A long-awaited plan to redevelop Alamo Plaza isn’t dead yet, with San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg among those still committed to seeing the project realized in some form after a setback related to the monument at the plaza’s center.
The Alamo Plan remains in turmoil after a September vote by the Texas Historical Commission against moving the Cenotaph, a 1930s monument to Texas revolutionaries. The conflict with the historical commission led to the departure of several donors charged with raising $200 million or more for a new Alamo museum and visitors center.
Sensing an opportunity to make changes in the redevelopment plan, some influential figures are urging Nirenberg to solidify a few key priorities in formal agreements with the State of Texas. In a Nov. 18 letter, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, former Mayor Phil Hardberger, and former Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee member Phil Bakke urged Nirenberg to keep Alamo Street open to at least occasional vehicle traffic, including the Battle of the Flowers parade. They also called for an open plaza with no barriers meant to block public access. Those two elements of the redevelopment plan were among the most controversial when proposed two years ago, drawing at least as much criticism as moving the Cenotaph.
“We feel that the state plan has gone astray from its beginning by not recognizing the history of Alamo Plaza as our most important public space in our city,” the letter states.
Nirenberg is an important voice in setting the tone for the relationship between the City, which owns Alamo Plaza, and the Texas General Land Office (GLO), which owns the Alamo itself and the historic Woolworth, Palace, and Crockett buildings on the plaza’s west side. Both sides are bound by a 2018 lease agreement that transfers control of Alamo Plaza from the City to the GLO.
“In the 40 years of wrangling over the redevelopment of the Alamo, the one most significant thing that’s occurred this time is that we have agreed on a mutual path forward that respects all of that,” Nirenberg said. “I think that’s worth retaining.”
Cenotaph, plaza access, and Woolworth remain key issues
In a phone interview Wednesday, Nirenberg said he “substantively” agrees with the letter from Wolff, Hardberger, and Bakke. He pointed to language in the existing lease that already covers some of these issues.
Many in San Antonio are especially concerned about the fate of the Woolworth building, which once contained one of seven downtown lunch counters peacefully integrated in the 1960s under threat of protest from civil rights groups.
Officials with the GLO, which acquired the buildings in 2015, have not yet said whether they plan to demolish the buildings or repurpose them as part of a visitors center and museum. The lease states that the museum would be “within the current footprint” of the three buildings. A consultant hired to review the buildings stated in a report released last month that all three have a high potential for reuse.
The lease also addresses access to the plaza. It stipulates that the “GLO shall not charge a fee to enter the Alamo Plaza” area of the Alamo site. However, renderings released over the past two years have shown fences and other barriers that restrict the number of entrances to the plaza.
“Any time you have fences and gates, it’s not free and open,” said David Lake, co-founder of influential architecture firm Lake|Flato, with an office only two blocks from the Alamo.
Nirenberg acknowledged that changes need to be made to the lease. He said he’s pushing for a “path forward” that keeps the Cenotaph in place while “better respecting the fact that the Alamo is a storied part of a 300-plus-year history in San Antonio and remains the center of active public life even to this day.”
For some, the Cenotaph has become a symbol of a centuries-long cultural conflict in Texas. For many in San Antonio – particularly those with indigenous, Tejano, and Mexican roots – the Alamo is a historic site that’s borne witness to generations of people and served as a crossroads of civilizations.
Carmen Tafolla, author and former poet laureate of San Antonio, pointed to how state officials like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick focus on the Cenotaph, intended as an empty tomb to Alamo defenders erected a century after the historic battle, while ignoring the historical records that show approximately 1,300 were buried at the former church and cemetery.
“Does this mean that even the memory of 250 white bodies is worth more than the actual bones and burials of 1,300 brown bodies?” Tafolla said in a email.
But for many Texans, the Alamo is famous only because of the glory of a small group of rebels, most of them white, who sacrificed their lives in a quest for self-determination.
The Alamo Plan’s vision and guiding principles were meant to balance this cultural tension. Specifically, the 2018 lease details moving and restoring the Cenotaph, preserving the Alamo Church and Long Barrack, closing vehicle traffic to Alamo Plaza, and creating a museum and visitors center as main elements of the redevelopment.
But the Texas Historical Commission vote and related delays led to the departure of five influential donors, including Fort Worth philanthropist Ramona Bass, who cited the Cenotaph staying in place as the reason for her withdrawal.
Committee process critiqued
Some of the issues with the Cenotaph are simply aesthetic in nature. For an architect, the Cenotaph and its location in Alamo Plaza present a tricky design challenge.
“It’s a design problem because it’s this big, big white marble thing next to this little, tiny fallen-down ruin, but that’s just sort of life,” said Irby Hightower, founder of Southtown firm Alamo Architects.
If the goal is to show everything that happened within the footprint of Alamo Plaza, including the story of the battle that the monument’s builders wanted to portray in the 1930s, then “the Cenotaph is OK,” he said. “[The Cenotaph] tells you how the story came to be what it is.”
Hightower worked on a 1994 attempt to redevelop the Alamo. He also co-chaired the San Antonio River Oversight Committee, which helped guide what many consider the most successful redevelopment project in the city’s history: the Mission and Museum reaches of the San Antonio River.
The river committee, which Hightower led with former Mayor Lila Cockrell, was made up of members chosen by community institutions, not by elected officials. It also operated on a consensus basis instead of majority-rules.
“So the thing that got built was the thing that committee thought ought to be built, not what anybody else tried to get built,” Hightower said. He contrasted it with the Alamo Plan process, which involved the “outcome really being dictated by the people who were going to give the money.”
George Cisneros, an artist and URBAN-15 co-founder who has served three years on the Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee, said the City officials pushing the plan ahead should have relied more on that volunteer committee for talking points, position papers, and other expertise.
“There have been experts in hotel management, engineering, lawyers, artists, community activists, anthropologists, archaeologists, architects, accountants, theme park managers, historians,” Cisneros said. “They’ve all gone through this committee, and the leadership has been very reluctant in utilizing this expertise in any way but as a rubber stamp.”
Cisneros agreed with moving the Cenotaph. But to him, the monument isn’t the real issue. What’s most important is that the redeveloped site truly tells all the historical narratives that played out over the Alamo’s 300-year history.
A multimedia composer and technology artist, Cisneros said his “operating system” is interpreting the concept of Manifest Destiny and how it led white Americans onto former indigenous and Mexican land.
“There are other people who have different operating systems,” Cisneros said.
To him, the point of the Alamo Plan’s vision and guiding principles was to bring all of these together in a “singular exhibit and singular concept.”
“So you could understand why the people from Connecticut moved to Texas, and what was their God-given right to demand certain things from the Mexican government,” Cisneros said. “What [about] the young conscripts from Mexico – 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds – who marched to defend the largest city in northern Mexico from this invasion? Everybody has a perspective.”