Don’t measure Alamo plan on perfection
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.
The City Council is expected to vote this week on a redesign plan for Alamo Plaza that has been three years in the making.