U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-San Antonio) wants the General Services Administration (GSA) in Washington to do its part in the development of the Alamo Plaza Master Plan. The GSA, the federal government’s procurement and real estate management arm, can best do so by selling or leasing one of the 9,600 buildings it manages around the country.
The building Doggett has in mind is the Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse at 615 E. Houston St. The Beaux Arts-style building has sat on the north edge of the Alamo Plaza since 1937. The U.S. Post Office still housed inside was the first air-conditioned post office in the country.
“What’s happening at the Alamo is exciting,” Doggett said. “As an important part of the original Alamo footprint, the Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building can play a valuable role in the ongoing development of this Texas treasure.”
The GSA is not known for its responsiveness to such proposals, so Doggett worked with Rep. John Culberson (R-Houston), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, to insert a paragraph into the 2017 general government appropriations bill calling on GSA officials to enter into talks with the State of Texas on a possible building sale or lease:
“The State of Texas is working to develop a Master Plan for the Alamo Mission that will preserve and interpret this historic shrine for future generations. With federally-owned buildings located adjacent to the Alamo Mission, the Committee encourages the GSA to be an active participant in the development of a Master Plan, including offering federal property for lease or sale to the State of Texas for fair market value.”
The building’s recent upgrades would mean it could be converted into an Alamo and Mission museum and visitor center with far less work than most period buildings would require.
But the multi-million dollar master planning effort, a collaboration between the City of San Antonio, the Texas General Land Office (GLO), and the Alamo Endowment, is still in the early stages of development – as is funding for the plan’s implementation. Some funding for plaza renovations have been proposed for the 2017-2022 Municipal Bond to the tune of $22 million. The City and State have already contributed substantial amounts, $17 million and $31 million, respectively, but nothing close to what could be an upward of $300 million project, according to rough estimates.
“We’re still deep in the middle of our discovery phase,” said Becky Dinnen, director of the Alamo for the GLO. “Nothing is confirmed for anything in the plan.
“We’re glad to have the enthusiasm and any support is certainly welcome,” Dinnen added, noting that Doggett has long been a friend of the Alamo. “But it’s way too early for us to jump in on what we should do (with that building). We appreciate any option available when we get to the place where we’re going to consider (museum locations).”
Even if the GSA agrees to convey the building, there’s no guarantee on how or if it will be used for the Alamo Master Plan – but it’s hard to imagine a plan that would ignore such an asset. The State purchased three historic buildings across from the plaza on South Alamo Street in December 2015, and officials remain equally cautious of indicating any intentions for those, too.
Today the Garcia building houses federal bankruptcy courts and several federal agency offices, some 200 federal workers in all. Visitors are required to pass through a security checkpoint in the lobby, a time-consuming inconvenience for someone who wants to buy stamps or mail a package. Traffic to the post office is thin, and the building feels empty with relatively few people coming or going.
The kind of legislative instruction to federal agencies that Doggett is using is common in Committee reports, he said during a recent visit home, as it’s not yet necessary to write those instructions into law.
“In previous months, I have inspected the space, talked with GSA, and worked with Commissioner George P. Bush and Rep. John Culberson,” he said. “We have strong, bipartisan agreement that the General Services Administration needs to do its part in enhancing the Alamo. The GSA should begin talks to determine how best to transition the Alamo experience into the federal building. With the specific report instruction that we have included with an appropriations bill already approved by the House, we are telling GSA, ‘Let’s get a move on.’”
If this instruction is not enough, Doggett said, stronger language can be used next year or GSA participation in the Alamo Plaza Master Plan could be written into law.
Even if GSA officials agree to talk, the building and adjacent multi-story garage will not be inexpensive. The building underwent a $56.6 million renovation that was completed in 2012 and earned a LEED platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council in recognition of efforts to make it more energy efficient. The building now boasts a green roof and solar panels. It’s the only building under GSA management with such a high LEED rating. At the time, officials said the annual energy savings would be nearly $90,000.
The building could be retrofitted to serve as the “Smithsonian-level” visitor center and museum that British rock musician Phil Collins prescribed in 2014 when he donated more than 200 Alamo artifacts to the Texas General Land Office. It’s widely considered the largest personal collection of Alamo memorabilia in the world and it will add to the public collection housed in the long barracks replica on the Alamo grounds and maintained by the General Land Office.
The GLO assumed management of the Alamo from the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT) in 2015 after the volunteer organization was found to be in extreme violation of its contract. The DRT has since moved its extensive Library Collection, the rights to which the DRT won through a lawsuit recently settled by Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush., from the Alamo grounds to the Federal Reserve Bank building.
Top image: The Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building (left) located at 615 E. Houston St. Photo by Scott Ball.