The owner of a downtown bar that the state wants to acquire for the new Alamo museum said Thursday he is going to stand his ground.
Now the City of San Antonio is moving to seize the property near Alamo Plaza through the condemnation process and eminent domain laws, a municipality’s right under the law to take property for public use.
Vince Cantu, the owner of Moses Rose’s Hideout, is at odds with the Alamo Trust and the Texas General Land Office (GLO) over selling the property he’s owned since 2015, a structure located next to the Woolworth Building that’s set to become a museum. The property has become a stumbling block in the joint effort by the city, state and Alamo Trust to construct the $150 million Alamo Visitor Center and Museum, part of a $388 million plan to redevelop Alamo Plaza.
In pursuing legal avenues to acquire the property, the city is fulfilling its obligation under the terms of the agreement with the GLO and the trust, said City Attorney Andy Segovia. But it’s not the first time the city has initiated the condemnation process using eminent domain.
“The good news is once we initiate those usually there’s a been a follow-up negotiation process with the owners, and before we get too far down the path, we usually negotiate an actual purchase price for the property,” Segovia said.
Moses Rose’s Hideout, located at 516 E. Houston St., stands in the way of a planned loading dock and access to the museum galleries in the 1921 Woolworth Building.
After acquiring other buildings in Alamo Plaza, the Alamo Trust has since 2016 made several attempts to purchase the bar property.
But Cantu said offers from the trust, initially based on the building’s appraisal value, did not reflect what he feels his property would be worth once the plaza redevelopment project is completed. And he said he fears losing his livelihood if he’s forced to give up the bar.
Construction on the museum is scheduled to start in June and be completed in 2025 or 2026. It is expected the project will boost visits to San Antonio and the Alamo, one of the state’s top tourist attractions.
Phillips Entertainment, the owner of several attractions in the plaza, has already vacated the historic Woolworth and Palace buildings after making a deal with the GLO in February. The city’s tourism bureau also plans to close its visitor center in the plaza on March 31, said a Visit San Antonio spokeswoman.
Negotiations with Cantu, however, have “reached an impasse,” said Jonathan Huhn, spokesman for the Alamo Trust, the Alamo’s nonprofit steward.
“Mr. Vince Cantu has refused our offers and has not come to the table to negotiate in good faith,” Huhn said in an email. The trust is now urging the City of San Antonio to “explore the option to acquire the property” so the project can move forward.
Power of eminent domain
Cantu asserts there never was a negotiation effort on the part of the trust or then-Land Commissioner George Bush after the trust offered him $2.5 million and later $3.5 million after a second appraisal of the property. “What table are they talking about?” he said.
“I came up with that price at their encouragement, and since then, we’ve never sat down and said, ‘Hey, your price is too high. Your price is too low. Let’s talk about this.’”
Though he made several counteroffers, officials with the Alamo Trust did not respond, he said. “I would just email them back, refusing their offer, telling him why and that was that,” he said.
In a meeting with Alamo Trust CEO Kate Rogers that Cantu represented as a casual discussion about the property, trust officials ended the meeting by saying they hoped a deal could be struck before the power of eminent domain was used.
“They would always sort of imply they had the power to do that,” Cantu said.
Though the GLO does not have the authority to exercise the condemnation process that leads to eminent domain, the state constitution grants the right of eminent domain to the city and county when a property is needed for public benefit or necessity, including economic development.
The GLO did not respond to a request for comment.
In the case of Moses Rose’s Hideout, if City Council votes in favor of an ordinance to start the condemnation process, the case would go to Probate Court, which would appoint three commissioners to hear evidence from the property owner and the Alamo Trust, Segovia said.
“We need to show that it’s for a public purpose — we can’t just take properties that are convenient,” Segovia said. “The benefit to the community is having a world-class Alamo campus that has a visitor center, that has a museum, has all the historical resources that allow the community to learn about not only what happened in 1836, but the whole history of that area.”
The process takes about 90 to 120 days and results in a determination of the property’s fair market value. Segovia said he hopes it will result in a purchase price that everyone can agree on so the redevelopment plan can get underway.
City Council is set to take up the issue to initiate condemnation proceedings — the first step in the eminent domain process — at its Jan. 26 meeting. Cantu said he learned about the eminent domain ordinance only after reading an Express-News story published Tuesday.
After leasing the property for five years, Cantu said, he bought it in 2015 for about $1 million and made many improvements to what he described as a “rat shack” before he opened the bar.
It’s named after Louis “Moses” Rose, the purported “coward of the Alamo,” who fled the besieged fortress rather than fight, according to legend.
Cantu said he met in 2020 with Douglass McDonald, then-CEO of the trust, about selling the property and declined a written offer matching a market-value appraisal. He said McDonald then asked him to name a price and he responded with $10 million for the building plus $5 million for the business. An offer at appraisal value from the trust followed.
Cantu has since raised his price to $17 million, saying he’s been “threatened with eminent domain three different times and I was sick of it. So I added a fee, telling the GLO/Trust that I would add $1 million per year, for every year I was threatened with eminent domain.”
Contrary to his bar’s namesake, Cantu plans to keep fighting. He has contacted council members and hired San Antonio lawyer Dan Eldredge.
“One thing that everyone seems to be forgetting is that in Texas we have what’s called the ‘Landowner’s Bill of Rights,'” Eldredge said. “And it specifically says, in the law, that when an entity with the power of eminent domain wants to acquire property and approaches anyone about acquiring property, they have to disclose that.”
The trust and the GLO have “skirted around that law,” he said, by saying they don’t have the authority to seize the property but they “have friends” who do. “That’s certainly unfair, if not violative of the law,” Eldredge said.
Eldredge and Cantu said they have not been contacted by the City Attorney’s office.
“We intend on being civil and we intend on being gentlemen in this deal,” Eldredge said. “[Cantu has] benefited from having a business right next to the Alamo for many, many years. … He’s not an enemy of the Alamo, probably more just not a fan of the way things have happened.”
The bar, which is usually open Thursdays through Sundays, will be closed this weekend. Two of Cantu’s bartenders quit “after this thing came out in the newspaper,” he said.
He sees the tragic irony in government attempting to take his property for a museum about the Battle of the Alamo and the shrine of Texas liberty.
“I kind of know how the Alamo defenders must have felt,” he said.