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The Alliance for San Antonio Missions, a group of Southside residents concerned about development near the four Spanish colonial Missions in the Southside, has called for the City to use part of the 2017 Municipal Bond to purchase land surrounding the historic structures. But Alliance representatives said they have yet to receive a response from city officials.
This lack of communication was a centerpiece for the frustration expressed during a panel discussion Sunday night hosted by the Alliance at Mission Branch Library. Several residents said they felt their voices were not being heard by the City as it develops strategies surrounding Texas’ first World Heritage sites.
“Today is to make the case for better communication, better representation and real civic engagement,” said Carroll Brown, who is a retired Air Force research psychologist and serves as secretary of the Alliance. Brown gave the first presentation to an audience of about 50. “There are important topics to discuss. Why are we not having more public conversations?”
Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) specifically has yet to respond to a letter signed by seven neighborhood associations and community groups, Brown said. The letter, sent two and a half months ago to Viagran, told the them to consider dedicating money from the estimated $750 million 2017 bond to “acquire key properties around the four San Antonio Missions on the Southside” including existing green spaces and “developed space that can be appropriately be re-purposed to preserve and enhance our communities and the experience of the Missions.”
“My community has a serious problem,” Brown said. “It’s called lack of political representation.”
The City hired its first World Heritage Director, Southside native Colleen Swain, earlier this year and continues to develop and implement a work plan that was informed by various city departments and public input gathered through a series of City-sponsored public symposia.
For this group of residents, those symposia weren’t enough.
Olga Martinez, president of the Villa Coronado Neighborhood Association, cited concerns about neighborhood changes. She said the only reason she is aware of projects taking place in her neighborhood is because she attends neighborhood association meetings.
“I’m not saying that all development is bad, but not communicating with people it’s going to affect is,” Martinez said. “So (the City) needs to get the word out. They can send it out to every resident of South Sector area so you can know what I know. You won’t know it unless you attend one of these meetings because they are not reaching out to everyone, but everyone needs to know.”
Local businessman Carlos Noriega echoed Martinez’s concerns. He said he has many questions about how he can make sure his future businesses will be a part of the “smart development” the area needs, but no one is able to point him in the right direction for answers.
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“Remember we elected our officials and we need to make sure we hold them accountable to have those conversations with us,” Noriega said. “We need answers to specific questions not vague answers and token meetings. Like a lot of my neighbors, all I am asking for is open conversation where we really understand what is happening and we can give input to the issues that affect us.”
A portion of the City’s second symposia focused on small business.
The Alliance has been working toward several goals since it organized more than one year ago: the revision of the Mission Protection Overlay District to include stricter guidelines for development and the formation of a World Heritage Advisory Committee, World Heritage Reinvestment Fund, and San Antonio Mission’s Cultural District.
“We see the need to de-politicize the conversation about World Heritage by giving a substantive role to the community because World Heritage is bigger than council districts and lasts longer than any term of office,” Brown said of the advisory committee proposal.
The reinvestment fund, if funded through the Hotel Occupancy Tax, could be used to protect the World Heritage designation while improving the area’s urban planning and policy, said the president of the Hot Wells Neighborhood Association Gerald Hess.
“If we want to preserve World Heritage San Antonio, we have to pay special attention to the issues of gentrification and displacement,” Hess said.
World Heritage status brings obvious economic benefits to the city, but also threatens the stability of the surrounding neighborhood, he said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated the letter had been sent to other City officials. It was only sent to Viagran.
Top Image: Teresa Cantu, a Villa Coronado neighborhood resident, challenges the group to attend city council meetings to increase communication. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone