After impassioned pleas on both sides of the issue, City Council approved an ordinance Thursday that allows for the seizure of a bar owner’s property to make way for the planned Alamo Museum and Visitor Center.

Nine of 11 council members voted in favor of acquiring the property — Moses Rose’s Hideout — at the corner of Alamo and East Houston streets owned by Vince Cantu through the condemnation process. 

The city acted on behalf of its partners in redeveloping Alamo Plaza — the Alamo Trust and the Texas General Land Office — after six years of negotiations failed. By law, the city can take property for public use, giving the owner adequate compensation for it.

Stating that the Alamo Trust had reached a “critical impasse,” with Cantu and the trust unable to agree on a price for the property, the Alamo Trust board asked the city to use eminent domain to acquire the bar.

“Without the acquisition of 516 E. Houston Street, designs for the civil rights exhibit, the Woolworth Lunch Counter recreation, and a 4-D theater would have to be abandoned, and a decade of planning and community collaboration would be lost,” the Alamo Trust board said in a statement. 

The council’s decision launches a condemnation process in which the parties are forced to appear in probate court to present their case. 

“The hope is that council taking this action will prompt, accelerate, encourage all parties to come to a resolution sooner rather than later,” said City Attorney Andy Segovia.

Cantu, who purchased the property 12 years ago, appeared before City Council to request a two-week delay to negotiate further with the Alamo Trust. 

“I’ve always been willing and I’ve always told the museum I am willing to talk,” he said. “I’m willing to sell my property. I’ve been waiting for six years for them to call me up and say, ‘Vince, let’s sit down and talk about your price.’”

He told the council that the issue, with its ties to the Alamo, has resulted in “overheated rhetoric,” and thus had caught the attention of Hollywood and national media outlets, including ABC News correspondent John Quiñones, a San Antonio native. 

‘I feel picked on’

Officials with the Alamo Trust have said Cantu, initially offered $1 million for his property, has rejected three separate offers and “refused to negotiate.” He rejected the most recent offer of $3.5 million, they said, a price it said exceeds the appraised, 10-year future value of the property.

Cantu said he never refused to sell his property and earlier countered with a price of $17 million, but acknowledged that he knew it was unlikely he would get that price. 

He has not been invited to a face-to-face negotiation, he said, and he hired an eminent domain attorney only after learning trust officials were pursuing the move.

On Thursday, Cantu called any action to take his property an injustice that had overtones of racial bias. 

“I feel a little bit picked on as a small, minority-owned business,” he said. “I feel a little bit picked on as a Mexican American in San Antonio. I feel like the state of Texas is asking you to do their dirty work.”

More than a dozen people with the Alamo Trust and the Alamo Management Committee, along with local developers and civil rights advocates, spoke on behalf of the trust and its efforts to acquire the property for the museum.

“We view eminent domain as a very serious matter,” said Kate Rogers, the Alamo Trust’s executive director. “But we feel it is necessary at this moment in time … in order to keep moving forward in a very positive collaborative direction.”

Rogers said the trust also was willing to pay Cantu for potential lost earnings, as it did in negotiating with the owners of Phillips Entertainment, which leased a number of properties for attractions located in Alamo Plaza.

That agreement resulted in nearly a year of free rent during those businesses’ final months in operation and a $9.4 million payout to Phillips and its attractions, according to documents obtained through a public records request.

The Moses Rose’s bar is situated next to the historic Woolworth Building in space where a loading dock and access is planned for the $150 million museum, a project that is set to begin construction in June. 

Trust officials estimated losses of $1.7 million in revenue if it can’t acquire the bar property, and plans for a civil rights exhibit will be scaled down and the 4-D theater won’t be built. 

“We need the whole space to tell the whole story,” said Diane Baird-Barger, a descendant of Alamo defender José Toribio Losoya.

The city attorney said that eminent domain is being considered because if a deal is not struck soon, it could impact the construction timeline. The museum is a key part of the $388 million redevelopment of Alamo Plaza designed to better showcase the Alamo.

Dave Petersen, interim president and CEO of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, asked the council to “save the Alamo Plan.”

Two council members vote no

Several council members lamented over the decision to use the power of eminent domain against a small-business owner but also supported the effort to move the process forward. 

“This time around, we want to get it right and we want to do it fairly,” said Councilwoman Phyllis Viagran (D3) of the Alamo redevelopment plan. “This is a necessary step we have to take. Some of us don’t like it but we’re going to take it in the best interest hope that we get to a resolution.”

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) called it “a very distasteful action” that goes against his opinions about property owners’ rights.  

“Having said that, I understand the importance of the Alamo and the plaza area and what we’re trying to accomplish here,” he said. “I’m really disappointed that this was not able to be settled and a deal struck.”

But two council members said they supported a two-week delay for negotiations to continue, citing the problems of property owner’s rights and the trust making plans that involve property it didn’t yet own. Council members Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) and Teri Castillo (D5) voted against the ordinance.

Castillo said the trust should take into account the windfall that the redevelopment is expected to bring to the city and state when offering Cantu a price for his property. 

“I would like for there to be consideration of that billion-dollar revenue that folks are speaking of that are coming to the Alamo [and] how he’s no longer going to benefit from that revenue, that walkability,” Castillo said. “There’s also a history in San Antonio, Texas, of land grabs, and I want to ensure that our small-business owners aren’t at risk of a present-day land grab.”

A vote on a motion by McKee-Rodriguez to grant a two-week delay in the matter failed. 

Mayor Ron Nirenberg also expressed his regret over the action but said he did not believe a two-week delay would resolve the issue.

“It is sad that we’re here, especially after more than a decade of planning this project,” Nirenberg said. “My hope is that, with this action of authorizing the use of eminent domain, that that will accelerate the efforts for folks to get a deal done.”

Also on Thursday, the council approved starting the eminent domain process on behalf of CPS Energy on a 7.2-acre parcel of land in northern Bexar County for the utility’s Scenic Loop Substation and Transmission Project.

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.