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Team Better Block takes on Alamo Plaza

Photo: Photos by Steven Gilmore, License: N/A

Photos by Steven Gilmore

Photo: , License: N/A

Team Better Block volunteers hard at work during last Friday's pre-build event.

Little more than two years since their precarious start, the team has now staged 33 Better Blocks in Dallas, Fort Worth, Memphis, Wichita, and other cities. Two weeks ago, TBB co-founder Roberts received a Champions of Change Award at the White House from the Secretary of Transportation; next week the Team will present at the U.S. Pavilion at the 13th International Venice Architecture Biennale as part of Spontaneous Interventions: Design Actions for the Common Good. It's been a fast ride for Howard and Roberts, quite a contrast in pace from Howard's previous career as a transportation planner. "Streets are our biggest asset in this country — they're bigger than parks. That's where we live. That was my whole frustration as a transportation planner for 15 years before this. I worked on the regional scale and talked about 25-year build outs, corridors. And it never went anywhere." Now focusing on single blocks, it is community members and private investment — small business owners — who Howard says, "get it first." After seeing Better Block proposals as functioning, albeit temporary businesses, empty buildings are soon rented, and pop-up businesses run for a weekend are reborn as attempts at permanent endeavors. Though TBB consults with municipalities, public sector funding usually follows, rather than leads, private investment.

Though there is disagreement on what should happen to Alamo Plaza, that changes should be made is a view widely held. With $1.2 million in bond money for as-yet-unstated improvements, Center City Development Office brought in another place-making organization to study the matter. Project for Public Spaces (PPS) director Phil Myrick met with City Council last March 7, when a number of "criteria for creating great civic spaces" were stated. PPS was brought in by the Development Office to study possibilities for an improved Alamo Plaza. PPS has been an authority in urban development for 35 years, stressing a "lighter, faster, cheaper" approach to civic change. Concerns were voiced for better attractions and amenities coupled with an image that expresses identity. One of the problems discussed was the orientation of the plaza. Currently, visitors get their impression of the plaza from the front of the church, where they take their pictures and then often wander off after a few minutes looking for something to do — and visit Ripley's across the street, perhaps. There is a lack of seating, tables, and shade in the plaza; the plaza, noted Myrick, "functions as a major street with two sidewalks." Among recommendations made were marking the original mission perimeter and establishing a sense of the height of the missing walls. Enhancements to the plaza might also be accomplished by moving the massive cenotaph that dominates the plaza island and bringing in dining, music, and performances. But these are just suggestions — what will happen is up in the air for now.

To reorient the visitor's experience of the plaza, the original south-facing front gate, along with a section of the old mission walls, will be mocked up this weekend as a "ghost structure," an armature that delineates what is thought to be the shape of the missing structure in full height and width. In addition, a new mobile walking tour of the plaza, complete with images, will be rolled out. Downloaded on cell phones through a QR app, the tour will help the visitor imagine Mission San Antonio de Valero from its founding in 1724, through the battle of 1836 and beyond. Expressing the divergent concerns for telling the entire history of the plaza from the founding of the mission, or concentrating instead on the iconic Battle of the Alamo, spokespersons representing various points of view will participate in the weekend programming.

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