The effort to overhaul the Alamo complex, which many had taken for dead last year, got a jump-start Thursday when City Council approved a deal with the state that will repurpose the historic Woolworth building and leave the Cenotaph in place.
The 10-1 vote will lease the plaza to the state of Texas for up to 100 years, clearing the way for construction of a new plaza to begin early next year, according to a presentation given at the council meeting by Assistant City Manager Lori Houston. Only a few regulatory hurdles remain, with the city’s plan for a new plaza expected to go before the city’s Historic and Design Review Committee in December.
“There are very few decisions that we make up here that might be remembered five, 10, 50 or 100 years from now. This is one of them,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said at the meeting. “We now have a collaboration moving forward, dedicated to the vision and guiding principles, that will really, I think, restore, preserve and dignify one of the most important pieces of land in the entire country.”
The lone dissenting vote came from District 1 City Councilman Roberto Treviño, who raised concerns over some of the lease’s terms, including a $50 million penalty the city would have to pay if it decided to terminate it. Council members only received copies of the lease on Monday and hadn’t had enough time to review it, he said.
“This lease amendment is a bad deal for the city–a bad deal financially, a bad deal culturally, and maybe a bad deal legally,” Treviño said. “We simply need more time to deliberate this decision.”
He proposed that council take more time to consider the agreement and discuss it at another meeting in May. The council voted 9-2 against his proposal, with District 10 City Councilman Clayton Perry joining him.
Treviño had played a leading role on the project until March, when Mayor Ron Nirenberg replaced him on two management committees with District 3 City Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran after a decision by the Texas Historical Commission last September to leave the Cenotaph in place.
The 56-foot marble Cenotaph, commemorating Alamo defenders such as Davy Crockett and William B. Travis, has been the largest of many stumbling blocks for the project. The last plan called for moving it 500 feet south to in front of the Menger Hotel, but it soon became a political lightning rod, with conservative groups and politicians such as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick saying its movement was part of a campaign to diminish the role of the defenders.
Treviño had staunchly opposed leaving the Cenotaph in place, saying it needed to be moved to create a “period-neutral” plaza where visitors could imagine what the site was like when it was a Spanish mission, a fort and the site of civil rights protests.
The Alamo Trust, the nonprofit that’s overseeing the Alamo master plan, plans to unveil a new exhibit on Friday at the plaza’s west end: The Losoya House, modeled from the home of defender José Toribio Losoya, featuring a replica of a cannon which fired upon the Mexican army.
Under the lease agreement, the city will fund the overhaul of the plaza itself. In a presentation to council, Erik Kramer of landscape architecture firm Reed-Hilderbrand described how a distinctive paving material, such as clay, could be set down across the plaza, “so that as you arrive, no matter where you’re coming from, you realize you arrive at a district which is unique and definitive in San Antonio. It is the Alamo District.”
Another paving material, perhaps limestone, could be laid over the former extent of the Spanish mission, he said. Native plants and rows of live oaks could help create a “sense of arrival.”
Local leaders have wanted to redevelop the Alamo complex for decades. The current effort began in 2015, when the city entered into an uneasy partnership with the state’s General Land Office and a nonprofit led by philanthropists and political donors, the Alamo Endowment, tasked with raising private donations.
Passions run high when it comes to the Alamo, and the parties involved have struggled to find common ground over a long list of issues, such as whether to open up the plaza to pedestrians and keep it open to Fiesta parades—and whether to focus its exhibits on the 1836 battle or take a broader look at its indigenous history and the role of slavery in the Texas Revolution.
One of the controversies surrounding the project is what will be done with the Woolworth building on Alamo Street, where a 1960 protest led to a peaceful desegregation of the department store’s lunch counter. The state of Texas purchased it and the neighboring Crockett building in 2015. In earlier plans, the prospect of their demolition to make way for a museum was left open, thus leading to public outcry.
The buildings will be “repurposed” in the current plan, Viagran said Thursday. In order to ensure this, the lease agreement splits the city-owned plaza into two parcels, and one of them, abutting the Woolworth, won’t be leased to the state until funding has been committed and design approved for a “world-class” visitors center and museum that repurposes the two buildings.
The lease stipulates that the General Land Office will “use its best efforts to tell the full story of the Texas Revolution and the Battle of the Alamo,” working with Tejano, indigenous and other cultural groups. The Battle of Flowers and the Fiesta Flambeau parade will be allowed to be held on the plaza, along with other events.
Last fall, following the Texas Historical Commission’s decision to keep the Cenotaph in place, nearly half of the board members resigned from the Remember the Alamo Foundation, a fundraising group linked with the Alamo Endowment. Roughly half of the project’s initial $450 million budget was expected to come from private donors. Treviño said on Thursday that he was concerned there would now be a budget shortfall, threatening the construction of the museum.
He said he hadn’t seen a breakdown of how the city’s $38 million commitment to the project would be spent, and he was worried that none of it would be used for improvements to Losoya Street, as had been called for in earlier plans.
District 5 City Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales voted for the plan, though she said there were things she didn’t like about it.
“I’ve always been offended in the conversations around the Alamo, because it’s always been this conversation that it isn’t good enough the way it is, and I always feel like that’s, sometimes, the way others think about our city, and if we aren’t careful, we think about it that way ourselves,” she said. “As we are coming out of this pandemic, one of the things that I hope we recognize is that we are a resilient city. We are a city that people want to visit.”
Richard Webner is a freelance journalist covering Austin and San Antonio, and a former San Antonio Express-News business reporter. Follow him at @RWebner on Twitter
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