The renovation plans for the circa-1949 Alameda Theater, which has been closed since the 1980s, received final approval Wednesday from the Historic and Design Review Commission.
Construction work is scheduled to begin in the first quarter of 2020, and end in May 2021.
The theater, which is located on West Houston Street, next to San Pedro Creek, is being converted from a movie theater back into a performing arts space. During the Alameda's early years as one of the nation's premier Mexican-American performing arts venues, legends such as Pedro Infante, Cantinflas, and Rosita Fernandez graced the stage.
Much of the project is upgrading what's already there. Repairs to the neon marquee. Rehabbing existing lounges and restrooms. Restoring and returning the aluminum twin dancer statue to the main lobby.
"If something is broken, we will fix it. But if it's good, if it's solid, and there's no safety problems … we're going to leave it there as a testament to the history of building," Gary Martinez, a partner at D.C.-based OTJ Architects, which is leading the project, told the Heron in April.
Some parts of the theater will look different. The number of seats will be reduced to about 1,000; the theater opened with 2,400. Much of the upper balcony will be converted into a standing lounge area. And the stage will protrude into the crowd.
The painstaking process of reopening the Alameda Theater, which is estimated to cost around $20 million, is being lead by a nonprofit called the Alameda Theater Conservancy, which leases the theater from the city. The city and Bexar County are contributing a combined $10 million. Texas Public Radio (TPR), whose headquarters is being built in the Alameda's conjoined annex building, is contributing another $5 million.
The remainder will come from federal and state historic tax credits, as well as new market tax credits, said Trey Jacobson, the city's redevelopment officer.
While people are excited about the Alameda's comeback, some have expressed concern about the plan. At a public meeting in April, some artists and activists criticized the theater's smaller size in terms of seating, concluding that a reduction of seats would mean higher ticket prices. Others worried the theater might be inaccessible to smaller arts groups wanting to use the space.
At the time, Lori Houston, assistant city manager and conservancy board member, said the seat total was established in a "venue capacity study," which was written by Michael Kaiser, former interim director of the San Antonio Symphony, who also has served as interim director of the conservancy earlier this year.
"Where we feel there is a need is for that medium-sized theater between 1,000 and 1,500 seats," Houston said. "This facility has always been planned to be 1,000 and 1,500 seats, so we can accommodate the way that the millenials and others like to use facilities."
Addressing ticket prices, Houston said a business model had not yet been crafted.
The Alameda is one of several projects happening simultaneously in the west downtown area.
Construction of TPR's headquarters, which will include a blackbox theater, continues on the backend of the Alameda complex. Along the Alameda, workers continue to shape the next segment of the San Pedro Creek Culture Park, a $75 million endeavor that will include an outdoor theater across the creek from the Alameda. It's scheduled for completion in early 2021.
These projects touch the Alameda. Other projects sure to reshape west downtown are the expansion of the University of Texas at San Antonio, Weston Urban's continued development in the area, and the reconstruction of West Commerce Street.
Designed by Texas architect N. Straus Nayfach, the Alameda Theater was built in what used to be known as San Antonio's West Side, before Urban Renewal erased most of the neighborhood around it.
The design team behind the Alameda Theater's renovation is three months from finishing its work, and then a 14-month construction phase will begin, bringing the estimated completion timeline to August 2020, board members of the Alameda Theater Conservancy said Monday night at an open house.
The circa-1949 theater, 318 W. Houston St., which has been closed for nearly 40 years, will undergo a renovation that will cost at least $23 million.
The theater's lobby will endure most of the work, said Gary Martinez, a partner at OTJ Architects, the Washington, D.C.-based firm designing the renovations. The original carpet pattern of the lobby will be recreated; the silver colors of the walls brought back; and twin dancer statues will return from storage, cleaned and restored.
Currently, OTJ Architects is trying to find a chemical to best clean the theater without damaging the black-light murals created by Pedro Teran, a San Antonio muralist. Martinez said the goal is to retain as much of the original material as possible.
“I’m not looking to scrub every crack out of this building,” Martinez said. “The building has earned that.”
He continued, “If something is broken, we will fix it. But if it’s good, if it’s solid, and there’s no safety problems … we’re going to leave it there as a testament to the history of building.”
Some of the people who attended the open house, which was held at Guadalupe Theater on the near West Side, had gone to the movies at the theater in their youth. They praised the rehab.
But with the praise came questions of inclusion.
Marisela Barrera, an actress and writer, said the city needed to help the Latinx arts community through a facility reimbursement program, which would help smaller, nonprofit theater groups afford to rent the Alameda by reimbursing a percentage of theater rental fees through a government grant.
Graciela Sanchez, director of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, said the renovation needed more seating. The current plan is to install between 1,000 and 1,500 seats. The original Alameda Theater, which closed in the early 1980s, could seat 2,500 people.
“We need more seats to be able to be accessible, financially, to be able to offer $8 and $10 seats,” Sanchez said.
She continued about the potential for smaller groups to hold performances there, “When you cut 500 seats, or 1,000 seats, you’ve reduced our ability to figure out how ends meet.”
Lori Houston, assistant city manager and board member of the Alameda Theater Conservancy, said the projected amount of seats—between 1,000 and 1,500—was established by a "venue capacity study," which examined the seating capacity of other theaters in San Antonio.
“Where we feel there is a need is for that medium-sized theater between 1,000 and 1,500 seats,” Houston said. “This facility has always been planned to be 1,000 and 1,500 seats, so we can accommodate the way that the millenials and others like to use facilities.”
Pete Cortez, chief operating officer of La Familia Restaurant Group and a board member of the conservancy, said rents for performers would be established after an executive director for the Alameda Theater Conservancy is hired in the next 12 to 18 months.
Since January, Michael Kaiser, former interim director of the San Antonio Symphony, has served as interim director of the conservancy, which leases the theater from the city. Kaiser, who wrote the capacity report, did not attend the open house.
“I’m very surprised that Michael Kaiser, who wrote the original report, on which a lot of these questions are based on, like capacity and how to make (the theater) viable, has not been able to be in any of the meetings,” Chicano scholar Tomas Ybarra-Frausto said. “Because, in some ways, a lot of his ideas are the ones that percolated down.”
As construction nears completion, Cortez said, the conservancy will establish a search committee to hire a full-time executive director.
Houston said ticket pricing and rental costs for performers have not been established, but it has been discussed by the Alameda Theater Conservancy board.
“It’s something we need to build in our business model,” Houston said. “We’re not at that point yet.”
In an email to the Heron, Kaiser declined to give the full cost of the project.
The City of San Antonio and Bexar County are contributing giving $9 million each, and Texas Public Radio (TPR), whose new headquarters is being constructed in the annex building of the Alameda Theater, is chipping in $5 million.
Cortez said the board is also seeking new markets tax credits, a federal program that encourages private investments in low-income communities, to pay for additional costs. Fundraising from the conservancy will also contribute to the final cost.
TPR’s headquarters, which is being designed by local firm Overland Partners, is expected to be completed in January. The segment of the San Pedro Creek Culture Park currently under construction, right outside the Alameda, is expected to be complete in early 2021. All three projects will be in construction simultaneously.
The theme behind the lobby’s restoration, Martinez said, is “honoring the past, while looking to the future.” The Howard Theater, in Washington, D.C., also renovated by OTJ Architects, has large, permanent murals of black artists who’ve performed at the theater. Martinez said the team is looking to do the same at the Alameda Theater’s lobby, where artists who’ve performed there during its initial 30 year-plus run, such as Pedro Infante, Cantinflas and Rosita Fernandez, and Rita Vidaurri, would be immortalized in a tile mural.
The multimillion dollar renovation of the Alameda Theater will include a more than 50 percent reduction in seating capacity, the addition of bars and lounges, a stage that protrudes 13 feet into the orchestra level seating, and an ADA accessible elevator.
San Antonio residents can hear more of the plans from the Washington, D.C.-based architecture team renovating the circa-1949 theater during an open house—6-8 p.m. Monday at Guadalupe Theater, 1301 Guadalupe St.
The open house will be hosted by the Alameda Theater Conservancy (ATC), a nonprofit organization that manages Alameda complex, which consists of the theater, Texas Public Radio’s (TPR) future headquarters in the theater’s annex section, and the future amphitheater, part of the San Pedro Creek Culture Park currently under construction.
Construction on the Alameda Theater, 318 W. Houston St., is scheduled to begin this fall, and is projected to open early 2021.
Originally, the theater had around 2,500 seats. This will decrease significantly with seating ranging from 1,050 to 1,300 seats, which can take the form of theater rows or table/chair arrangements at the orchestra level, according to Gary Martinez, a partner at OTJ Architects, the D.C.-based architecture firm leading the renovations.
Martinez said the reduction in seating capacity is because of seat-width regulations that say seats must be 20 to 22 inches wide, rather than the original 17 inch seats.
The designers, which includes San Antonio firm Seventh Generation Design, are going for a "more intimate space." A lounge and bar area will be added to the back of the orchestra level—between the main seating space and the lobby. In the upper balcony, the designers propose the creation of "three large standing room or lounge tiers," or "La Terraza," which will include its own bar and drink rails.
The Historic Design and Review Commission gave conceptual approval to the renovations on March 20.
Michael Kaiser, interim executive director of the Alameda Theater Conservancy, declined to provide a total cost of the project, saying it was still in the early design phase. He said all additional costs would be covered by the conservancy through fundraising. The project, he said, “cannot happen without private donations,” and that the donors would be revealed “at a later date.”
Kaiser served as interim director of the San Antonio Symphony until January.
So far, Bexar County and the city have contributed $9 million each.
The City of San Antonio purchased the Alameda Theater in 1994 and in 2017, the city leased the theater to the conservancy in an agreement that lasts until 2036.
The stage’s depth—the distance between the back and front of the stage—will increase from 15 to 30 feet. The original restrooms of the theater will be kept and rehabilitated.
Martinez said he would retain as much of the original materials as possible, such as existing murals in the theater, draperies and lighting. Martinez suggested during the HDRC hearing these interior materials may require “alternate treatments” to preserve them.
The San Pedro Creek Culture Park, TPR’s headquarters and the Alameda Theater renovation will all be under construction simultaneously. Kaiser said the project team isn’t expecting any delays to the Alameda’s renovation, and that they’ll coordinate construction with each project team.
TPR’s new headquarters is being designed by Overland Partners, a local architecture firm. TPR expects to move into its new headquarters next January.
Texas Public Radio announced last week that it has received a $2 million gift from Carlos Alvarez, chairman and CEO of The Gambrinus Company, a craft beer brewer and distributor that was founded in San Antonio.
The funds contribute to TPR's $10 million capital campaign that funds its move into the stage house of the historic Alameda Theater complex, 318 W. Houston St., as well as expansion of its operations. The endeavor includes the addition of the Carlos and Malú Alvarez Theater, a black box theater, which will be used for town hall meetings and political forums, and cultural performances. For TPR, the move also means an expanded staff, outreach, and more equipment for its production studios.
It's the largest gift in TPR's 30-year history.
"It was Tom Frost who brought me to the table, and as he had done before with many causes, inspired me to contribute to help TPR keep our community informed,” Alvarez said in a press release.
Before his death in Aug. 10, retired San Antonio banker Frost had served as honorary chair of TPR's $10 million fundraising campaign.
Last week, the Historic and Design Review Commission approved initial plans for the Alameda Theater and TPR project.
The theater, which opened in 1949, has been closed since the late 1980s. It's scheduled to re-open Jan. 1, 2020.
Alameda Theater, TPR complex plans get first review
Plans for the expansion of the Alameda Theater building, which will house Texas Public Radio offices and event space, go to the Historic and Design Review Commission for first review on Wednesday.
Outside, the project would create a kind of secondary facade that connects to San Pedro Creek. On the other side of the creek, a small outdoor amphitheater would face the side of the building where movies would be shown. Another marquee, advertising this building as the headquarters for Texas Public Radio, would face visitors approaching from the south on the creek.
The plans also add a third and fourth level to the theater's south-facing rear that was added to the theater in 2012, bringing to total space from 16,850 to 47,000 square feet.
A digital news ticker would crawl around the south and east sides of the building.
Inside, the plans include a black box theater that would serve as the "living room for discussions, topics, and dialogue central to Texas and the local community," according to the project's description.
The complex, 318 W. Houston St., is being renovated by a variety of public and private sources, including Bexar County ($9 million), the city of San Antonio ($9 million; Houston Street Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone), Texas Public Radio ($5 million) and the Alameda Theater Conservancy, Texas Public Radio wrote last year. An additional $3.9 million could come from federal and state historic tax credits, according to city documents.
The Alameda Theater, which opened in 1949 and closed in the late 1980s, is envisioned as a multimedia performing arts and film center with a focus on telling the Latino story. Its projected re-opening is Jan. 1, 2020.
Facing north from San Pedro Creek
Facing south from Houston Street
Renderings courtesy Historic and Design Review Commission/Overland Partners