Preliminary renderings of the Alamo Plaza redesign spread like wildfire through the San Antonio community last week, sparking heated comments, strong criticism, and both far-fetched and well-thought out suggestions for the $450 million master plan.

Proposals to relocate the 1930s Cenotaph, remove shade trees from a large portion of the courtyard, and erect glass walls that limit the plaza from casual pedestrian traffic drew the most fire in online comments and during public feedback sessions.

Some of the approximately 320 attendees at Tuesday night’s session called the “postmodern” design “sterile.” One compared it to the fabled Emperor’s New Clothes, which drew applause and laughter from the crowd Tuesday night.

“The difference [is that the tailor] was trying to fool people,” said Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1). “We have experts that know what they’re doing.”

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) moderates the event as Preservation Design Partnership Design Director George Skarmeas responds to a community members concern.
District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño (center) moderates the meeting as Preservation Design Partnership Design Director George Skarmeas (left) prepares to answer a question from a concerned attendee. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The overwhelming response from the community has prompted organizers to hold a third input session at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center on Tuesday, May 2 at 6 p.m. in Room 301.

This was the second of two public meetings scheduled before the “preliminary vision” was to go to City Council for approval on May 11, in time for the Legislature to consider allocating another $75 million in funding towards the project. Designers and backers stressed that these plans for the physical space were subject to modification and that the programming elements for the plaza will be part of future steps in the multi-year process.

“We all have to remember this is a conceptual plan this is not a baked plan that we’re finished with,” said Gene Powell, Alamo Management Committee tri-chair, who is also a member of the Alamo Endowment Board. The Endowment is charged with raising about $225 million in philanthropic funds to complete the redesign.

More than 50 people signed up to speak Tuesday night, and they were asked to keep their comments to about three minutes – most did. By 8 p.m., only about 25 people had spoken.

While some attendees on Tuesday praised some elements of the design – the displays of the original walls under glass in the ground, shaded acequias and walkways, and the 130,000 sq. ft museum were among the most popular – challenges still remain in citizens’ hearts and minds.

Public leaders of the effort and design team members answered questions and, at times, defended elements of the design that they said were keeping with the visioning and guiding principles for the plan that were completed by the 21-member Alamo Plaza Advisory Committee and adopted by City Council in October 2014 after several public meetings.

The design is meant to protect and honor the sacred site, said George Skarmeas, director of Preservation Design Partnership (PDP) who is leading the design team, and the “10,000 years of history … under our feet” before and after the 1836 Battle of the Alamo.

Philadelphia-based PDP was hired by the City of San Antonio, the Texas General Land Office (GLO), and the Alamo Endowment to design the multi-million dollar joint master plan for the historic site.

Community members criticized the plan for not including enough entry and exit points to the plaza – the current design has one primary entrance to the courtyard and a few secondary entrances to the museum and garden behind the church – and not including enough shade.

Some audience members suggested that a more “historic looking” wall be built, but Skarmeas explained that the security of the glass walls will serve to protect the delicate artifact that is the Alamo, yet will preserve the “precious ability that you have today to have a visual connection.”

The audience was not convinced that the additional 120 trees along the boundaries of the courtyard would provide enough shade for visitors in the courtyard.

Under the plan, the 60-foot Cenotaph would be moved stone by stone to a spot that designers and some historians say is more befitting of the monument to the lives lost during the historic 1836 Battle of the Alamo: at the location of a funeral pyre, where the dead were burned, off of Commerce Street.

Some community members, like Brad Brewer, see the decision to move the Cenotaph as “more [of an] aesthetic preference than a historic attempt.”

What’s clear is that San Antonians have a “visceral feeling about their ownership” of the Alamo, Powell said, but the GLO – and, therefore, all 20 million Texans – actually own the site. “How do we maintain this place for San Antonians [and Texans] to enjoy but at the same time return the reverence and sanctity to the place?”

Powell’s comments on restoring the dignity to the grounds also drew applause from the audience.

Alamo Endowment Member Gene Powell gives remarks in front of The Alamo. Photo by Scott Ball.
Alamo Endowment Chairman Gene Powell gives remarks following the signing of an Alamo Master Plan contract in October 2015.

The new physical design of the space would separate that feeling of hallowed ground from the “free speech” use that the front of the Alamo is used for today, Skarmeas said. The plaza has hosted everything from abortion protests to gun rights rallies to concerts and Fiesta ceremonies, but the master plan would move most of those outside the southern wall of the courtyard – still in view of the Alamo, but not right in front of it.

Click here to view various presentations on the evolving master plan given to the public and City officials.

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org