"La Danza de Matachines" at Mission Concepción. Photo by Peter Ray.
"La Danza de Matachines" at Mission Concepción in December 2013. Photo by Peter Ray.

The City’s Office of Historic Preservation presented City Council with a plan Wednesday to create four Mission Protection Overlay Districts that would better preserve the environment, settings and views of the four Spanish colonial missions and also strengthen San Antonio’s bid to win World Heritage Site recognition.

One overlay district would be created for each of the four Missions: Mission Concepción, Mission San José, Mission Espada and Mission San Juan.

World Heritage designation is granted by UNESCO and conveys a new level of international recognition and protection to unique natural settings, such as the Grand Canyon, and historically significant cities, buildings and monuments regarded as irreplaceable cultural treasures. The designation elevates global awareness of the sites and leads to higher traffic of cultural visitors who travel to World Heritage sites.

Two Native American sites, Taos Pueblo in New Mexico and Poverty Point in Louisiana’s Mississippi Delta, are the only man-made sites on or west of the Mississippi River with World Heritage site status. San Antonio’s Missions would be the first site constructed by Europeans and Native Americans together. Click here for a UNESCO map of the 1007 World Heritage sites worldwide.

The city’s application could be slowed by  UNESCO politics over suspended U.S. payments to the organization, required by federal law, after UNESCO’s 2011 vote to recognize Palestine as its 107th member nation. The U.S. contributes 22% of UNESCO’s budget, and Israel contributes 3%, so the cutoff by the two nations has imposed serious budget hardships on the organization’s cultural, scientific, and educational programs.

Mission San José with newly restored frontispiece. Photo by Carol Baass Sowa/Today's Catholic.
Mission San José with newly restored frontispiece. Photo by Carol Baass Sowa/Today’s Catholic.

The Mission Protection Overlay Districts would restrict development around the Missions and prevent unwanted encroachment of buildings or businesses incompatible with the colonial churches and walled settlements. More stringent height controls would be imposed on new construction within a 1500? circumference of the Missions’ front entrances.

Such zoning height restrictions would serve to protect traditional site lines of the Missions, much as the State Capitol Building in Austin can be clearly viewed the length of Congress Avenue.

Shanon Shea Miller.  Courtesy photo.
Shanon Shea Miller. Courtesy photo.

“The proposed Mission Protection Overlay districts and the resolution of support will enhance the pending nomination of the San Antonio Missions as a World Heritage Site,” said Shanon Shea Miller, director of the Office of Historic Preservation. “The districts will help to protect the setting and character of the missions and the experience of the visitor. This along with the resolution will demonstrate to the UNESCO member countries reviewing our nomination that we are committed to the protection of these significant gems in our community.”

Today’s presentation by HP staff comes after more than a year of review and public meetings by the Historic Design and Review Commission and the Zoning Commission. The process follows the guidelines set forth in the City’s 2009 Strategic Historic Preservation Plan.

The Alamo, which is part of the World Heritage Site application given its early 18th century origins as Mission San Antonio de Valero, is not part of the Mission Protection Overlay Districts plan, although an overlay district for the Alamo could be created in the future, Miller said, noting that the Alamo and Alamo Plaza already are the subject of a separate City-led review.

City Council is scheduled to vote on creation of the overlay districts on Oct. 2.

Correction: An earlier version of this story omitted Taos Pueblo and Poverty Point as existing man-made World Heritage sites on or west of the Mississippi River.

*Featured/top image: “La Danza de Matachines” at Mission Concepción in December 2013. Photo by Peter Ray.


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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.