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City Planning Future Of Plaza De Armas, While Preserving Its Past

Once a military training ground, the Plaza de Armas building near City Hall is entering a new phase of its historic life.

On Thursday, city council members approved an amendment to the design-and-build contract, increasing the project's cost by $1.4 million for a total of $11 million. The council also voted in favor of Executive Chef Chuck Hernandez's restaurant, O'liva, being located within the complex of Plaza de Armas.

In the meantime, just a short walk from City Hall, inside Plaza de Armas, welding sparks shoot in a thousand different directions. Workers are busy transforming the space for its new role housing San Antonio's Department for Culture and Creative Development, and part of the city's communications and public affairs office.

Mike Frisbie, who leads the Transportation and Capital Improvements Department, says the 41,000 square foot space is coming back to life, where city public access channel studios will be located, along with offices and the restaurant.

"Really, it's making a great use of this historic building, really restoring a lot of those historic features. Inside you'll see historic walls and timbers that are being restored and it's going to be a beautiful facility when it's done," said Frisbie, who stood just outside Plaza de Armas.

At first glance, the interior looks like a typical construction site. But limestone from the 19th century is all around. The original columns dominate the first floor, which will be a new gallery space.

Over the years, the building has served many purposes. But this, and the adjacent Spanish Governor's Palace, was the original site of the 1722 Presidio San Antonio de Bexar, a Spanish fort built for the settlement in San Antonio.

Some of the earliest settlers landed here, in what was the second phase of the founding of the city. City archaeologist Kay Hindes says this is the true heart of San Antonio.

"If you walk on these grounds, you're literally walking where the city began," she said. "And so from a significance point of view, you just can't get more important than that."

Excavation, some of which was done by students at UTSA, revealed artifacts that had burned, colonial period wares and grinding stones. As construction moves forward, architects and preservationists are leaving in place original flooring, timbers from the ceiling, and the limestone walls.

Hindes says San Antonio is proud of its history. It's what draws many of the city's visitors.

"The historical aspect of the city has been a huge economic generator for the city," Hindes said. "Our historic sites are some of the highest on the list of why people come to San Antonio."

While the past is being preserved, there is also a lot of focus on the future of Plaza de Armas, which includes new life for a storied site, enthusiasm for the western portion of downtown, and a restaurant that promises to offer locally-sourced, healthy, and flavorful provisions.