On Thursday, San Antonio City Council voted unanimously to approve the “Reimagine the Alamo” master plan — although not without questioning some of the plan's more controversial design decisions and addressing concerns about public access to the plaza.
While the final plan has yet to be seen, a few things are clear at this point: two blocks of Alamo Street and two blocks of Crockett Street will be closed, the Cenotaph will be repaired and moved from the Plaza to a yet-to-be-determined location, the mission and barracks will be restored, and buildings in the “Crockett Block” across from the current Plaza, which contains Ripley's Believe It or Not, will be claimed by the project and forged into a museum.
After three heated public hearings on Alamo Plaza's future, Assistant City Manager Lori Houston pointed to some of the changes the Alamo Management Committee has made in hopes of addressing citizen concerns. The plans will ensure public access to the mission, she told council members. In fact, Houston said, the plan expands acreage available to the public from 2.2 to 9.5 acres.
Houston also said the plan is for Bonham Street to open twice a year to accommodate parades, such as the Battle of Flowers. More than a hundred new trees will be planted within the plaza, and 15 existing trees will be temporarily removed while construction is underway and then replanted to their original spots. The South Gate of the Alamo will be the primary entrance into the compound, though not the only one.
Houston later confirmed that under the current plans, people would not be able to gather or protest in front of the Alamo mission itself. This, Houston said, would preserve the iconic backdrop as a place of honor and respect. People looking to practice their First Amendment rights will be allowed, instead, to gather “a couple feet away."
Three Council members — Ron Nirenberg, Shirley Gonzales, and Rey Saldaña — took issue with that, and worried the Alamo Management Committee intended to curtail public gatherings within the plaza. Nirenberg said that while he was “very supportive” of the overall plan, he urged that “civil disobedience is a part of the Alamo’s history, and part of its history that we have to respect.”
Gonzales tried to amend the plan by adding a "guiding principle" so that the plaza would “remain dedicated to its historic use as a public hearing space.” Her amendment, which only Nirenberg and Saldaña supported, didn't pass.
Gonzales says there appears to be a concerted effort to limit what some might consider "inappropriate activity," like protesting, in front of the Alamo.
“I’ve been in enough behind-the-scenes meetings to understand that there is a definite desire to limit activity in the plaza," she told council members. "There's mention of guards around the plaza."
City Manager Sheryl Sculley's response: guards, like the ones that stand watch outside city council meetings, are just a fact of life now.
Meanwhile, outside the doors of the meeting, a group of residents gathered to protest what they saw as a threat to their civic rights. One leader in the group, Rebecca Flores, said that the plans to keep people from the steps of the Alamo would unjustly control and corral citizens, and ultimately only provide tourists with rosier pictures of the Alamo City.
Plans for controversial glass walls encasing the plaza were not included in Thursday's decision, but it was news to several council members that they won't have a final vote on some of the particular design decisions as planners move forward with the redesign. The task of designating materials for a wall, Houston said, will be left to the city's Historic and Design Review Commission. Houston also emphasized that public hearings would still be held and the 21-member Citizens Advisory Committee would still be consulted in order to gather input for the “design process.”
Despite lingering questions over what the final product will look like, all ten council members voted for the master plan, in part due to the time crunch to get funding from the state. The city has asked for $75 million from the state lawmakers this session to start the expensive redesign (which will total $450 million), and without concrete approval that funding could not have been secured. Even with state money, the Alamo Endowment will still have to fundraise some $200 million.
“I don’t know when we’re going to have this opportunity again, because we have so many pieces in place,” said councilwoman Rebecca Viagran, referencing the state funds and the cooperation between the city and the state's General Land Office.
“I am going to trust that what you are telling us here today is the truth, but not only that, I will continue to stay engaged," she told Sculley. "I will continue to hold us all accountable, so we can make sure that we get this right.”