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

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org