Don’t mea­sure Alamo plan on per­fec­tion

San Antonio Express-News (Sunday) - - Metro - GIL­BERT GAR­CIA

Five years ago, I mod­er­ated a fo­rum at the Uni­ver­sity of Texas at San An­to­nio Down­town Cam­pus on the fu­ture of Alamo Plaza. It didn’t take long for things to get con­tentious.

You had one fac­tion at­tack­ing the pan­elists, in­clud­ing then-Mayor Julián Cas­tro, for des­e­crat­ing Na­tive Amer­i­can burial grounds. You had busi­ness in­ter­ests fret­ting that a re­de­vel­oped Alamo Plaza would mean the up­root­ing of tourist at­trac­tions such as Ri­p­ley’s Be­lieve It or Not! Od­di­to­rium and Tomb Rider 3D.

You had some at­ten­dees eager to re-cre­ate the foot­print of the Alamo com­pound at the time of the leg­endary 1836 siege. And you had oth­ers who wanted the site to ac­knowl­edge the Span­ish and Mex­i­can his­tory pre­dat­ing the bat­tle for Texas in­de­pen­dence.

There was gen­eral agree­ment, how­ever, on one cru­cial point: Alamo Plaza, in its cur­rent form, is un­sat­is­fac­tory, both as a his­tor­i­cal site and a mod­ern civic space.

It’s worth keep­ing that fact in mind over the next week, as the City Coun­cil pre­pares to vote on an am­bi­tious Alamo Plaza re­design plan.

The vote will be the cul­mi­na­tion of a three­year process that has brought to­gether the city, the Gen­eral Land Of­fice of Texas and the Alamo En­dow­ment Board in an un­prece­dented co­op­er­a­tive ven­ture. The state has com­mit­ted $106 mil­lion to the project, with the city al­lo­cat­ing $38 mil­lion and the en­dow­ment look­ing to raise about $200 mil­lion.

It would ben­e­fit this process if all of us mea­sured the Alamo in­ter­pre­tive plan not by a stan­dard of aes­thetic and his­tor­i­cal per­fec­tion that will never be at­tain­able but as part of a sin­cere ef­fort to trans­form a his­toric site in des­per­ate need of trans­for­ma­tion.

Truth­fully, I didn’t need the ex­pe­ri­ence of the 2013 fo­rum to know that San An­to­ni­ans are ul­tra-pos­ses­sive about the Alamo.

All you have to do is go back to the 1907 con­tro­versy over a pro­posal from a St. Louis ho­tel com­pany to raze the Hugo-Sch­meltzer build­ing, at the site of the old mis­sion’s Long Bar­rack, to make room for a park.

You could re­visit the lu­nacy over the 1969 Alamo Plaza film­ing of the po­lit­i­cal spoof “Viva

Max,” so up­set­ting to the pres­i­dent of the Daugh­ters of the Repub­lic of Texas that she tried to get a court in­junc­tion to shut down the film. The film’s star, Peter Usti­nov, re­sponded by say­ing, “It’s come as a com­plete sur­prise to me that the cra­dle of Texas lib­erty still has ba­bies in it.”

There’s also the 1988 drama over the IMAX film “Alamo — The Price of Free­dom,” which played at the River­center mall and en­raged lo­cal Chi­cano ac­tivists over its fail­ure to rec­og­nize the role of Te­janos in the Alamo story. The con­tro­versy led to boy­cott threats against Luby’s Cafe­te­rias and

Pace Foods, two back­ers of the film.

The most com­mon word ut­tered dur­ing each of these pub­lic con­flicts has been “des­e­cra­tion,” a term that we as­so­ciate with sa­cred ob­jects.

That’s what the Alamo means to San An­to­ni­ans.

Given that emo­tional fer­vor, only the will­fully naive could have ex­pected the cur­rent Alamo Plaza re­design process to go smoothly. Sure enough, we’ve heard an­gry com­plaints about ev­ery­thing from the pro­posed re­lo­ca­tion of the 1940s-era Ceno­taph to the clo­sures of parts of Alamo, Hous­ton and Crock­ett streets.

The fact re­mains, how­ever, that this has been a model of how a pub­lic re­design process should work. We’ve seen more than 50 pub­lic meet­ings and 200 stake­holder gath­er­ings, with in­put from a 26-mem­ber Cit­i­zens Ad­vi­sory Com­mit­tee and plenty of open dis­cus­sion about what shape the new de­sign should take.

When lo­cals right­fully ob­jected to the 2017 Master Plan con­cept of glass walls sur­round­ing the plaza, the idea was nixed. When peo­ple com­plained about the re­lo­ca­tion of the Ceno­taph, its pro­posed site was moved closer to its cur­rent spot.

The pro­posed re­de­vel­op­ment will in­clude a his­tor­i­cal mu­seum that has the po­ten­tial to tell the full 300-year Alamo story, a lush pub­lic space for foot traf­fic, restora­tion of the Alamo church and Long Bar­rack and the re­claim­ing of the com­pound’s his­toric foot­print.

These are el­e­ments that ev­ery­one should be able to sup­port.

The street clos­ings will bring in­con­ve­nience, but they’re nec­es­sary to re­claim the Alamo foot­print.

Mov­ing the Ceno­taph has riled tra­di­tion­al­ists, but they should know that the mon­u­ment’s cur­rent site does not ac­tu­ally mark the spot where the bod­ies of the Alamo’s de­fend­ers were burned.

Some peo­ple are ner­vous about the city leas­ing Alamo Plaza to the state for 50 years, but it’s purely a prac­ti­cal man­age­ment move that re­tains own­er­ship rights with the city.

Ul­ti­mately, the one le­git­i­mate con­cern is the plan to sur­round the plaza with rail­ings. The idea is to di­rect vis­i­tors to a sin­gle point of en­try, which will en­cour­age them to take in the full Alamo Plaza ex­pe­ri­ence. None­the­less, it’s a bit of a jolt for peo­ple ac­cus­tomed to open ac­cess to the plaza.

With­out a doubt, those pre­cise de­tails need to be ironed out. But we also need to re­mind our­selves of an old maxim: Don’t let the per­fect be the en­emy of the good.

Wil­liam Luther / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

The City Coun­cil is ex­pected to vote this week on a re­design plan for Alamo Plaza that has been three years in the mak­ing.

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