City officials gave Southside community members, stakeholders, and other San Antonio residents an update of the World Heritage Work Plan during an open house at Mission San José on Tuesday. The city’s World Heritage Director Colleen Swain referred to the gathering as “the first of many feedback sessions” since officially assuming her post in early April.
“In the Work Plan we’ve identified long term and short term steps, so part of (this meeting) is to get feedback on those recommendations,” she said.
Since the UNESCO World Heritage designation of the city’s Spanish-colonial Missions, a series of three World Heritage symposia were held to gather public feedback concerning key areas of the designation’s impact on the Missions and their surrounding areas. Land use/development, transportation, way-finding, cultural/historical preservation, and signage/street renaming were a few of the topics discussed, and debated, in the forums.
Public input from the symposia were gathered and used to develop the more specific recommendations featured at Tuesday’s open house, where attendees could gain a more in-depth understanding of the World Heritage Work Plan through one-on-one interactions with representatives. Visual maps and diagrams were displayed on tables outside of the Mission for visitors to survey before and after a brief presentation by City staff and Swain.
“Collecting (feedback) has been very helpful,” said Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) during the presentation. “It’s been feedback that has been positive, feedback that has been critical, and that has definitely guided us as we’ve moved forward.”
City departments like the Convention and Visitors Bureau; Office of Historic Preservation; Economic Development; and Planning and Community Development were present to give more information about each of their projects, along with other groups like Los Compadres de San Antonio Missions; National Park Service – Centennial Celebration; the Tricentennial Commission; SA Tomorrow; the Alamo; and the World Heritage Office.
They all provided surveys and comment cards to each visitor to collect feedback about their initiatives.
The San Antonio River Authority‘s proposal of simplifying wayfinding to the Missions by renaming several area roads piqued the interest of many of the open house attendees.
“Many of the citizens (in the symposium about wayfinding) expressed concerns that Mission Road was not contiguous all the way down and it can be very confusing when people are trying to figure out how to get to different locations, particularly around Mission San José,” SARA General Manager Suzanne Scott told the Rivard Report. “The idea would be to clean that up and make it Mission Road all the way down so that a visitor, whether a tourist or a local, would be able to more easily get around.”
Employing uniform signage around the Missions with a distinct design is another initiative SARA is working toward.
Other plan aspects, like land use in the Missions buffer zone, will take more time in terms of reaching a specific plan of action. General themes such as the want for pedestrian linkages from certain districts to the Missions, discouraging high density residential development in close proximity to the sites, and preserving the sites’ historical and cultural authenticity were presented along with propositions about each of the six distinct neighborhoods plans discussed in the last symposium.
The UTSA Institute for Economic Development has done market assessments around Mission San Juan and Mission San José to determine what businesses are needed in addition to those already in existence, and how to preserve that cultural authenticity with business development in the area.
“We want to pay special attention to legacy businesses that have been operating in the area, and make sure that they have the tools necessary for the influx of visitors coming,” Swain said.
Some initiatives are nearing fruition, including a new VIA branch – VIVA Missions – that will provide service out to all five of the city’s Missions come June 6, with service to Mission Espada to begin after construction in the area concludes. The desire for a VIA branch, and better transportation options in general including bike lanes, to each of the Missions was discussed in the previous symposia.
But one of the biggest, and most costly, areas of concern is capital improvements. The City Department of Transportation and Capital Improvements has identified a need for more than $43 million of work in the World Heritage buffer zone, Swain said, with $14.7 million in street improvements, $20.5 million in sidewalk improvements and gaps, and $8.2 million in utility under grounding.
“A lot of the work that is to be completed, like the sidewalk improvements and street maintenance, requires a lot of money,” she said. “So we have to prepare the information so that we can identify the funding sources and move forward with obtaining that funding so we can get all of that work completed.”
Swain is hoping to have some of the World Heritage infrastructure costs covered in the 2017 bond.
Assistant City Manager Lori Houston, Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), and Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5), were also in attendance at Tuesday’s open house to show their support for the developing World Heritage plans.
“I had the opportunity over the last few weeks to travel to a couple of World Heritage sites in the United States and none (are) like this one, so it’s really important that we get (the planning) right,” Gonzales said. “So I’m excited for everyone to be here and give some input to how … this site reflects all of you.”
Brady Alexander, who lives near Mission San José, hopes to see a more “meaningful” effort by the World Heritage partners and the City to hear the concerns of the nearby neighborhood associations directly affected by the developing World Heritage plans.
“These symposia and meetings like this are not substantive community engagement,” he said. “They only scratch the surface and it’s going to require a lot more moving forward. These are a start, and I have seen some positive steps, but it’s just a start.”
The City and World Heritage partners will compile the input from Tuesday’s meeting and analyze it in order to determine next steps, Swain said, but they already have plans to meet with neighborhood associations in the near future.
“This is about collecting information. We want peoples’ feedback before we take next steps,” she said. “We want to see what people think is a good idea and if it (all) makes sense before we move forward with anything.”
As Texas’ first World Heritage designation site and the nation’s 23rd, San Antonio is seen as a model for other cities gaining prominent cultural and historical recognition. That’s why the City and World Heritage partners don’t want to “rush” the planning process, Viagran said, which means keeping all stakeholders involved to ensure a well-rounded interpretation and preservation of the Missions’ history.
“We just want to make sure that we are intentional and that we take our time and that we do this right.”
*Correction: A previous version of this article failed to mention that plans for improved bike lanes are also in the works for the World Heritage Work Plan, and incorrectly dated Swain’s start as World Heritage Director as early March.
*Top image: Councilwoman Rebecca J. Viagran (D3) points out Mission San Jose on a map. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone