The City of San Antonio has been seeking public input on proposed future land use guidelines in the UNESCO World Heritage designation area.

The Alliance for San Antonio Missions, a grassroots group, has plenty of questions and concerns about the proposals.

October will mark one year since San Antonians celebrated UNESCO’s designation of the Alamo and the Spanish-colonial Missions as sites worthy of protection and global recognition.

Alliance members and supporting residents know that more development is headed their way, but they don’t want it to drastically change the look and feel of their neighborhoods surrounding the missions.

The 300-plus-member alliance sent a letter to Colleen Swain, director of the City’s World Heritage office, in late July. The letter outlines specific issues and broader concerns the group has about the City’s proposed land use amendments.

Copies of the letter were made available to more than 20 residents attending an Alliance meeting on Sunday at Mission Branch Library.

The Alliance is asking the City for more community involvement when it comes to the timeline and the specific changes the World heritage designation will bring to the surrounding neighborhoods.

“We hope that good urban planning will ensure that the boundary of the World Heritage area does not become a line of demarcation promoting the perception of a World Heritage theme park,” the letter to Swain states.

There are more than 50 zoning, policy, and amenity proposals so far for the four community plans within the World Heritage area: Lone Star, South Central, Stinson Airport, and Heritage South, as well as general overriding themes for the entire area.

San Antonio Missions National Historic Park. Map courtesy of National Park Service.
San Antonio Missions National Historic Park. Map courtesy of National Park Service. Click here to download full size PDF.

Proposals run the gamut, from creating pedestrian links from schools, neighborhoods, and business districts to the San Antonio River, to expanding small business opportunities along the river and facing the mission trails.

“We need to know more about proposals for paying for these items before they can be realistically evaluated and prioritized,” the Alliance letter states.

Preliminary proposals for the 2017 Municipal Bond include $37 million for streets, sidewalks, parks and cultural arts center in and around the  emerging World Heritage district.

(Read More: Council Reviews ‘Rough Draft’ Priorities for $850 Million Bond)

The letter also includes the Alliance’s concerns on the subjects of eminent domain, community involvement in city and neighborhood planning, and the integration of adopted amendments and the SA Tomorrow comprehensive plan.

Some of the attendees at Sunday’s alliance meeting echoed these and other concerns.

“(The City) wants to see affordable housing in this area. For who? Where? Who’s going to pay for it?” asked Alliance Secretary Carroll Brown. The group isn’t against all development, “we just want decent, reasonable development.”

Market rate housing projects in the area are already prompting questions from community members. Mission Escondida, a higher-end apartment complex is planned for the former site of the Mission Trails Mobile Home Park on Roosevelt Avenue, and recently-approved Villa Concepción will add more than 240 units.

Left: An trash-filled lot at Mission Trails Mobile Home Park. Photo taken in April 2014, before residents were forced to leave. Photo by Robert Rivard. Right: A rendering of Mission Escondida courtesy of B&A Architects.
Left: A trash-filled lot at Mission Trails Mobile Home Park. Photo taken in April 2014, before residents were forced to leave. Photo by Robert Rivard. Right: A rendering of Mission Escondida Luxury Apartments, which will be built in the trailer park’s place. Courtesy of B&A Architects.

Developers have said that projects would help to elevate a once-blighted neighborhood. Longtime residents and neighbors, however, worry that new development might clash with the local community, that housing projects will be gated and removed, and that access to the river will become more limited.

“We want development to be cohesive with the community, have access to the river, and not be a gated enclave,” Alliance Community Liaison Wayne Alexander said.

Maria Torres, tribal chief of the Pacuache Tilijaya Coahuiltecan Tribe of Texas, said redevelopment projects, such as the one targeted for the former Mission Trails, risk disrupting the heritage and atmosphere of neighborhoods that have evolved around the missions.

“We need to fight and tell (the City and developers) we don’t want those apartments to be gated because it takes away our cultural connectiveness,” she added. The City has said it too would discourage planners from building gated communities along the river in the World Heritage area.

The 210 Development Group’s project at Mission Concepción will be gated, developers have said, because of security concerns.

“It has to be. We can’t finance an un-gated community,” 210 Development President Michael Wibracht said last week. “You want to build a project that’s going to feel secure to a single mom.”

(Read More: Apartments at Mission Concepción Receive Final Approval After Height Adjustment)

An aerial view of the proposed Villa Concepción apartment complex looking east. Rendering courtesy of R&A Architects.
An aerial view of the proposed Villa Concepción apartment complex looking east. Rendering courtesy of R&A Architects.

Another issue is a fear of displacement and how new development in the area could raise property value and taxes in the community.

“When development comes, it will double and triple your taxes,” said resident Richard Montesdeoca. “You may not be able to live here anymore.”

Montesdeoca suggested a strategy for protecting area homeowners from any future spikes in appraisals.

“I agree, it’s going to need an innovative solution,” Alexander replied. The Alliance has advocated such things as the formation of a special district, which members hope will enable greater scrutiny of more sensitive area properties that might be eyed for development.

Brown said the main motivation behind the World Heritage designation was to protect the culture and history of the missions and their immediate surroundings.

Now, he said, the City may allow a new surge of development that could result in “the destruction of neighborhoods.”

The Alliance letter to Swain contains both ideas and suggestions. One is a concession model to provide equal access to specific commercial opportunities on existing City or County land.

“Without unduly damaging private property interests, it may be socially beneficial to concentrate needed commercial goods and services in a few places in order to preserve as much as of the open space along the river as possible,” the letter states. “After all, public money created the current commercial opportunity. World Heritage designation and the development of the Mission Reach should not become a windfall for a few private property owners at any scale.”

The City has scheduled public meetings regarding the proposed land use amendments on Sept. 20 from 6-8 p.m. at Stinson Airport, and on Sept. 24 from 10 a.m.-noon at Mission Library. The Alliance will have a meeting immediately following the Sept. 24 gathering at Mission Library, starting at noon.

Until then, the Alliance is accepting input on the proposals from residents via its website, Facebook, and Twitter pages, as well as through personal communication.

Brown and Alexander said it is vital for as many residents as possible to communicate their concerns and questions about the World Heritage area and its future development. Change is coming to the missions area, Alexander added, but it’s up to neighborhood residents to stand together en masse and speak out on potentially undesirable development.

“Change shouldn’t happen in a way that denigrates your quality of life,” he added.

Top image: Mission San Juan Capistrano.  Photo by Scott Ball.  

Related Stories:

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Apartments at Mission Concepción Could Violate Height Restrictions

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Mission San José Neighbors: Apartments Too Close For Comfort

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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.