The City of San Antonio concluded its three-part World Heritage Symposium last weekend. The first event last October featured several of San Antonio’s great local heroes who worked for so long to achieve the UNESCO designation on a panel moderated by Robert Rivard, director of the Rivard Report. The last two events invited audience participation in discussion of World Heritage designation and its impact.
In December, the symposium focused on “the visitor experience” and featured short break-out sessions during which the public could voice opinions in small guided groups. This was a welcome first step in a crucial civic engagement process. However, reviews of that meeting from members of the Alliance for San Antonio Missions ranged from cautiously optimistic to, frankly, not so great. Proceedings felt rushed and reporting back was sketchy. Many in the audience also expressed frustration that priorities seemed backwards: Were signage and enhancing tourism more important than concerns about land use and development?
For whatever reason, the City’s meeting on these latter questions, held on Feb. 6, was not as well attended as the one in December. However, it struck a much better balance between presentations from politicians and experts, and audience participation. It also was an opportunity to see some of the work the Office of Historic Preservation has done in the way of collecting personal stories of life around the Missions, a terrific project.
We thank everyone involved for their work to support an open and informed public conversation on how best to handle the challenges and the opportunities that come with World Heritage designation.
Contrary to what some have suggested, in our experience very few people who live around the Missions are opposed to development in principle. Those who are concerned about preserving sacred sites, for example, are not against development entirely. Neither are those who would prefer to see green spaces rather than high-density apartments in particularly sensitive areas.
Instead, what we overwhelmingly hear, and what we as a group have said since we formed last fall, is that development is needed.
Currently, the majority of our more than 300, all-volunteer members are people who live and work near the four Missions on the Southside. Our position is simple to express, but difficult to realize without active civic engagement on both sides, and enlightened private-public collaboration. What we want is smart development. Smart development will strengthen our communities while preserving our cultural heritage at the same time.
Naturally we want to have a strong voice in the planning process. Below we offer some suggestions that could make future City meetings even more productive.
But what we want to talk about most are some bigger picture ideas:
“Green Spaces” and the 2017 Bond Cycle
Preserving open space that allows some recognition of the Missions’ physical connection to the river, and to each other, is important. Better protections for skylines and possibly light and sound pollution ordinances are a piece of this protection puzzle as well. We propose that the funding required to acquire for the public any remaining privately held spaces that are key to this effort should be included in the City of San Antonio’s 2017 Bond Cycle.
Missions Cultural District
The San Antonio Missions World Heritage buffer zone may not adequately focus attention and resources on the importance of preserving and enhancing the communities that live the intangible cultural heritage for which UNESCO designation was awarded. A Missions Cultural District could provide this positive focus.
Heritage Investment Fund
Infrastructural and other needs that will benefit both residents and tourists are substantial. Maintenance will be ongoing. Some portion of tourism revenues can be attributed to the Missions, and we think that a percentage of the Hotel Occupancy Tax should be allocated to a fund designed to help build stronger communities around the Missions. This would be something like a "community benefits fund," in place elsewhere, with a mandate to prioritize projects that emphasize sustainability and supporting environments that allow intangible heritage – our many local cultural traditions — to flourish.
Not all development is equal, and some kinds of development cost more and may have lower profit margins. We would like to see a tax-based incentive program that reflects clearly defined development goals established with substantive community input. Similarly, we would like to see job creation and employer incentive programs.
Obviously, these are just bullet points. No doubt there is already conversation on some of these topics in many sectors, and not only inside San Antonio. We would love to see this conversation grow to include the expertise of the Missions’ many friends and allies everywhere, and we are asking to take these conversations to more of the community, now.
Meanwhile, here are some suggestions for future meetings with the community:
1) Detail planned activities for the meetings in advance, and identify relevant material and make it available. This would give potential attendees a better chance of preparing to contribute within the fairly strict parameters that have been set for City meetings held so far.
2) Plan to include more audience participation. At the Feb. 6 meeting, very nice opening remarks on the importance of community involvement went on for over an hour. Audience participation lasted between 75 and 90 minutes. This was progress over the meeting held in December on the visitor experience, but a real exchange of views takes more time and probably a more flexible format for participation. Can we try that?
3) Set realistic agendas for the meetings. The agenda distributed at the Feb. 6 meeting was very ambitious. Participants were supposed to “evaluate the land use and development goals for each (of 6 prior) neighborhood plan(s)”, and answer several questions including: “Given the recent (World Heritage) designation, are the land use goals still appropriate?” “What amendments if any need to be made…to enhance the visitor and resident experience?” That would be hundreds of pages of information to evaluate, which we can be sure most participants had not read. Some presentation of these plans would have been a better use of the time allotted for the opening remarks. Maybe it’s worth holding some meetings devoted to individual Missions.
4) Improve the materials used at the meetings. During the Feb. 6 event, small “break-out” groups were asked to spend most of their time looking at maps and aerial photos of the 5,700 acres around the Missions. Participants were then asked to place colored stickers on the photos, to represent desired land use and proposed development such as various types of housing, green space, etc.
Unfortunately, the aerial photos were not easily read by most non-experts, and only the sites of the Missions and the boundaries of the buffer zone were marked. Existing parks, trails and historic features such as acequias were not marked, and it was difficult for many to correlate the photos with the maps. Worse, the photos were outdated. The now-demolished KWEX-TEX/Univision station still appeared while the completed Mission Reach and more recent developments such as the Flats at Big Tex mixed-use complex nearing completion along the San Antonio River did not. As a result, considerable time was spent correcting misunderstandings about existing land use and development.
5) Work on facilitation of the meetings. We sincerely thank all the volunteers who helped with the Feb. 6 event. But many of them were asked to facilitate a discussion they were not prepared to have. All session facilitators should be familiar with existing neighborhood plans and protected zones and able to answer questions about them. They should also know where utility services and other difficult-to-move structures are located.
6) Make sure we know who the audience is. These meetings are intended to engage the community, and the results are being reported as representing local residents’ opinions. Let’s actually identify who is participating. A simple show of hands could accomplish this. Who lives near which Mission? Or works near? Or is investing or hopes to invest? We will then know what we are talking about when we point to these meetings as involving “the community,” and will have a better way of measuring how well we are accomplishing this.
To be clear, we think all of San Antonio – and the rest of the world – has a stake in preserving the future of the San Antonio Missions. But if we’re going to say we care specifically about what local residents think, let’s have the data to back up these claims, so we can do more if we need to.
7) Make the planning process inclusive. Local residents do have some special knowledge and insights into the areas around the Missions. We are fairly confident that local resident participation in these meetings could be improved, and we think the best way to do that is to involve residents in the planning, so that the dynamic is more inclusive from the beginning. Many of us have been thinking about the question of land use and development around the Missions for a very long time. Why not involve neighborhood associations and community groups in this way?
8) Take advantage of a do-over. We understand that no more large public meetings are on the City’s current World Heritage Work Plan schedule. The meetings with individual neighborhood groups apparently being planned for March are a great idea, but it is difficult, especially in low-density areas, to find dates that will allow a representative cross-section of local residents to participate.
We suggest a public meeting “do-over” on land use and development, scheduled to take place after the City has met with individual neighborhood groups, and before recommendations are presented to City Council. This is too important to rush. If the results of the recent meeting are confirmed, that’s useful to know. If they are refined, even better.
*Top image: Visitors explore the grounds of Mission San Juan on a recent Sunday morning. Photo by Scott Ball.