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Mayor Ivy Taylor, Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), and Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) called for continued efforts to preserve the “authenticity” of the city’s World Heritage sites, the five Spanish-colonial missions, and their surrounding neighborhoods during a World Heritage Work Plan briefing on Wednesday.
Since the World Heritage designation of the Missions in July, the City and several World Heritage partners have began developing a work plan to prepare for the increased number of visitors that the designation will bring.
World Heritage Director Colleen Swain briefed City Council on the developing Work Plan, which calls for improvements in infrastructure, beautification, way-finding, and transit options in the Mission buffer zone, as well as striking a balance between economic development and the cultural/historical preservation of the area, among other things.
Economic development within the Missions buffer zone has long been regarded as necessary by many neighborhood stakeholders, but there are fears of the potential negative effects newer businesses or developments may have on existing establishments in the area.
Viagran urged the City and Swain to continue to work with the “legacy businesses and legacy homeowners” in the Mission areas.
We need to maintain “those families and those businesses that have lived through the high times, the challenging times, and now through the World Heritage times,” she said, and make sure they can continue to thrive even with the changes to come. Gonzales said those efforts will help San Antonio “get this right” in terms of having the World Heritage sites and their neighborhoods accurately reflect their unique history and culture.
Swain, who said that a priority is regularly gathering community feedback, agreed, and has already met with several neighborhood associations since assuming her post, including the Downtown Residents Association and the South Central Alliance for Neighborhoods. This is “just the start” of an ongoing conversation with community stakeholders, she said.
“If anyone wants a briefing, I will provide it because I want everyone to hear about (the designation) and to be excited about it and know what it means for our city,” Swain said. “If they have questions or items that they want to talk about with me on a separate level, I’m certainly open to doing that. I want the residents … to benefit from all the opportunities this designation will bring.”
The City and the Office of Historic Preservation (OHP) are also working on a mobile app, Swain said, where local business owners in the area can provide information on their establishments to potentially have them reach historic designation.
Development is an inevitable product of receiving such an honor as the UNESCO World Heritage designation, but Mayor Ivy Taylor, too, saw combatting “hysteria of the ‘G’ word (gentrification)” with mindful development practices as integral in the success of the project as a whole.
“It’s so great that we’re making investments in the part of San Antonio where it all started, where our city’s beginnings are,” she said. “I’m very supportive of us making those investments that both protect what is now a World Heritage site and improve those neighborhoods in a sensitive way” that preserves the Missions’ history and the heritage of nearby neighbors.
The World Heritage Work Plan has continually been developed and modified with the help of public input gathered at a series of three symposia and one open house held earlier this month. After months of discussion and debate, over topics such as land use, the visitor experience, and transportation, more concrete plans have began to take shape.
Uniform signage and street renaming along roadways to the Missions, improved transit options including VIA routes and bike lanes, reducing the stray and roaming dog population in the area, and rehabilitating vacant structures in the nearby neighborhoods are just a few areas the World Heritage partners and the City are addressing.
The City Transportation and Capital Improvements Department has already determined more than $43 million of work needed to be done in sidewalk and street improvements, as well as underground utility burial in the 5,800-acre Mission buffer zone. On Thursday, City Council will consider awarding a construction contract for a more than $5 million improvement project on Espada Road, a project included in the 2012-2017 Bond Program.
The City is also considering to “improve cellular coverage of the Missions” in order to bring a multi-lingual “mobile internet site” dedicated to the World Heritage sites, Swain said, that would provide visitors with information such as way-finding and nearby activities taking place, and will also include a social media component.
Members of the City Information and Technology Services Department (ITSD), she added, are also working to identify the locations and costs of potential free Wi-Fi spots in and around the Missions.
Viagran commended the swift progress that has been made in developing the Work Plan, especially since it’s only been a little over eight months since San Antonio received the special World Heritage designation. Some of the next steps, she said, should be to offer support to the Mission parishes and to consider incorporating public art within the Mission corridor.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg, but I’m very impressed with all the work that you’ve done and the teamwork that’s gone through with this.”
Top image: World Heritage Director Colleen Swain listens as Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) responds to the World Heritage Work Plan. Photo by Scott Ball.