City Discussing 100 Day Plan to Address Mission Challenges

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Mission San José. Photo by Joan Vinson.

The City of San Antonio has begun to formulate short-term and long-term development guidelines for San Antonio’s five Spanish colonial Missions and surrounding neighborhoods, City officials have told the Rivard Report.

The Alamo, four Missions and Rancho de las Cabras in Floresville were designated a serial World Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Committee in Bonn, Germany in July. The designation was only the 23rd for the United States and the only one in Texas.

Members of the nascent Alliance for San Antonio Missions, who held their second roundtable at the Mission Branch Library on Sunday, are concerned those plans won’t develop quickly enough, or with strict enough standards to preserve the Missions and surrounding areas.

At least one large apartment complex has won approval for the site of the former St. John’s Seminary adjacent to Mission Concepción. Plans for that project were shown to a visiting official with the International Council on Monuments & Sites (ICOMOS) before the  vote in Bonn to make sure officials agreed its was appropriate to the setting. The ICOMOS evaluator made some suggested changes to the plans, which the developers followed. While many neighbors have expressed support for redevelopment of the long-vacant and blighted site, others living in and outside the neighborhood have opposed it and any other multifamily developments in the vicinity of the Missions.

A Heritage Impact Assessment will be created by the City and its Office of Historic Preservation that will “review the projects that may adversely impact the ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ of the Missions,” according to City documents. That assessment will be completed in February 2016. UNESCO’s guidelines for World Heritage site management call for officials to be guided by outstanding universal values.

Alliance members contend that a moratorium on development and zoning changes should be initiated until the Mission Protection Overlay Districts are analyzed and revised. Such a review is part of the proposed work plan’s “next 100 days,” but so far, the City does not plan on halting development.

Click here to download an outline of the City’s World Heritage Work Plan.

One project that is effectively dead, Councilmember Rebecca Viagran (D3) said after attending the Alliance’s roundtable, is a proposed apartment complex by 210 Development Group on property for sale next to Mission San José, the same developer that received approval for its project behind Mission Concepción.

“That’s not going to happen,” Viagran said. The controversial project received strong opposition from neighborhood groups. Executives with 210 Development Group could not be reached for comment on Monday morning.

City Manager Sheryl Sculley (center, left) looks on during the panel discussion. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

City Manager Sheryl Sculley (center, left) looks on during the panel discussion. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Viagran will host the City’s second World Heritage Symposium on Dec. 5 that will focus on the City’s work plan that also will be discussed at the City Council B Session on Wednesday, Dec. 16.

“We still need to have a conversation about (a moratorium),” she said. “Part of the symposia is trying to see it all at a big level … we have a lot of work to do and a lot of stories to tell together. This area, I believe, holds the heart and soul of all of San Antonio.”

Meanwhile, the City will begin interviewing candidates for the new World Heritage Director position expected to be filled early in January 2016. Among other goals, staff will solicit input from the River South Subcommittee, neighborhood associations, and stakeholder organizations that will assist City staff as it compiles a list of recommended infrastructure improvements for the 2017 bond program.

(Read more: San Antonio to Hire World Heritage & Tricentennial Directors)

More than 80 people attended the Sunday roundtable that included a panel of 11 speakers who discussed what’s “worth protecting” at the Missions. Long time residents, business owners, and City leadership, including City Manager Sheryl Sculley, Assistant City Manager Lori Houston, and Office of Historic Preservation Director Shanon Shea Miller listened as the panel attempted to define the “intangible cultural heritage” that (UNESCO) has recognized at the Spanish colonial sites in San Antonio.

“The reason why it’s important to discuss these intangible values is because they are part of World Heritage application,” said moderator William Dupont, a UTSA professor of architecture who also serves as technical advisor for the Alliance. He opened Sunday’s dialogue by asking the panel and audience to consider what they would tell a visitor that’s interested in visiting the Missions.

Moderator William Dupont introduces the concept of "intangible heritage." Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Moderator William Dupont introduces the concept of “intangible heritage.” Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“Once you know (the intangible values), then you know what you can protect, what you want to keep, what’s important. If we don’t all talk about it and take the time to say why we value this place and (instead) all we do is talk about what we want to see in the future, or whether this development is good or that development is bad, we forget to stop and think, ‘But wait, why is the place important to us in the first place, what do we want to have endure?'”

Panelists spoke of personal connections to the near-Southside Missions, recurring themes of family, natural beauty, history, and quality of experience. The point most often made by panel members was the importance of telling the stories of indigenous peoples and their descendants.

“When (visitors) walk on the grounds of the Missions, they should walk respectfully … people are buried there,” said panelist Ramon Vasquez, representing the American Indians in Texas at Spanish Colonial Missions. “More than 800 people are buried at the doors of the Alamo — and they didn’t fight in the battle of the Alamo … it wasn’t the Franciscans that built the missions, it was us.”

Vasquez said he would welcome a plan for the Missions that honors the “whole story.”

Ramon Vasquez, representing the American Indians in Texas at Spanish Colonial Missions, said that visitors to the Alamo and the missions are not given the "whole history." Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Ramon Vasquez, representing the American Indians in Texas at Spanish Colonial Missions, wants to see more history education included in plans for the missions. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Another recurring theme from panelists, and audience members invited to write down their thoughts and speak during the meeting, was the preservation of greenspace around the Missions.

Terry Ybañez, a public school arts educator and artist representing the Mission San José Neighborhood Association, said the peacefulness of the Missions are most at risk from development.

“The openness of river, sky, and land is also another element of why the Missions are important,” Ybañez said. “When you visit the Mission Reach and see the river and parks while walking or riding to the Missions you get a feeling of what the Missions were like in the open Texas grasslands of the 1700s.”

Assistant City Manager Houston said community input will be critical to the work sessions at the coming symposium.

“The work plan is not all about land use. Land use is a very important component to the work plan, but we have small businesses so we’ll need a small business tool kit,” Houston said after the meeting. “We also need a bus and parking plan.”

Transportation corridors – how people get to and from the Missions – will be a focal point of the symposium and work plan.

“All of that starts with the community. So this meeting and the Dec. 5 symposium, and then there will be another symposium … will help us develop that framework and we’ll have more public engagement in January and February,” she said.

Some Alliance members are on the fence about attending the symposium.

“I think things are going behind the scenes full blast and the City symposium is just a delaying tactic while things go ahead through (Historic and Design Review), Planning, and Zoning (commissions),” said panelist Brady Alexander, a representative from the East Pyron-Symphony Lane Neighborhood Association and Hot Wells Neighborhood Association. “That (project) ought to be called ‘Mission Deception.’ … They want to capitalize on the resources of this area for monetary gain.”

Councilmember Rebecca Viagran (D3) talks about the importance of San Antonio's Missions. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Councilmember Rebecca Viagran (D3) talks about the cultural importance of San Antonio’s missions. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Alexander offered no evidence to support those assertions.

The panelists hailed from a wide range of backgrounds that connected them to the near-Southside Missions, including Viagran; Alexander; Ybañez; Vasquez; State Rep. Roland Gutierrez (D-119);  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; Epifanio Hernandez, representing San Antonio Mission Indian Descendants and Tehuan Band of Mission Indians of San Antonio; Mickey Killian, Tap-Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation; Orlando Salazar, District 4 Zoning Commissioner; and Daniel Medrano, VFW Post 9186.

Maria Torres, tribal chief of the Pacuache Tilijaya Coahuiltecan Tribe of Texas, repeatedly interrupted the forum, calling some panelists “liars” and “traitors.” Torres is in opposition to any and all development at the Missions and Hemisfair Park, and recently was removed from City Council chambers after a similar display of disruptive behavior. She said she wants more contextual information about native tribes added to the application sent to the World Heritage Commission for consideration.


*Top image: Mission San José. Photo by Joan Vinson. 

Related Stories:

City Convenes First World Heritage Symposium

World Heritage Symposium to Explore ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ of the Missions

Mission San José Neighbors: Apartments Too Close for Comfort

San Antonio’s World Heritage Balancing Act

Lesson from Other World Heritage Sites

5 thoughts on “City Discussing 100 Day Plan to Address Mission Challenges

  1. The requested moratorium by our community is urgent because the city is using the current Mission Protection Overlay Plan’s viewshed to justify development next to the Missions. The proof is the allowance of 210 development’s and investor, Henry Cisnero’s plans to build apartments directly next to Mission Concepcion and Councilwoman Viagran’s comments of how each Mission should be treated individually because each has its own story. Hogwash! The story is the same. The protection should be the same! The Mission San Jose Neighborhood Association has collected 2,000 signatures that demand protecting the Missions and creating green space around them. We want to see an urban park in the Mission Drive property and a cultural park in the L&H property. We want to see regulations that would not allow any building one to two miles from the Mission buffer space to be only one story high. We want our city representatives to be transparent, communicate with our community, and honor the importance of our Missions in the manner that is required by their invaluable history and use in our communities.

    • What exactly do you mean by a “cultural park”? Do you mean a park where people from various cultures stand around talking to people?

  2. Dear Iris Dimmick,

    Thank you for covering this event, organized for and by members of the communities around the San Antonio Missions on the Southside.

    I appreciate your asking my opinion about the City-sponsored symposia on World Heritage, and I also appreciate the opportunity to put the quotes attributed to me in context.

    It has been reported in the media that 210 Development Group is considering three potential sites near Mission San Jose. Only one (the L&H property immediately adjacent the Mission grounds) has been opposed by our District 3 Representative Rebecca Viagran. In fact, her carefully worded opposition to the “current” proposal to build apartments came only after a very, very long time. This is a matter of public record.

    For many months, Councilwoman Viagran dodged answering this question at all, despite the clear requests of her constituency to take a position. I call that a delaying tactic.

    My word play on “Mission Deception” was related specifically to various accounts of neighborhood, City and developer interactions regarding plans for Mission Concepcion. We can focus on that another time, if you like. Those issues are not as pressing as the ones facing Missions San Jose, San Juan and Espada.

    I have never said there is anything wrong with capitalizing on the development opportunities in these areas — so long as that development doesn’t harm the Missions and local communities in the process. The Missions and the local communities are responsible for creating these opportunities, after all.

    These are the conversations we need to be having, and Councilwoman Viagran has, to date, refused to participate. Bravo to the communities for organizing themselves. There’s no representation in District 3 on these issues. How can there be leadership?

    Councilwoman Viagran standing at a podium and telling the audience she is listening to each and every member of the community is… ridiculous.

    The difference between the series of community roundtables organized by the Alliance for San Antonio Missions and the long-promised, only recently delivered events organized by Viagran is clear and quite telling.

    No amount of rhetoric about “public engagement” can disguise the fact that what she has done is create a “top down” dynamic in the symposia as planned so far. The community essentially is being spoken to. And this orchestrated series is putting the topics the community cares about the most — land use and development — at the end of its planned three events. Three.

    No wonder the community is frustrated. You bet some of us suspect the Councilwoman talks more frequently to developers and City and County officials working with developers than she does to community members. Is she willing to open her records?

    If the City and Councilwoman Viagran truly wanted to engage the public for its December 5 event, here are some suggestions for how they could have proceeded:

    1). Engage the community in the PLANNING. That did not happen. None of the four major neighborhood and community groups with which I am in close contact ever heard from Viagran during the planning process. She has never asked for any input.

    2). Promote the event in a timely way, using at least the existing neighborhood associations as channels. If this event is so important, why haven’t neighborhood associations been informed much earlier and asked to help communicate its significance?

    3.) Give us more information. Who is leading these break-out sessions, and what exactly is the goal? Is Viagran looking to give information or collect feedback, both or what? As of this week, the Councilwoman’s staffers who are dropping flyers off around the communities— even, finally, at neighborhood association meetings—can’t answer these questions. Why should anyone give up three hours of their Saturday on short notice when it feels like the real goal is to provide a body count?

    Real community engagement is hard work. Councilwoman Viagran isn’t doing it. What is being promised in return for people’s commitment of time? A report? How will we know if we’re doing anything other than enabling the Councilwoman to check the “community engaged” box?

    Skepticism is warranted under these circumstances. Nevertheless, I expect people will show up, just as I will. We care about this community, and we are going to be listening to what is said very carefully. And we’ll take it from there.

    Finally, it’s worth looking at the history of these symposia supposedly demonstrating that the City is committed to “public engagement” on the question of the impact of World Heritage designation.

    It’s really not too surprising the first one only happened after visitors for the World Heritage celebrations in mid-October were safely out of town and perhaps not so focused on what’s being reported in local media. Fewer awkward questions.

    The Alliance for San Antonio Missions organized its first community roundtable on September 26 because Councilwoman Viagran had repeatedly delayed scheduling the public events she had promised since much earlier in the summer. This is an all volunteer group most of whom have day jobs that don’t come with a City position title. And they’ve continued to try and offer another platform for community voices ever since. That is why I was glad to join and lend my support to this effort to have open public conversations.

    Looking ahead, I’m willing to predict that no matter what happens at Councilwoman Viagran’s next two events, she’ll declare the public was engaged. Mission accomplished.

    How about we define what public engagement would look like in meaningful terms? Having people sit in an audience or get to speak their piece in a break-out session just doesn’t cut it. What are the deliverables?

    Have the courage, Mayor Taylor and Councilwoman Viagran, to form a committee with real community involvement. Dare to put the community members who challenge you on that committee. The entire City will be better for it.

  3. Brady Alexander has pretty much nailed the situation. I should add a couple of points. This article fails to represent the overwhelmingly majority of critical commentary made by the audience (i.e. not panelists chosen by the organizers). Mr. Dupont said the commentary on these cards would be posted online. Where are they, Mr. Dupont?

    It seems likely that Ms. Dimmick emphasized Maria Torres commentary to make it appear as if she were the only critical voice and that this voice was extreme and unreasonable. I suspect that this journalistic tactic serves to avoid having to acknowledge to the readership that there was a much larger body of dissenting voices present at this meeting. Very clever, but not responsible journalism.

  4. Thank you Cipriano for asking about the commentary from the last Alliance public event. Since we volunteered, this is our responsibility to get online, and we are working on the best way to do this which hopefully allows people to further comment. (Please contact us at if you have ideas to share on this; we would appreciate the help.)

    Actually, we’d love to see District 3 and the City take this on!

    Mr. Dupont did an excellent job of moderating the panel on its stated topic of “intangible heritage” and “outstanding local value”. Our next public event is focusing again more specifically on land use and development (we’ve held several smaller meetings on these topics already) — many of the comments Mr. Dupont read ultimately seemed to be addressing these topics. It may make sense to bring those comments forward to that event. Please join us! Details are here:

    Meanwhile, we’re looking at the City’s World Heritage Work Plan and thinking about how neighborhood associations and community organizations such as ours can be more substantively involved. We hope all concerned will do the same.

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