Desiree, age 14, practices on her guitaro before a mariachi performance at Mission Concepción. Photo by Scott Ball.
Desiree, age 14, practices on her guitaro before a mariachi performance at Mission Concepción. Photo by Scott Ball.

City Council was briefed on Wednesday on the development of a work plan that when finished will recommend how to protect, improve and promote the World Heritage designation site.

The plan will focus on the four Spanish colonial missions on the Southside that, along with the Alamo, received World Heritage designation last summer. The Mission Heritage Buffer, as the City calls it, covers 5,775 acres, including 883 acres of parkland. It probably is the richest concentration of public park space in San Antonio, and home to a world-class set of colonial structures that help tell the story of when European soldiers, missionaries and settlers first laid claim to lands here and began to convert the indigenous population.

San Antonio’s Missions, collectively, make up the first UNESCO World Heritage site in Texas, and only the 23rd in the United States. After Philadelphia and Independence Hall, the World Heritage site here is only the second one located in the heart of a U.S. city, three if you count New York and the Statue of Liberty that sits on Liberty Island in the New York Harbor.

Beyond the importance of preserving the cultural heritage rooted in the Missions and Alamo, itself once the first mission in San Antonio, the economic value of the designation is significant. Officials estimate the World Heritage site will generate between $44 million and $105 million yearly, between 500 and 1,000 new jobs, and $2 million in local hotel tax revenue. First, however, the Missions and their surroundings, and the Alamo and Alamo Plaza will require substantial investment.

The National Park Service announced $29,120 million from a $15 million national program fund would benefit the Missions National Historical Park on Thursday. The funds will be used for deferred maintenance to the historic acequias at Mission San Juan. Facilitated by Los Compadres, the San Antonio Conservation Society will also match the park’s mission funds with $25,000 for park rangers to create curriculum-based farm programming.

The World Heritage Inscription Ceremony at Mission San José. Photo by Joan Vinson.
The World Heritage Inscription Ceremony at Mission San José. Photo by Joan Vinson.

City Manager Sheryl Sculley said the development plan is a work in progress.

“It’s a dynamic document and changes can be made as more information is gathered,” she said.

Public input has been vital to the work plan’s development, and will continue to be important, according to Assistant City Manager Lori Houston. She cited the continuing series of symposiums on World Heritage. The next symposium, which will focus on sensitive development and land use, will be held Feb. 6 at the STEM Early College High School in the Harlandale Independent School District, which is located at 4040 Apollo St. off Roosevelt Avenue next to Harlandale Memorial Stadium.

The early version of the work plan aims attempts to balance environmental and preservation considerations around the Missions with existing homes and businesses and new development.

Lori Houston, Director of the Center City Development Office, outlined plans for the future of Alamo Plaza. Photo courtesy City of San Antonio.
Assistant City Manager Lori Houston

It’s a complex proposition. As Houston pointed out during her presentation, there are five existing zoning overlay districts, 10 neighborhood associations, seven neighborhood plans, five tax increment reinvestment zones that come into play when considering the entire Mission footprint. City staff know they will need to bring clarity to that many layered map in order for people to understand how the area can be both protected and improved without individuals becoming mired in red tape.

The City will soon seek additional input from the Council and the community for recommended infrastructure improvements inside the buffer zone. If approved by the Council, any such recommendations could be funded by a mix of fiscal year 2016 budget amendments, regularly scheduled maintenance money, and the 2017 bond proposal, Sculley said.

One facet of the work plan will show locals and visitors how best to get to the Missions by bus, bicycle, walking, and driving. The City is looking at ways to enhance the experience all by all transportation modes.

That will include safer signage and routing for cyclists. The roadways between downtown and the Missions are among the most heavily used cycling routes in the city. Among the many challenges, Houston said, are residents who use designated bike lanes as on-street parking. An official Mission Trail from South Alamo Street to South St. Mary’s Street can be identified by green candy cane-shaped light poles, Houston said.

The City is working with companies like Grayline that offer guided tours of the Missions. VIA Metropolitan Transit will fully extend Route 42 bus service straight from downtown to the Missions by this June.

A beautification plan along the major arteries leading to the Missions will begin in April. The plan includes landscaping, better lighting, information banners, public art, code enforcement, graffiti abatement, and addressing the area’s chronic stray dogs problem.

A weekend tour of near Eastside and Southside neighborhoods for the Rivard Report’s new photographer Kathryn Boyd-Batstone featured stray dogs on virtually every single block before a stray-free block was finally sighted. Some of the dogs were true strays, others were near their owners who allow their pets to run loose, chase cyclists and vehicles, and roam the neighborhood.

The work plan also will be guided by the City’s vacant building registration program, instituted in January 2015, which covers historic districts within the buffer zone.

The work plan also will address wayfinding, which was a major concern for many people who attended the Dec. 5 World Heritage symposium. As the branding process for the World Heritage site develops, Houston said good signage for the Missions must provide safe and easy paths for all visitors.

Resident Bill Bordelon and Razi Hosseini of the City's Transportation and Capital Improvements department discuss the possible infrastructure changes on road leading to the missions. Photo by Lea Thompson.
Resident Bill Bordelon and Razi Hosseini of the City’s Transportation and Capital Improvements department discuss the possible infrastructure changes on road leading to the missions during the World Heritage Symposium on Oct. 14, 2015. Photo by Lea Thompson.

“We have so many signs in the area, but there needs to be a good inventory of those signs and we need to layer them,” she said, referencing a GIS-based inventory that is in the works.

The continuing public input process will include a market assessment and the development of a policy to incentivize the growth of small businesses to complement the Missions district. While the City cannot ban or dissuade retail chains from coming to the area, it hopes to repurpose old area motels and retails storefronts, and encourage the establishment of local, “authentic” businesses, Houston said.

This represents an opportunity for small hotels, hostels and on-demand platforms such as AirBnB to accommodate what will be a growing number of visitors who want to stay close to the Missions for convenience and to avoid more expensive downtown hotels.

The City’s assessment will be completed this Spring and include details of economic incentives, and planning and zoning guidelines.

Marketing will entail sharing official information about the Missions and World Heritage designation, as well as encouragement of neighborhood residents and anyone else interested in sharing their personal stories.

The City’s Office of Historic Preservation, with the help of District 3 residents, is creating a map that indicates significant places in the area as identified through oral histories. The public is invited to a “Cultural Mapping and Story Collection” event on Saturday, Jan. 16 at the Mission Library from 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

The City also plans to hire a World Heritage coordinator/manager – not necessarily an executive director – this February, and develop additional ambassador certification this May. Mayor Ivy Taylor and Council members said they like what they see in the work plan so far.

“I’m really excited to hear the progress that’s been made in a short period of time,” Mayor Taylor said, adding that she looks forward to the unveiling of a mobile app this summer that will have multilingual information, including audio tours, history, routing and events listings.

The nurturing of existing small businesses in the area, Taylor said, is important.

“This isn’t just about tourism. You have people living near these sites and we have to balance the impacts,” Taylor said.

Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) thanked all organizations and agencies that have contributed to San Antonio’s World Heritage site development.

“The magnitude of something like this is so great, not just for our city but for the state,” she said.

Councilman Roberto Trevino (D1) said he hopes Stinson Municipal Airport is integrated into the work plan.

*Top image: Desiree, age 14, practices on her guitaro before a mariachi performance at Mission Concepción.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

Related Stories:

Planning for the ‘Visitor Experience’ at the Missions

Alliance for San Antonio Missions Convenes Next Roundtable

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

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