Has Alamo Plaza fallen in the hands of ‘reverential’ caretakers?

New signs directing riders of scooters, bikes and skateboards to steer clear of Alamo Plaza are a welcome change from the Texas General Land Office, which assumed a long-term lease of the plaza on Jan. 1. The state has also opened a small welcome center to help guide visitors, who no longer must endure the rants of street preachers….

These are all small changes, foreshadowing much larger ones. Although small, these changes already have made Alamo Plaza a more respectful place where visitors can reflect on the historic battle and feel the weight of history.

They also portend bigger changes for the site that will bring proper reverence. Streets will be closed. Carnivallike businesses will be moved….

These initial small changes have already made a welcome difference.

“Changes at Alamo Signal Bigger Ones,” Editorial, San Antonio Express-News, March 5, 2019

The goal is to encourage visitors to reflect on the sacrifices and struggles for Texas independence without those modern-day distractions….

“Alamo Plaza is being transformed into a place of dignity and reverence,” Karina Erickson, interim communications director with the Land Office, said in an email.

“Alamo Plaza Makeover Underway,” Scott Huddleston, San Antonio Express-News, February 19, 2019

March 6, 1836. A date seared in the memory of all Texans and many others around the world as the date the Alamo fell. So March 6 seemed an appropriate time to witness this new “reverential” treatment of Alamo Plaza now that the City of San Antonio ceded the city’s historic park to the management of the State of Texas.

The reenactors of the battle who were still around were downright friendly. Despite the fact that they had been up since the wee hours of the morning to “kill” or “be killed” at dawn, they somehow still rallied to patiently answer any visitor’s questions in as much detail as the inquisitive one desired.

But, what slams the visitor in the face no matter what approach to the plaza is taken is the fire-engine-red “The Alamo Welcome Center” plopped down in the middle of it by the new stewards from General Land Office. This booth appears almost carnivalesque, particularly given its dignified location.

In fairness, I took a photo of David Crockett (Yes, that really is his name, and he says he is the original’s third-great-grandson.) in front of the Alamo to demonstrate it is still possible to snap a photo of the former chapel without the red shed intruding. But as you can see from numerous other angles, it is very much in the way.

But surely it must serve a very important purpose. If you examine the front view, you might notice a video screen running. At the moment this image was taken, the carved figures of Alamo heroes on the Cenotaph are captured for visitors to observe. Wait, they can see the actual Cenotaph about 50 steps away.

There also is a brand new (not to be confused with the large Alamo Gift Shop adjacent to the Alamo) Official The Alamo Store located less than 50 steps away in the handsome limestone Crockett Block. Official The Alamo Store occupies a space right next to the San Antonio Visitor Information Center. The purpose of the red attention-getting booth must be pretty urgent if it serves needs neither of those could meet.

Naturally, it turns out, that the function of the Welcome Center is not simply to extend a Texas-size howdy to visitors. It is sales. While entry to the Alamo is free, the purpose of the Welcome Center is to serve as a stop sign before entering to convince you to open your wallet and purchase tickets for a tour. This will be so much easier after the General Land Office fences off the plaza to ensure everyone is funneled through one entrance to achieve maximum solicitation opportunities prior to reaching the Alamo door.

One could argue that this red wart is not a permanent structure. It can me moved, so is harmless to the integrity of the historic site. But if it does not get moved to attain the proper reverential mood and sense of authenticity during the all-important commemorations of the 13-day siege of the Alamo, it probably is not budging any time soon.

In the meantime, how many people per month are subjected to the sight of this sales booth in front of the Alamo? Conservatively, way more than 200,000 people monthly get their first glimpse of the Alamo through the openings in the Welcome Center.

Among other “improvements” is a long bank of illuminated vending machines located at the rear of the Alamo property in a concession area, the area where visitors are encouraged to visit to view a free film. Sadly, not a raspa stand among them.

If the Welcome Center is evidence of the state’s tasteful approach to design, we all should worry. Many San Antonians still hope a decision will be made to reuse the state-owned historic landmarks stretching along the west side of Alamo Plaza from the Crockett Block to the former Woolworth’s as the site of a new Alamo Museum. (Visit the website of the San Antonio Conservation Society to learn more about the coalition to save the former Woolworth’s.) because of its crucial role in peaceful integration in San Antonio in 1960. One of the major objections offered to doing so is the different levels of the floors in the buildings complicate inner connectivity. Architects facing equal or larger such challenges have managed to give us the San Antonio Museum of Art and numerous successful examples of adaptive reuse at the Pearl.

One of a triumvirate of decision-makers affecting the future of Alamo Plaza is District One Council Representative Roberto Trevino. In another editorial this week, the Express-News sought to portray him as an ardent preservationist:

As an architect, Roberto Treviño wears his love for old buildings on his sleeve.

“Approve Beacon Hill Agreement,” Editorial, San Antonio Express-News, March 6, 2019

The Welcome Center fails to inspire confidence in the design standards to be applied in the coming year or two or in the General Land Office’s sincerity in considering sparing the landmarks on the west side of the plaza.

Community trust would be somewhat enhanced by the immediate removal of the booth. Even put it to adaptive reuse where it belongs: The Alamodome Parking Lot for the upcoming Fiesta Carnival.

Alamo CEO applying armtwisting pressure to secure gated plaza

Alamo CEO Doug McDonald said the City Council must approve the lease with the Land Office before the state will hire a museum designer.

“A major turning point for the Alamo Plaza redesign comes Thursday night,” Scott Huddleston, Express-News, August 29, 2018

So now, Alamo management is trying to blackmail the San Antonio City Council into turning over its public park. The disposition of Alamo Plaza should have little to do with the awarding of the museum design contract. There has been no talk of its construction within that “sacred” space.

What does affect the architectural design project is whether it is build-from-scratch or adaptive-reuse. The Alamo did not release the request for qualifications for an architectural historian to assess the significance of the three buildings on the west side of the plaza until a week ago. The RFQ claims earlier assessments are out of date. No mention is made of their potential candidacy for adaptive-reuse. It is a thinly veiled request for a study slanted toward finding excuses to demolish the historic landmarks.

Rather than letting the Texas General Land Office hold the museum hostage in exchange for San Antonio’s public park, the City of San Antonio should withhold any lease on the land without agreement from the State of Texas to respect our designated landmarks.

And then there is the issue of fencing in Alamo Plaza, funneling everyone through one non-historical access point conveniently located by the museum entrance to encourage the purchase of admission tickets and rental of audio guides for the Alamo and its plaza. To try to soften this closure, the barriers restricting public access are now called a “combination of architectural elements” by District 1 Council Representative Roberto Trevino.

Trevino’s justification for restricting access to one point during “special events,” according to a report by Paula Schuler on San Antonio Heron, is “having three access points open at all times could be costly.” We are unsure why unlocking a gate to the public is so costly, but we do know erecting no fences, aka “architectural elements,” is free.

And, while Trevino earlier signed his name to an op-ed saying barriers would only be used during “special events,” he has redefined that phrase. He is quoted on San Antonio Heron:

What we wrote was that the site needed to be maintained as a civic space aside from special or schedule events. And so that, I think, is addressed by what we’re telling you: The museum hours are special scheduled and special events. Non-museum hours, it’s open.

Wait, the Alamo is open seven days a week. So, in the Mr. Rogers’ spirit, Trevino is proclaiming everyday is “special.” How special.

The time for public input is limited. The Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee (advice often ignored) is expected to vote on the plan tonight, with no opinions from the peanut gallery permitted.

According to Huddleston, the procedure that will follow is:

If approved then, the plan will next be considered by a six-member Alamo Management Committee and a two-member Alamo Executive Committee composed of Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush.

It will be reviewed at open meetings of the city’s Historic and Design Review Commission, Planning Commission and the City Council. Review by the council could happen in mid-October.

Some elements of the plan, including relocation of the 1930s Alamo Cenotaph and demolition or significant alterations to three historic state-owned commercial buildings on the west side of Alamo Plaza, also would require approval of an antiquities permit by a 10-member Antiquities Board of the Texas Historical Commission and the full 15-member commission.

The monument and buildings are in the national Alamo Plaza Historic District created in 1977. Meetings of the board and full commission are open and include citizen input.

For the plan to be carried out, the state Land Office will become the manager of Alamo Plaza.

Alamo CEO Doug McDonald said the City Council must approve the lease with the Land Office before the state will hire a museum designer. The nonprofit Alamo Endowment can then begin active fund-raising for the plan. But McDonald said the project is on a challenging timeline for completion by 2024.

We trust the City Council will refuse to be bullied into ceding public parkland without adequate protections and reversionary clauses.

Just in case, though, please take every opportunity to protest the closing of Alamo Plaza and be on standby to place your bodies between the wrecking ball and the Crockett Block.