December 1, 2020

$450 million overhaul of Alamo Plaza in jeopardy after historical commission moves to block monument relocation

Progress on the planned redevelopment of Alamo Plaza, a National Register of Historic Places-listed historic district in downtown San Antonio, came to a screeching halt late last month after the Texas Historical Commission struck down a request to relocate the Alamo Cenotaph, a 56-foot tall marble monument dedicated in 1940 that commemorates the roughly 200 Texian and Tejano lives lost at the Battle of the Alamo. The titular Spanish mission itself, the site of a bloody and weeks-long confrontation between the Mexican troops and the Alamo Defenders in 1836, is located just east of the cenotaph within the plaza.

The request, denied by the Commission with a 12-2 vote, would have entailed moving (and restoring) the deteriorating Alamo Cenotaph from its current site at the northern end of the plaza to a new location just a few hundred feet to the south near the historic Menger Hotel.

As reported by Texas Public Radio (TPR), the Commission’s decision leaves the $450 million redevelopment plan in a state of limbo as major aspects of the project are contingent on the relocation of the cenotaph. The San Antonio City Council originally approved the Alamo Plaza Master Plan in 2018.

In addition to moving the cenotaph, other city-approved elements of the overhaul include closing adjacent streets to traffic to allow for improved pedestrian movement, landscaping improvements, establishing an adjacent museum and visitors center, and forming a more comprehensive historic footprint of the site. The various tweaks and redesigns are meant to spur economic development in the area while also allowing for a more complete story of the Alamo to be told. This story, as envisioned under the master plan, would extend beyond the battle itself, a pivotal event in the Texas Revolution, to focus more on the history of the 18th-century mission and the Indigenous people of the region.

Following approval from San Antonio City Council, the city’s Historic Design and Review Commission also gave the master plan a proverbial thumbs up late last year, and it had received blessings from both San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Land Commissioner George P. Bush.

a historic mission building
The Alamo. (Texas State Library and Archives Commission/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

The Commission’s shock decision was proceeded by the urging of Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick to leave the cenotaph be—or at least for now. “So, let’s think big, let’s make San Antonio big, let’s do this right, let’s not rush in something today and vote to move the Cenotaph, that’s not what the people of Texas want,” he proclaimed.

This isn’t exactly true. Public opinion about the potential relocation of the cenotaph has been largely divided, as have opinions about the master plan itself. As noted by TPR, protective local sentiments regarding the 80-year-old monument have only increased after it was vandalized in late May with anti-white supremacy graffiti. (The memorial has been famously defaced by other means in the past.)

“This commission should remain committed and enthusiastic about working alongside the Alamo Trust to create a visitor experience worthy of our state’s most symbolic and indeed revered landmark,” the San Antonio Express-News reported Houston-based Commission chairman John Nau as saying during the hearing. “There is no question that the end result is worth this pain. The end result should be the Cenotaph located where the blood flowed.”

The decision from Nau and his fellow commissioners came as a gut-punch to the city officials, the Texas General Land Office, and the Alamo Trust, the three entities leading the public-private redevelopment of Alamo Plaza. The larger goal of the scheme is to revert the site’s footprint to more closely resemble the way it appeared in 1836 when the battle occurred—and, as mentioned, the memorial came along over 100 years later.

“Our goal has always been to restore the historic 1836 footprint,” Welcome Wilson Jr., chairman of the Alamo Trust, told the commission during the lengthy virtual hearing in September, noting that the Alamo itself serves as the key memorial to the battle. “The Cenotaph was not there in 1836 and the 1836 battlefield had not been reclaimed when they chose to locate in the plaza in 1940,” TPR reported Wilson as saying.

It’s unclear how the Trust will proceed considering that the implementation of the city-approved Alamo Master Plan is, as mentioned, dependent on the relocation of the cenotaph. As the San Antonio Business Journal quoted outgoing Alamo Trust CEO Douglas McDonald in advance of the commission’s project-imperiling vote: “It’s the gate that needs to be opened that allows the project to fully happen.”

A new, reimagined plan might have to be conceived and approved, although that could take time. There isn’t much time left considering that the idea was to complete the redeveloped Alamo Plaza ahead of the 300th anniversary of the Alamo in 2024. To those involved, going back to square one at this point seems inconceivable.

“With this failing today and the project not being executed the way it was prescribed as city council voted on it in 2018, it puts the whole the whole project in jeopardy,” District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño, the lead council member involved with the project, said following the vote. Congressman Will Hurd was also vocal in his disappointment over the Commission’s decision.

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