Programming for the City’s second World Heritage Symposium on Saturday was centered around developing strategies related to how infrastructure, wayfinding, and small business development will play into the “visitor experience” of San Antonio’s five Spanish colonial missions. Despite this intended focus, the issue of land use and what kind of development – if any – should be allowed near the historic sites dominated many conversations.
A third symposium planned for Saturday, Feb. 6, will focus on sensitive land use and development, but the controversial topic routinely bubbles to the top of many lists of issues to tackle as San Antonio plans out to take full advantage of its UNESCO World Heritage designation.
Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) welcomed almost 100 participants to the STEM High School in the Harlandale Independent School District and introduced some of the current infrastructure and business challenges that faces the community. She reiterated that she does not support multi-family units near Mission San José as proposed by 210 Development Group, but she said each potential development or business would be evaluated for its appropriateness on a case-by-case basis.
210 Development’s project next to Mission Concepción, for instance, was found by a majority of neighbors and City Council members as befitting the more urban mission.
“Each one of our missions is unique, and it tells a different story,” Viagran said. “I look forward to having a conversation with our residents, business owners and our concerned citizens on the possibility of development. I believe everyone’s cooperation from the symposia will impact how we shape the future of our city and our world heritage.”
More than a dozen City staffers were present as volunteers for the breakout sessions, but the symposium was attended by neighborhood association members, Los Comrades, VIA Metropolitan Transit President and CEO Jeff Arndt, San Antonio River Authority, City Manager Sheryl Sculley and residents with a strong connection to the missions.
Terry Ybañez, a member of the Mission San José Neighborhood Association, refuses to see the World Heritage designation become an impetus for neighborhood gentrification surrounding the missions. She has organized several neighborhood events including a “pilgrimage” to the missions on Saturday, Dec. 12.
Ybañez also started an online petition at Change.org that has collected 486 signatures in four months in protest of all development near the missions – especially apartments. She said she and the neighborhood association have collected more than 2,000 in-person signatures.
The Alliance for San Antonio Missions, a grassroots organization comprised of Southside residents and business owners, have also called for a separate moratorium on development “until existing plans and policies are examined.”
Others call for the City to consider using 2017 bond money to purchase the surrounding properties for “cultural parks” and other public amenities.
New proposals for apartments near VFW Post 9186 and Mission Marquee Plaza threaten to cut off Mission San José’s access to the river, she said, and would interfere with the mission’s view shed.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said the development surrounding the missions will require thoughtful decisions and hard work from residents and City officials, but it will also provide an opportunity for San Antonio to share its unique history with the world.
The area went through a steep economic decline over several decades, when new jobs moved to the Northside. Wolff described the new businesses and economic developments that were beginning to reemerge in the community.
“It’s an exciting time to be on the Southside of San Antonio. I know you’re very proud of it and we will do everything we can to support you,” he said to residents.
Defining and Understanding the Missions Experience
San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau executive director Casandra Matej moderated a panel of tourism industry leaders, who answered audience questions about the current visitor experience, and how to incorporate new elements to improve the overall visitor experience.
Partnerships between the Visitor’s Bureau, Parks and Services and local museums would provide immersive and culturally authentic experiences for visitors and residents who will care for the missions in the future.
“The stories are always changing, archaeological discoveries keep bringing new information to us,” said Ken Erfuth, executive board member for the Professional Tour Guide Association. “It’s not just those structures, it’s not just those buildings, we could talk about that fairly easily. It’s what happened to the culture and what continues to happen with the culture, that these missions are still vibrant communities.”
City officials, panel members and community leaders all promised to be culturally sensitive to the area’s development, and view the missions as “living, breathing institutions that still impact people today.”
Ybañez is currently working with the City Office of Historic Preservation to record the stories of descendants who have grown up and lived on the land surrounding the missions, but eventually will include everyone who owns land or currently lives in the area.
“These stories are just incredible, and it just shows why we need to protect them,” Ybañez said. “We have to protect them so it doesn’t destroy or change the neighborhoods.”
Small Business Development
City staff volunteers sat with participants at tables and created a list of the businesses they would like to see or avoid near the missions. Many participants said they were for bike rental options, visitor information centers and small local businesses. The general consensus was that megastores and large chain franchises were not to be allowed near the missions.
“There are many indigenous people and their descendants who live near the missions, we could possibly promote their panaderias or their shops to provide authentic cultural experiences,” said Abel Ramirez, who runs a local bike shop near McCreless Mall. He hopes that the City creates guidelines that will help local business owners work with the many departments involved with the five missions.
Infrastructure and Wayfinding
Before the breakout sessions started, participants viewed a short video produced by and featuring City employees using a GoPro camera while they traveled to the five missions by bike, trolley and car. The video showed that closed roads and inaccurate GPS directions make reaching the missions difficult for drivers, cyclists often get confused by the different signs along the mission trails and traveling by trolley means an expensive and long trip for tourists and residents.
Better signage for roads and trails leading to the missions, as well as road improvements, will be key to connect the missions to the rest of the city – for both visitors and residents, the breakout session groups concluded.
Attention, however, soon shifted again to potential housing developments.
“If you live on this side of town, you work on this side of town, then you know this part of town is not like the Northside,” Orlando Salazar, a Zoning Commissioner for the City said. Salazar owns property along Espada Road, where he plans to build his new home. “I’m opposed to having huge apartment complexes within the mission area, the one by Concepción got by us, I mean there’s already two proposals for apartments near Mission San José, one for 600 units and the other for 400 units, I don’t know that I’m a big fan of that.
“The question is not ‘how are we going to develop it,’ but ‘how are we going to protect it?'” Salazar said.
Maria Torres, tribal chief of the Pacuache Tilijaya Coahuiltecan Tribe of Texas, supports the idea of turning the land around the missions into parkland.
“We need to see that they will guarantee us greenspace for the missions, and we want to see it in writing. The site needs to breathe, it doesn’t need more buildings,” she said. The Pacuache are one of many tribes who assimilated at the missions more than 300 years ago. “We want (the City) to clarify how they are going to reach these visitors and tourists who are entering a religious, sacred site.”
Data and participant feedback from the first two events will be used to inform the City’s work as it develops policies and programs around the missions, City officials said.
The City has begun to formulate short-term and long-term development guidelines for the missions and surrounding neighborhoods. Click here to download an outline of its World Heritage Work Plan.
The Alliance will host its third forum discussion on Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016 that “will provide an informational update and focus on the questions about World Heritage designation and development that our local communities think are most urgent.”
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Ybañez and the San Jose Neighborhood Association have collected signatures for the in-person and online petition. The petition takes positions that the Alliance for San Antonio Missions does not support.
*Top image: Resident Bill Bordelon and Razi Hosseini of the City’s Transportation and Capital Improvements department discuss the possible infrastructure changes on road leading to the missions. Photo by Lea Thompson.