The Last Judgment fresco on the interior of the Duomo in Florence, painted by Giorgio Vasari and Frederico Zuccari between 1572-79. Photo by Robert Rivard.
The Last Judgment fresco on the interior of the Duomo in Florence, painted by Giorgio Vasari and Frederico Zuccari between 1572-79. Photo by Robert Rivard.

Upon approach, the distant hilltop view of the medieval walled town of San Gimignano with its celebrated stone towers gives the contemporary traveler to the province of Siena a glimpse of what pilgrims, sojourners, and invading forces saw so many hundreds of years ago. Among the nearly 50 UNESCO World Heritage Sites found in Italy, perhaps none can quite compare with the deep look into medieval times that a visitor gains with a first sighting of San Gimignano, the walled city perched high in the Tuscan hills.

View from atop a tower in the medieval walled town of San Gimignano. Photo by Robert Rivard
View from atop a tower in the medieval walled town of San Gimignano. Photo by Robert Rivard

That same sensation of going back in time and experiencing an important moment in history is what San Antonio wants to give visitors to the city’s Spanish Missions and the Alamo, now the first World Heritage Site in Texas. It’s a particular view that represents the time when the Old World and New World came together along the San Antonio River. Hundreds of years ago, Europeans and indigenous people alike must have marveled as they glimpsed the colorfully decorated stucco exteriors of the Missions, whose bell towers came into view a few miles in the distance as travelers approached on foot or on horseback.

Three million people visit the Missions each year, and much has been accomplished to make their experience memorable with the $17 million restoration of the churches, the $271.4 million restoration of Mission Reach of the San Antonio River, and construction of the portals that connect them. Winning the UNESCO World Heritage Site inscription in Bonn, Germany earlier this month, however, was just a beginning. Much work lies ahead if future visitors are to enjoy a true World Heritage experience.

A visitor’s first step on to the Alamo Plaza, or first glimpse of Mission San José, the “Queen of the Missions,” from Mission Road or Roosevelt Avenue is anything but world-class.

World Heritage Sites in Italy

A long-planned July wedding of two friends from Austin in Urbania, a small commune in the province of Marche, Italy, brought Monika Maeckle, my wife, and I first to the great historical city of Florence and then on a week-long road trip through the wooded hills and trestled vineyards of Tuscany. Our sporty Fiat rental broke down in the very first hour of that road trip, and eventually was replaced with a workmanlike Volkswagen. Back on the twisting, climbing curves shared by small cars, cyclists and backpackers, Gothic and Romanesque architecture beckoned us all along the way to stop and explore the past and its remarkable preservation.

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One of the last stories I wrote before leaving for Italy was “San Antonio Missions & Alamo Now a World Heritage Site” about the official UNESCO designation awarded to our city’s Missions and the Alamo in Bonn, Germany on July 5. One week earlier, I wrote “Camino de San Antonio: A Future World Heritage Walk” that described an intriguing idea shared with me by Fr. David Garcia as he embarked on his own summer pilgrimage to Spain.

Fr. Garcia skipped the ceremonies in Bonn to walk El Camino a Santiago, better known in English as the Way of St. James or the Road to Santiago. Since the 11th century, countless numbers of the faithful, penitents and miracle seekers have made the journey along the many paths that begin in Spain, Portugal and France and lead to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. History and legend say the remains of St. James the Apostle were entombed in Compostela after being spirited out of Jerusalem by Crusaders as Christians and Muslims warred through the Middle Ages. Pilgrims over the millennia have journeyed on foot for weeks and months, braving attackers, robbers, religious persecution, and the plague, depending on the kindness of strangers for food and shelter.

Today the Old Town of Santiago de Compostela is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Fr. David believes San Antonio can shape its own pilgrimage and Camino from San Fernando Cathedral that would follow the San Antonio River south to each of the four Spanish Missions. It’s that kind of vision that can elevate San Antonio as a destination for the traveler in search of culture, history or a spiritual experience.

Ten days, including air travel, is far too little time to experience all that northern Italy offers its visitors. Our Florence to Urbania to Urbino to San Gimignano and back to Florence route took us to multiple World Heritage sites. Each one left us with a newfound appreciation of how much work lies ahead for San Antonio to elevate the visitor experience to a level where people go home and tell others, “you have to go.”

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San Antonio’s Challenge

History has placed Councilmember Rebecca Viagran (D3) in office at a critical juncture. Her Southside district today is a promising mix of urban renewal (the Mission Reach), new economic development (Brooks City Base), smart public investment (the former Mission Drive-In and Mission Branch Library), and history (the four Spanish Colonial-era Missions). It’s also a district with a seemingly endless list of infrastructure needs, including the South Presa Street and Roosevelt Corridors.

Viagran, who serves as a member of San Antonio’s World Heritage Advisory Committee and was one of the city’s delegates in Bonn, is familiar with the challenges that lie ahead.

Councilmember Rebecca Viagran (D3), Mayor Ivy Taylor, and her daughter Morgan Taylor enjoy traditional music in Bonn, Germany before the UNESCO World Heritage meeting. Courtesy photo.
Councilmember Rebecca Viagran (D3), Mayor Ivy Taylor, and her daughter Morgan Taylor enjoy traditional music in Bonn, Germany before the UNESCO World Heritage meeting. Courtesy photo.

“We’ve been thinking about this all through the application process, we know we need significant infrastructure improvements,” Viagran said after returning from Bonn. “Landscaping, streetscaping, improving the looks of businesses along the routes and near the Missions, multilingual signage for people, and various transportation options are among he challenges, and all have been the subject of discussion for some time.

“Just as everyone on the World Heritage Advisory Committee worked together so well to ensure this nomination became an inscription, we need to work together now to make sure we accomplish even more,” Viagran said. “What is the financial component? We are still in the preliminary stages of that conversation. It will be difficult, but we can do it. How we get there is something we are still trying to flesh out.”

A San Antonio World Heritage Commission

Our experiences in Italy and in visits to other World Heritage sites in the United States and Europe over the years suggest that San Antonio needs a master plan to map out all the improvements, costs, funding sources, and a timeline. Some improvements should be completed by the city’s 300th anniversary celebrations in May 2018. Other improvements, such as the Alamo Plaza redevelopment, might be targeted by 2020, the end of the first Decade of Downtown. Significant infrastructure improvements can be included in the 2017 City bond.

San Antonio probably needs a new entity that represents the respective interests of the state of Texas (the Alamo and major funding for Alamo Plaza improvements), the City, Bexar County, the San Antonio River Authority, the Catholic Archdiocese, the National Park Service, and the San Antonio Conservation Society, and the private sector.

An advisory committee is not the right mechanism. A well-funded, non-profit San Antonio World Heritage Commission would be more effective. Funding will be a challenge, but the long-term payoff will be significant

State funding for the Alamo Plaza Master Plan and future state allocations to help the City carry out those improvements will be critically important. San Antonio should lobby for all the venues to receive funding since together they comprise the only World Heritage site in Texas. The argument can be made on cultural and economic development grounds.

The City’s 2017 Bond should include significant funds for South Presa, Roosevelt and Mission Road Corridor improvements and better signage

Mission San Juan. Photo by Scott Ball.
Mission San Juan. Photo by Scott Ball.

The state has created the private Alamo Endowment, led by prominent Texans. The archdiocese has started a small endowment to fund church maintenance and restoration work. It will take significant funds going forward to protect the Alamo, the four Missions and San Fernando Cathedral so they never again fall into disrepair.

Special tax increment zones exist for the Mission Drive-In area and the Roosevelt Corridor. Perhaps these should be expanded to a World Heritage TIRZ that incentivizes private sector development throughout the Mission footprint.

Officials should examine ways to acquire vacant land and properties near the Missions and the Alamo Plaza where the overall experience can be enhanced by averting insensitive development, and improved by using the properties for businesses that better serve the World Heritage economy.

New Southside Amenities

The areas surrounding the Missions are in serious need of amenities, including different lodging options: a clean and safe youth hostel, bed and breakfast or Airbnb choices, and a hotel. Not all visitors want to stay downtown and not all visitors can afford to stay downtown. Even many who can might prefer a quiet boutique hotel on the Mission Reach with early morning birding or recreation opportunities. Restaurants, sidewalk cafés, coffee shops, even inviting corner groceries are elements commonly found within easy walking distance of World Heritage sites. Our city lacks those now, but with public investment and incentives along the corridors they will come.

Any regular user of the Mission Reach knows restroom facilities and ready availability of drinking water are issues. These shortcomings need to be addressed. Shaded bus stops and shade trees along continuous sidewalks need to be added to the streets that will bring people from downtown to the Missions and back. We paid about 65 cents to use clean, monitored restrooms in Florence with no waiting lines. Drinking water was readily available. As Europe weathered a heat wave, these amenities mattered. They will make a big difference in the visitor experience here, too.

Imagine you are a prospective visitor to San Antonio, researching a possible trip to see the World Heritage site. The new website is a start, but it falls far short of the state-of-the-art, interactive website that gives the sophisticated cultural visitor a panoramic appreciation of the city and its historical and cultural attractions. Educated Guides who speak various languages need to be easily found and contacted. Would-be comedians working the River Walk barges need not apply. Visitors to the Missions need improved handout materials and better gift shops.

Regular VIA bus service is not going to promote the visitor experience. The quality of buses that ferry visitors from the San Antonio Airport to downtown, and those that ply the Mission routes need to offer greater comfort, amenities and seating plans to accommodate luggage, backpacks, and the like.

Finally, local economic development and cultural officials need to visit World Heritage sites set in other urban areas and meet with the individuals and organizations that operate and manage the sites to get a firsthand look at how the best sites attract and treat visitors. There are few such venues in the United States. Europe is the logical starting point. Like San Antonio, cities there are offering visitors a glimpse of life when the spiritual, political and economic reach of the Catholic Church covered much of Western Europe and, later, the New World.

San Antonio faces big challenges in making the most of its World Heritage site designation. It will take vision, real money, and the right organizational model to achieve the maximum results. It will be well worth it: new job creation, more visitors, and significant place changing in San Antonio. Look at it this way: Most U.S. cities would kill to have the same opportunities and challenges San Antonio now faces.

Mission San José. Photo by Scott Ball.
Mission San José, the “Queen of the Missions”, founded in 1720. The present church was built in 1768. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Related Stories:

Mission San José Neighbors: Apartments Too Close For Comfort

Small Group Protests Alamo World Heritage Designation

Daughters Lose the Alamo, San Antonio Gains an Opportunity

San Antonio Celebrates World Heritage Site Designation

San Antonio Missions & Alamo Now a World Heritage Site

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.