At around 5 p.m. Thursday, after five hours of debate culminated in the City Council voting 9-2 in favor of the Alamo master plan, after months of heated public meetings, District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño could final exhale.
He and Mayor Ron Nirenberg immediately shook hands and emitted the kind of joy professional athletes display after winning a championship. He then walked off the dais and embraced his mother a good 20 seconds, then members of his staff.
“A couple of weeks ago, I had a discussion with my uncle … about the Alamo, and I asked him what he understood,” Treviño said before the vote. “He said, ‘Quite honestly, very little.’ He didn’t understand how it’s connected to so many world events, how it’s connected to the many things that were happening on this side of the hemisphere.”
“The only way we can be victims to history is if we don’t understand it. This is going to help us understand our history here in San Antonio.”
By the time the Council voted, many of the plans’ opponents, who had secured their seat well before the meeting’s 9 a.m. start, had already left the Council chambers, either because they had other commitments to attend to, or because they already knew what the outcome would be. They were a mixture of conservationists who oppose any form of demolition to the three historic buildings—the Crockett, Palace and Woolworth—which remains a possibility; Alamo defenders descendants and Texas history groups who have pushed hard against the plan to relocate the Circa-1940 Cenotaph; and others who believe the railings and other barriers that will be used to recreate the Alamo compound footprint will mark the end of the plaza as a public space.
Joining the dissenters were District 9 Councilman John Courage and District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry, who both shared many of the same concerns as the opponents, and who both attempted to amend a 50-year lease (which contains two 25-year extensions) that will hand over control of Alamo Plaza from the city to the state of Texas, which already controls the Alamo grounds.
“I’m concerned that the public access to the plaza will be limited,” Courage told his Council colleagues. “It has been noted that this adds to the visitors experience. The tourists certainly, the residents, not so much. Rather than enhancements, the enclosure proposal will create a barrier to this citizens public civic space.”
Courage later moved to strike language in the lease that would relocate the Cenotaph from its current position in front of the Long Barrack to an undetermined place in front of the Menger Hotel. Following Courage was Perry, who attempted to amend language in the lease that would keep the Alamo grounds barrier-free.
Perry asked Assistant City Manager Lori Houston about the thought process behind having one primary entrance, roughly where the Crockett building stands directly across from the shrine, during museum hours, which Treviño has recently described as 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Houston, gleaning from the vision and guiding principles adopted in 2015 by the Alamo Plaza Advisory Committee, told Perry that visitors needed to be oriented as they enter the site—the exact point Treviño has made time and time again—to be able to tell its 300-year history.
“That way when someone walks onto the plaza, they immediately know they are on the historic mission plaza or the battlefield,” Houston said. “Right now, the visitor, whether they are a tourist or resident, they go straight to the church to enter what they believe to be the Alamo. We want to make sure people look at the Alamo as a place, not a building. And a primary entry point will help us do that.”
The plan describes two additional entrances—roughly by the Menger and Emily Morgan hotels—that could open up during high-traffic times. During non-museum hours, people could enter the grounds using six entry points.
Perry asked Houston to explain why the main entrance was not the same as the compound’s original south main entrance, especially when most visitors will be approaching the Alamo from Commerce Street.
“We’re trying to reimagine the whole plaza the way it was back then, but yet we’re not going to use the main entrance that was actually used … I don’t understand that,” Perry said.
Houston said public feedback last year showed concerns over how a south gate would affect north-south pedestrian traffic flow across the plaza.
During a back-and-forth with City Attorney Andy Segovia, Perry disagreed with the city attorney’s interpretation of the plan in relation to the 1871 deed that says the plaza should remain “dedicated for public use as a public space.”
“Again, I’m not a lawyer, the way I listen to that, we are not honoring that with this, to me it is not an open space—we’re closing it,” Perry said.
There was another debate among the Council members and Segovia about how Courage and Perry’s amendments would affect the lease. Segovia clarified that the Texas General Land Office, the Alamo’s current landlord, would back out of the lease if any part of it were altered.
Nirenberg strongly urged the rest of the Council to vote against the changes proposed by Courage and Perry as to preserve the city’s relationship with the GLO.
Both motions were voted down by all Council members except Courage and Perry.
In the audience, sitting behind the opposition, were members of One Alamo, a group that seemed comprised mostly by Alamo employees.
One of them, Sherri Driscoll, who has served as the Alamo’s director of education for about 14 years, talked about the need to make all of the plaza a reverential place, away from what she described as a circus-like atmosphere. She talked about how she takes students to the southwest corner of the fort, where, in 1836, William Barret Travis and James Bowie contemplated their options.
“I ask students to kneel down behind the wall and look back toward the Long Barrack and shrine,” Driscoll said. “I want them to put themselves it the shoes of the Alamo defenders. What’s their next move? Can they survive? Should they try to make a run for the Long Barrack or church? I ask them to imagine the sound of the artillery and muskets, and the sound of men dying around them. The bugles and drums of the Mexican army. When I do this, the children become quiet. They look at me intently, and they get it. They understand where they are and how important the ground they stand on is to Texas the world.”
“But when should this moment happen? It should happen for every visitor, the moment they step on the footprint, the moment their bus pulls up to the curb, the moment they come around the corner and see the historic buildings.”
Brandon Burkhardt, president of This is Texas Force, a group who has opposed the relocation of the Cenotaph, asked the Council why the city doesn’t do anything to regulate the street preachers and other distractions, similar to a point Courage made about how most of the plan could be accomplished with city ordinances.
“The city owns the plaza,” Burkhardt said. “Why don’t you have the Texas Rangers or SAPD out there 24 /7 to stop that.”
He also said about the Cenotaph, “We’ve told you time and time again to leave the Cenotaph where it is. The blood of the Alamo defenders soaked inside the walls on that ground . It didn’t soak outside by the band stand (the proposed relocation spot). It didn’t soak down the street. It didn’t soak 20 miles from here.”