The Alliance for San Antonio Missions, a newly formed grass-roots organization advocating for sensitive development in and around the near-Southside Missions, will hold a community roundtable at the Mission Branch Library, 3134 Roosevelt Ave., this Sunday from 4-6 p.m. The panel discussion titled "What is Intangible Heritage?" is free and open to the public.
"The San Antonio Missions have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site because they represent in 'interweaving of cultures' -- a living, breathing heritage," an Alliance press release stated. "This designation is about society, not architecture. Join us to talk about what 'intangible heritage' means in the global preservation context, and most importantly, what it means to local communities. What kind of development will best preserve and enhance our intangible heritage and our local quality of life?"
William A. Dupont, the San Antonio Conservation Society Endowed Professor and Director at UTSA's Center for Cultural Sustainability, will moderate a panel and facilitate audience participation in the conversation. DuPont, a professor at UTSA's School of Architecture, is serving as technical advisor to the Alliance. His challenge will be balancing presentations by as many as 12 panelists in the two-hours time period as well as responding to written question submitted by audience members.
Confirmed speakers include state Rep. Roland Gutierrez (D-119); Councilmember Rebecca Viagran (D3); Al Arreola Jr., president and CEO of the South San Antonio Chamber of Commerce; Carroll Brown, a retired Air Force research psychologist and member of the Alliance; Brady Alexander, East Pyron-Symphony Lane Neighborhood Association and Hot Wells Neighborhood Association; Epifanio Hernandez, representing San Antonio Mission Indian Descendants and Tehuan Band of Mission Indians of San Antonio; Mickey Killian, Tap-Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation; Olga Martinez, Villa Coronado Neighborhood Association; Orlando Salazar, District 4 Zoning Commissioner; Ramon Vasquez, American Indians in Texas at Spanish Colonial Missions; Theresa Ybañez, Mission San Jose Neighborhood Association; and Daniel Medrano, VFW Post 9186.
Dupont said the Alliance is still taking shape as more and more area residents get involved.
"The region would benefit from an entity that can coordinate the management of the World Heritage inscription and monitor and protect the values of World Heritage," Dupont said. "San Antonio has a rich history that goes beyond the Spanish influence, and I think a larger heritage area that could encompass the Hill Country and the Eastside and Westside would be an additional benefit to our city and area. A National Heritage Area (NHA) is a federal designation created by Congress and there are none in Texas."
The Atchafalaya National Heritage Area, which occupies an enormous swath of Louisiana's Bayou and Mississippi River Delta, is the closest NHA to Texas.
The Alliance's focus is on the community and neighborhoods that have been defined in part for hundreds of years by their proximity to the Missions, with many families tracing their own lineage back to both the Spanish settlers and indigenous residents present in the colonial era. While economic opportunities that will develop as a result of the inscription are of significant interest, the community's main concern is with new projects that win approved before appropriate safeguards are put in place to prevent insensitive development.
"A major question to be asked is how did this we get so far with proposed developments around the Missions without any of us knowing about them?" asked Carroll Brown, an Alliance leader and retired research psychologist for the Air Force. "We have lots of eyes and ears on the community, but we have asked the mayor's office to form an advisory group that would help oversee any efforts at development. We've been told, and it's just a rumor, that developers have already planned for apartments around Mission San Juan. We don't know that it's true, but we want to prevent problems from occurring around all the Missions. We want to make sure development adds to the Missions and serves the whole community."
The Alliance website expands on the group's concerns about development and City oversight.
"Current City of San Antonio guidelines for development around the Missions would permit multi-story, high-density apartment complexes to be built in close proximity to these historical structures," the Alliance states on the organization's homepage. "Current zoning regulations and procedures do not offer enough checks and balances. San Antonio needs strong political will to resist pressure from speculative developers. Join the call for smart development to protect our global cultural heritage and build better urban environments."
The Alliance website acknowledges the potential economic benefits brought about by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recent designation of the Alamo and the four San Antonio Missions as a World Heritage site, but also expresses concern about unwise development that detracts from the World heritage designation.
"World Heritage designation has tangible economic benefits for many stakeholders," the Alliance states. "We count on the complex network of the multiple city, county, state, federal and private owners and managers of the San Antonio Missions to use their best resources to promote the Missions wisely. But we are concerned that the existing regulations and policies of the City of San Antonio do not do enough to protect the Missions area from speculative development that may seek to exploit the cachet of World Heritage designation."
Local officials also are busy planning and organizing in the wake of the July vote in Bonn by UNESCO's World Heritage Committee to grant the rare and coveted designation to San Antonio and its preserved colonial structures and history as the place where New World and Old World peoples and cultures came together. There are only 1,031 World Heritage sites worldwide, and only 23 of those are in the United States. Only a few of the 23 U.S. sites are in urban areas. The designation here is the only one in Texas.
The World Heritage Advisory Committee, which was key to working with U.S. officials in Washington, D.C. to prepare the successful application to UNESCO by the United States, is now meeting with key stakeholders and citizens to undertake comprehensive planning. The City of San Antonio hosted an initial World Heritage Symposium on Oct. 31, and has announced plans for a second event on Dec. 5.
"We need to build local infrastructure to manage increased traffic and demands for usage, while preserving and growing green space," the Alliance states on its website. "We need development that does more than profit the few. We need thoughtful, sustainable development that creates opportunities for our local communities to thrive. At the moment, the local communities of the Missions don’t have an adequate voice in discussions and decision-making about a future that affects us, first, most directly. The Alliance is intended as a platform that will help local communities be heard.
"We think that the City of San Antonio needs to revisit its guidelines for protecting the Missions from poor development. Until that happens, we call for all development and re-zoning activity around the Missions to be slowed down. Way, way down. We also think it’s time to see some big picture ideas on the planning board for development around the Missions. We call for the City to establish a ‘Missions Community Impact District,’ which would go beyond considering scenic views to grapple with the greater challenges of urban development. We call on the Mayor to convene an advisory committee. And we would like a seat at that table."
*Top image: Visitors stroll the grounds of Mission Concepción. Photo by Iris Dimmick.