A sure sign the holiday season is upon San Antonio, even in this year of pandemic, will come Tuesday when the H-E-B Christmas Tree arrives at Travis Park.
Those who miss the longtime presence of the massive tree in Alamo Plaza each year should know that Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Council have it in their power without state approval or support now to proceed with the landscape master plan in and around the plaza. Once it’s completed, the H-E-B Christmas Tree can return to the Alamo Plaza, where so many believe it belongs.
My Sunday column likened the relationship between the City of San Antonio and the state of Texas as a troubled marriage after the Sept. 22 decision by the Texas Historical Commission to prevent the relocation of the Cenotaph, undermining years of work, trust, and collaboration. I called for a trial separation with the Texas General Land Office, which oversees the Alamo.
The City owns and controls the Alamo Plaza. It would be dangerous, perhaps disastrous, to close South Alamo Street and sign over control of the plaza for 100 years to the state right now, as envisioned in the original agreement. Anyone who watched Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick intervene politically to stop the relocation of the Cenotaph should understand that local trust in the state and its motives would not be wise at this juncture.
The state was not a partner in 2014 when City officials decided the time had come to reimagine the Alamo Plaza and, in the process, to expand the story beyond the 1836 Battle of the Alamo to include all that preceded that epic chapter in Texas history.
Those who feel threatened by efforts to tell the complete historical story should acknowledge that Texas Independence cannot be reduced to 13 days in 1836. San Antonians galloped south in 1813 to fight the Spanish at the Battle of Medina, and Mexican troops made incursions into San Antonio twice after 1836. Texas and San Antonio were not truly secured until the threat of U.S. troops overrunning Mexico City led to the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
The popular version of the Alamo story ignores that longer timeline and completely disregards the Spanish Mission era and earlier. That version and its attendant myths exclude the majority of people who call San Antonio home today, just as it excludes the central role their forebears played in building this city. A more complete telling of our rich history should not threaten anyone or any group. The Battle of the Alamo will always be at the heart of that story.
Those who opposed the Alamo Master Plan can now see South Alamo Street stay open and plans set aside to lower the plaza level in the battlefield footprint on the north side of the plaza.
Ironically, the dispute over the Cenotaph presents an opportunity for various local parties that opposed the Alamo Master Plan to support what can and should happen next. Right now all sides should agree to implement the elements of the plan design by Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Reed Hilderbrand landscape architects.
A shaded pedestrian way from Houston Street to Commerce Street can be accomplished in the next few years, which would enhance the plaza as an important civic gathering space.
Once completed, the newly opened and shaded plaza will only underscore the logic of moving the Cenotaph south where its scale will be more appropriate and the views of the Chapel improved. That’s a proposition that can wait for now.
Implementing the landscape plan to include the surrounding streetscapes will further enhance the overall attraction of the plaza to visitors and locals. The Losoya Street redesign can wait, as can the future relocation of the entertainment businesses that have long served as both a major tourist magnet and a tacky distraction to visitors interested in exploring history.
The City has the funds, the plan, and the authority to proceed with plaza improvements. Acting now will prevent six years of work from terminating in failure. Putting the state at arm’s length will give the City time to negotiate in its own best interest. Incremental improvements to the plaza that start now will position San Antonio to become a major attraction when Texas celebrates its bicentennial in 2036. A failure to improve the plaza between now and then will only underscore past failures.
What are we waiting for?