It isn’t easy finding your way to a second floor meeting room at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center for a 6 p.m. public hearing, but the presence of more than 300 citizens Tuesday evening was a testament to people’s strong feelings about anything to do with the Alamo.
It’s a curious contradiction: The plaza itself is a tawdry place, and the small chapel and Long Barracks are all that visibly remain from the Battle of the Alamo in 1836. Few visitors walk away impressed. There is no real recognition that the site was home to an early 18th century Spanish mission, or for thousands of years, part of Yanaguana – indigenous land close to the San Antonio River.
Yet a majority of the more than 50 people who signed up to speak at the hearing felt compelled first to establish their multigenerational family ties or other connections to San Antonio and then to speak in opposition to various aspects of the conceptual master plan. Organizers allowed many to speak long after their three-minute time allotment had expired, and a planned two-hour meeting stretched to three and a half hours.
It was a cathartic session for many. Everyone has an opinion about the Alamo Plaza redesign, and I delivered mine in a Sunday column headlined, A Public Plaza is More Than Dirt and Glass. I see a plaza [and a downtown] in need of many more shade trees and human amenities, such as park benches, drinking fountains, and public art.
Members of the public identified themselves at the hearing, while many professionals in the development and design community are expressing their misgivings with the conceptual master plan in a less public fashion.
A number of those professionals declined to comment for publication. The Rivard Report remains open to individuals who want to post their comments or submit a proposed opinion piece supporting or critiquing the master plan.
Tuesday’s three principal speakers on stage at the Convention Center were Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), an architect and the downtown representative on City Council; Gene Powell, Alamo Management Committee tri-chair and member of the Alamo Endowment Board; and George Skarmeas, director of Preservation Design Partnership (PDP), who is leading the design team.
I listened closely as they took turns speaking and reacting to members of the public. This was the second of three public meetings scheduled before the “preliminary vision” is approved by City Council on May 11, in time for the Texas Legislature to consider allocating another $75 million in funding for the project. The final public hearing will be held next Tuesday at 6 p.m.
What I heard was mostly encouraging. As the three project leaders spoke, they went to great pains to describe the Alamo Plaza redesign as a conceptual master plan completed on a tight deadline, the work of many national and local experts, and representatives from the three primary stakeholders: the state of Texas and General Land Office; the City of San Antonio; and the Alamo Endowment, which is charged with raising as much as $225 million in what ultimately could be a half-billion dollar project.
They stressed that proposed changes to the plaza’s physical space will be subject to modification. Programming elements for the plaza will be decided during the multi-year redevelopment process, although a solution for Fiesta parades already has been reached with passage around the back of the Alamo. Parade members will pause between the Alamo and the Menger Hotel for the ritual laying of the wreath to honor the Defenders.
I interviewed all three of the presenters in the days after the public hearing to gauge their mood and reaction to both public and private criticism of the master plan.
“When people walk into the Alamo Plaza they don’t feel they are standing in a sacred place, a place where the Defenders gave their lives, the place where 1,500 indigenous people are buried,” Powell said. “We need to restore that sense of sacred space.
“I don’t think anybody understands how difficult a task it is that we are serving two constituencies: One is the local constituency and those people see the Alamo a certain way, while the rest of the public outside San Antonio sees the Alamo in a different way,” Powell added. “For locals, the plaza is a public space. Visitors, especially those who have been to other iconic battlefields, are expecting a certain decorum and reverence. It’s like walking into a church – you instinctively lower your voice because you know you are in a scared spot. Nobody lowers their voice when they step into the Alamo Plaza.”
Treviño said many people are confusing the conceptual master plan with finished design documents.
“It’s been a fast-paced process, but we acknowledge and respect the fact these are just the first steps and we have much more to discuss and design,” Treviño said. “The community has also spoken up. People want all the layers of history respected, but this master plan first has to tackle the physical environment before we can tell the stories of all the people that account for all these many layers of history and all the stories we want to tell.”
Treviño said the current team of experts and stakeholders continues to abide by the guiding principles produced by a 21-member Citizens Advisory Committee in December 2014. Those principles were approved by City Council months before a decision by Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush to oust the Daughters of the Republic of Texas as managers of the Alamo and to give the state ultimate say over the historic site.
While the guiding principles were met with near-universal approval locally, moving from there to an actual blueprint for plaza redevelopment has proven to be a greater challenge.
“The state wants a secure, dignified area, and locals want lots of public space,” Powell said. “I can’t find an iconic battle site that has both of these elements at the same time. We have the intersection of a public plaza and a sacred battlefield. How do we do two things at once? It’s very complicated. What we came up with is that the buildings now housing entertainment attractions become the museum, and the space in front of the Alamo and the battlefield becomes a sacred space that can be controlled, yet without the public being restricted. Then a very significant space south of there in the plaza becomes a great public space.”
“I am personally committed to preserving that balance,” Skarmeas said, discussing the master plan’s goal of creating a “sacred space” honoring the Battle of the Alamo and all the history that preceded it, and an activated public space that can serve as a central gathering destination for locals and visitors, and connect the plaza to Hemisfair.
“It’s a delicate balance, and it requires people to move to the middle ground,” Skarmeas said. “Nobody gets exactly what they want in every respect. We meet in the middle. It’s essential. Windows of opportunity like the one that now exists come along very rarely. This is San Antonio’s opportunity, the one it has been waiting for so long to happen. If it does not happen now, when?”
Treviño praised the depth and range of the master plan team, describing them as “a mix of serious thought leaders,” some national, some local, all guided by the locally-crafted principles for the site’s redevelopment.
“We are seven years away from opening the museum,” Powell said. “This is a conceptual master plan. Operating plans won’t be finalized for years. That’s when you will settle on hours of operation, a pedestrian gate on the north side, and all the other design details, whatever is decided.
“We are not at the point of the plan where we have answers to every question,” he added. “The operator will be the state, the GLO, and it will determine many of the operational details. Right now the state sees the Alamo as a very soft target, and they are looking at security very seriously.
“If we don’t get this done it will be hard to start it again,” Powell said. “We’ve been trying for 75 years to get something going. Now is the time. When we get on the other side [of the legislative funding decision], there will be plenty of time to work on this and get it just right.”