018.
The current list includes Wilson as chair, with Cigarroa, Dannenbaum, Valle, VIA Metropolitan Transit board Chair Hope Andrade, and U.S. Rep. Will Hurd (R-Helotes) as members. McCombs, the 93-year-old San Antonio billionaire, is listed as an “emeritus” member.
Houston said that the GLO and the Alamo Trust “are exploring ways on how they can continue to do that museum and visitors center.”
“Alamo Trust is committed to work with the City and the GLO to pursue and implement a plan,” Wilson said.
Houston also shed more light on the current makeup of the Alamo Management Committee, made up of representatives from the City, GLO, and, currently, members of the Alamo Trust board. The Management Committee meets regularly to negotiate the day-to-day workings of the project, but its meetings are not open to the public.
Wilson and Hurd have taken places on that committee’s board, following the resignations of Bass and Powell, Houston said.