'We followed all the rules ... and still fell victim to politics,' Councilman Treviño on Alamo plan's demise

by Ben OlivoSeptember 27, 2020
Texas Rangers close the Alamo ground on Sept. 17, 2020.
The Alamo grounds are closed on Sept. 17. Photo by Andrea Moreno | Heron contributor

Nearly two years ago, in an interview that got somewhat heated on the eve of the City Council vote to approve the $450 million Alamo master plan, I asked District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño: If he could change any part of the public process, would he?

"I wouldn't even dare think of a way I would change it," Treviño told me in October 2018.

A few days later, the City Council approved the plan, a vote so historic, one that had received so much pushback from a diverse range of groups, that there was almost an exhalation, Treviño, Mayor Ron Nirenberg, and other supporters celebrating the way pro athletes do when they traverse the gauntlet of the regular season and playoffs on the way to a championship. A sigh of relief for the partnership of the City of San Antonio, the Texas General Land Office and the Alamo Endowment.

This past Tuesday was a different feeling.

The Texas Historical Commission (THC) denied the city's permit request to repair and relocate the 1930s-era Alamo Cenotaph from its current location in front of the Long Barracks to in front of the Menger Hotel. The denial effectively kills the Alamo master plan, according to the city—at least for now. Treviño, who serves on the Alamo Management Committee, and who's been the face of the project in recent years, and city officials have said without relocating the Cenotaph, the overall master plan doesn't work.

The plan is to reclaim the Alamo footprint, to reorient visitors who enter the site, not just the church, and to give the site's various epochs equal billing—from the Coahuiltecan tribes who lived on the land even before the Spanish established the Mission San Antonio de Valero, aka the Alamo, in 1718 to the plaza's modern history—not just the famous 1836 battle. The plan also includes a new museum and the restoration of the church and Long Barracks, which is already underway.

Those who oppose the relocation say the monument to the fallen from the Battle of the Alamo should remain where it is, within the footprint of the fort, where the defenders died—and not relocated outside the gates, where the Mexican army laid siege for 13 days.

On Saturday, I asked Treviño the same question I asked him two years ago: Would he change anything about the process?

"I think we made all the necessary points, followed all the rules," Treviño said, "and, most importantly, we made a compelling case: Telling the complete story at the Alamo is at the heart of everything we are doing. Obviously, I'm disappointed that the THC does not see that."

My question was based on the premise that the THC's denial was somehow tied to the perception by many that the plan lacked a true public process. Throughout the master planning process, in 2018, several groups openly opposed the plan. This is Texas Freedom Force, which opposes relocating the Cenotaph, aka "The Spirit of Sacrifice," was the loudest. But there were others. One of them remains the Conservation Society of San Antonio, whose main concern is the preservation of the Woolworth, as one of the first Southern lunch counters to desegregate on March 16, 1960, and Crockett buildings.

"Over the past year, we’ve made numerous written requests for the Waite report and the Latimore report and we’ve made in-person requests for architectural concepts, but the constant reply is, 'Not ready yet'," Patti Zaiontz, the Conservation Society president, said in an email while referring to studies by the architectural firm of John G. Waite Associates and Trinity University associate history professor Carey Latimore, respectively. "Makes one wonder ... So, of course, we’re concerned about having a plan put out without any public input."

Treviño said those reports, one that examines the Woolworth building's history (Latimore) and the other that explores preservation options (Waite), are just now being completed. The team designing the actual museum, HKS Inc. (Dallas) and Machado Silvetti (Boston), has begun work, but it's been preliminary.

The museum's location is said to be where the Woolworth, Palace, and Crockett buildings stand across the plaza from the church facade. The Conservation Society's concern stems from the fact that the Woolworth's demolition was always been kept as an option.

Treviño said the emphasis was on the first phase, the relocation of the Cenotaph, to get that approved, before diving into the museum.

Treviño contends the public process was sound, and that the THC rejected the plan for other reasons.


'Victim to politics'

The THC meeting revealed two ends of the spectrum when it comes to how Alamo Plaza should be remade: the one Treviño endorses vs. that of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Treviño, citing the project's vision and guiding principles, crafted in 2014 by the Alamo Citizen Advisory Committee, says the strategy to remake the plaza has been one of inclusivity.

"Let's be clear, we've been inclusive," Treviño said. "We followed all the rules, and sadly you can do all those things and still fall victim to politics."

At the start of the 9-hour-plus THC meeting, Patrick gave an impassioned speech to commissioners, urging them to vote against the Cenotaph relocation, believing the Alamo Plaza makeover should focus on the 1836 battle.

"Those who want to tell a broader story, that story can be told as part of (the 1836 battle), for sure," Patrick said. "But that's not the main emphasis."

He continued, "Yes, it was only 13 days, that was the battle out of hundreds of years, but the most important 13 days in the history of Texas and Western civilization."

Treviño's rebuttal:

"Our goal is to tell the complete story of the Alamo, not a Hollywood dramatization."

Both sides have accused the other of introducing politics into the debate.

Treviño said the THC decision didn't come as a surprise. Commission Chairman John Nau, President and CEO fo Silver Eagle Distributors, told the councilman in March that he "didn't see a compelling reason why the Cenotaph had to move," according to Treviño.

"Everyone has known it's an up or down vote," Treviño remembers telling Nau, given that the entire plan, in the works since 2014, hinges on the Cenotaph relocation. "It's not an opportunity to change the plan that has been agreed upon."

"His response was simply, 'Well, every contract can be changed and every design can be changed.' I did everything I could to tell him or warn him that's not the case."

So, where does the plan go from here? Treviño declined to comment on the 50-year ground lease of the plaza between the City of San Antonio and the state. He said the Alamo Management Committee has met to weigh their options, and the Alamo Citizen Advisory Committee will meet this week.

"Nobody's saying everything was perfect, but we do feel like we had a good thing," Treviño said. "And certainly, I guess I'm left wondering if anybody thinks that the THC was impacted by process and not by politics."

Many in this debate seem to agree that the Alamo's current state is underwhelming, and that the plaza is in desperate need of a makeover worthy of the site's significance.

"For the moment the answer to the question of many Alamo visitors—'Is that all there is?'—remains a resounding yes," Assistant City Manager Lori Houston said in a statement after the THC vote.

Nau agrees with that sentiment; it seems to be the "how" where opinions clash.

"I'll go back to what so many people said today: As they walk out, they turn around and say, 'Is that all there is?'," Nau said as the meeting closed. "We cannot forget that's the image, and we need to work to help provide the totality. And with that, do I have a motion to adjourn?"

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Heron Editor Ben Olivo can be reached at 210-421-3932 | ben@saheron.com | @rbolivo on Twitter

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