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There are innumerable elements in society that threaten the preservation of history, culture, and heritage. World Heritage sites, designated by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), enjoy international prestige but a website listing and a plaque do not make these sites immune to threats like political and social conflicts, natural disasters, tourism, development pressure, or insufficient management, said San Antonio Conservation Society‘s new Executive Director Vincent Michael.
San Antonio’s Spanish colonial Missions have the unique benefit of several layers of public and nonprofit entities – the City, Bexar County, State, National Park Service, Archdiocese, neighborhood associations and Conservation Society, among others – working together to protect them, Michael said after a Conservation Society membership meeting at the Mission San José Visitor Center Wednesday night.
“There were all these cooperative efforts all along … that’s amazing,” said Michael, who has worked extensively with World Heritage Sites around the world including those in China, Ukraine, Cambodia, and Guatemala.
With more than three decades of experience in the U.S. and abroad – especially as a trustee of the Global Heritage Fund from 2012-2015 working to preserve sites facing these threats all over the world – Michael hit the ground running when he moved to San Antonio in June. The Conservation Society hired him after an extensive international search to replace Bruce MacDougal, who served as executive director for more than 25 years.
“I waited until you had World Heritage to come (to San Antonio),” Michael joked.
Michael brings an international perspective to how the Conservation Society will support both the past and future of the World Heritage sites.
The Conservation Society has a long list of success stories from its more than 90-year history. It’s widely credited with saving the River Walk, the historic homes that dot the HemisFair ’68 footprint, and La Villita Historic Arts Village, to name a few.
It also played a key role in initiating the preservation of the Missions when it purchased the San José Granary doors to preserve the brass medallions that were being sold off to tourists. Five years later it secured the granary itself, Mission Espada’s acequia, and surrounding private land that it eventually deeded to the State to became a National Historic Park in 1983.
The NPS honored the Conservation Society’s citywide efforts Wednesday night with an official presentation of a 2016 Directors Partnership Award.
Michael took meeting attendees that gathered on Wednesday night through a photo slideshow tour of World Heritage sites around the world – most of which he himself visited. The crowd sighed with delight at serene photos of the ancient Angkor Wat temple complex, the largest religious monument in the world, and then gasped at photos of tourist climbing up packed staircases during visiting hours. More gasps came as they saw cheesy souvenir shops dominate a temple in China and a cruise ship towering over Venice.
The four Missions on the Museum Reach and the Alamo, which were inscribed by UNESCO as World Heritage sites last year, will face development challenges and threats, Michael said. But they also face monumental opportunities.
“World Heritage can really help a place and it’s not just about preserving the landmarks,” he said. “It’s about developing a place in a sustainable way. It is part of our economy and part of every day life.”
Striking a balance between economic development and cultural preservation is key.
“The big challenge is you never want the development of a monoculture,” he said. “You don’t want to be just tourism. You want to have something that benefits local residents.”
How do you make sure that happens? Avoiding “Jimmy Johns and Walmart” and promoting legacy businesses is a good start, he said. “I think actually the City is doing smart things with some of the zoning amendments where they are trying to preserve some things for community.”
As part of the World Heritage Work Plan, developed with community and stakeholder input over months of meetings, the City has put together more than 50 land use adjustments that, with Zoning Commission approval, will change the type and scope of development near the four Missions on the Mission Reach. The work plan also includes priorities for wayfinding, cultural preservation, and maintaining longtime residents and businesses. The Rivard Report asked Michael if he thinks this work plan will be successful.
“For me it’s probably too early to say,” he said. While he was born in San Antonio, his family quickly moved away. Besides a few visits in years past, he’s lived in San Antonio for about four months. “It comes back to the process, you want to engage people all along. You’re never going to get (complete) unity – there’s always going to be differences of opinion. But if people are involved, you can avoid some big mistakes.”
The San Antonio Conservation Society was founded in 1924 to preserve “historic buildings, objects, places and customs relating to the history of Texas, its natural beauty and all that is admirably distinctive to our State.” It was founded by 13 women, and has since grown to a membership of more than 1,700 men and women.
Top image: San Antonio Conservation Society Executive Director Vincent Michael gives a presentation on World Heritage at the Mission San José Visitor Center. Photo by Scott Ball.