Terry Ybañez and other community members discuss plans for the future of the land surrounding the missions. Photo by Camille Garcia.

Increased green spaces and limited development surrounding the five Spanish mission sites were hotly-debated subjects during the City’s third World Heritage Symposium on Saturday. Since the historical sites received World Heritage status last July, community members have expressed concern over the 5,700-acres of mission land.

Saturday’s forum was meant to gather community input regarding what sort of development, if any, residents would like to see in the areas surrounding the five missions.

Mayor Ivy Taylor welcomed citizens and City officials to the STEM High School cafeteria in Harlandale ISD on Saturday, where she reminded attendees to “focus on preserving and incorporating (the missions) historical aspects while we grow and plan for our future.”

Nearly 100 community members attended the symposia on Saturday, including members of neighborhood associations, the San Antonio River Authority, the National Park Service, and citizens with deep ties to the missions. City Manager Sheryl Sculley and Assistant City Manager Lori Houston were also present to listen to the community’s ideas and concerns.

Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) shared several World Heritage updates that had occurred since the last symposia held in December. VIA Metropolitan Transit has committed to extending Route 42 to all five missions by June 2016, and the City’s Transportation and Capital Improvements Department will complete a beautification project for the major routes connecting to the missions by April 2016.

The Convention and Visitors Bureau has begun working with tour bus companies to extend tour routes to all five missions, Viagran said, and the San Antonio River Authority has taken inventory of all signage from the airport to downtown to the missions, in an effort to better wayfinding for motorists and bicyclists.

According to a TCI assessment, the area surrounding the missions requires $43.4 million to improve the infrastructure, which includes: $14.7 million in streets, $20.5 million in sidewalks, and $8.2 million for utility burial. City Council will assess how to move forward with those improvements in the coming months.

Finally, the City is looking to develop a World Heritage mobile app to enhance the visitor experience.

Before breaking into the small group sessions, Viagran reiterated that she does not support the multi-family housing proposal in front of Mission San José by 210 Development Group, but still encouraged attendees to keep an open mind when considering each development possibility.

“I know some people get really anxious about the word ‘development,’ but the truth is development means economic development, growth, jobs, things that are good for our community and long overdue for the Southside,” she said. “We can do this with a balance.”

City volunteers helped lead the symposium’s small-group discussion programming, splitting attendees into 10 groups. Each group worked with a set of maps featuring six key neighborhood plans, including: Downtown, Lavaca, Lone Star, South Central San Antonio Community, Stinson Airport Vicinity and Heritage South Sector. Those six neighborhoods would encompass the 5,700 acre World Heritage buffer zone and specific goals regarding land use.

Beatrice “Bea” Quintero-Erfurth came to the symposium because she has had a deep connection with Mission Espada since she was a little girl. The World Heritage designation, she said, is an opportunity to share the missions’ unique culture and history with others.

“When I first heard about the World Heritage designation, I couldn’t stop crying,” Quintero-Erfurth said. “I wanted other people to know about how special (the missions) are and now they’ll know.”

Each group worked to determine preferred land developments using a set of colored dot stickers, each color indicating a different type of development. The seven development options included: single family residential, multifamily residential, mixed use, commercial, industrial, parks/open space, and agricultural space.

Each neighborhood plan was carefully reviewed and sparked lively discussion among group members, but the most controversial plans included those surrounding the Alamo, Mission Concepción, and Mission San José.

Terry Ybanez, a member of the Mission San José Neighborhood Association, said she believes open discussions should take place in order to make sure all community voices are heard.

“I think having discussions with the community before decisions are made is important,” she said. “The change at Concepción, that should have been halted by a discussion like this, but it wasn’t.”

The “change” Ybanez referred to is the new $26 million multi-family development that was approved to go up in place of St. John’s Seminary near Mission Concepción. The project won City approval last October despite protests and public backlash from the missions’ passionate neighbors.

Vincent Huizar, another attendee, has been connected to the missions through his family for more than 300 years. His ancestors played a major role in the construction of Mission San José. Though his group, along with others, pushed for expanded green space surrounding the missions, Huizar saw the other side of coin as a threat to existing neighbors in the area.

“They’re talking a lot about a lot of green space, but you’re going to be eliminating a lot of people in houses there and you can’t do that because some of these people tie in going back to 300 years or further back,” Huizar said.

Near the end of the afternoon, the attendees reconvened in the cafeteria to report and hear each group’s findings. The general consensus was not surprising: nearly every group mentioned a strong disapproval for industrialization and commercialization in any area near the missions and pushed more for small, local businesses to occupy those spaces.

Most groups said that if commercialization or industrialization were to occur, it should occur in areas that are not adjacent to any of the missions. The area near the Blue Star Brewery would be appropriate for mixed-use developments that could include commercial, cultural, institutional, or industrial uses.

The approach to multi-family housing units varied, some group members noted the value of having affordable living in the area,  but others worried about the potential disruption those multi-family units could cause.

Passionate citizens like Maria Torres, tribal chief of the Pacuache Tilijaya Coahuiltecan Tribe of Texas, urged the City, once again, to designate the land surrounding the missions as parkland.

“We’re not against urbanization and progress, but the site is an archaeological site with multiple Indian burial sites,” she said.

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With some worry about the rise in property taxes or rent because of more development and tourism in the areas around the missions, Mayor Taylor said the City is working to use initiatives already in place, such as the property-tax free program available in historic districts.

The City is “also looking at incentives that we may provide for types of development to try and create mixed-income neighborhoods and protect opportunities for those without as much income to continue to live in these areas,” Taylor added.

Councilwoman Viagran told attendees that the City Council would review all recommendations made by the attendees in May; additional public and stakeholder meetings will be held to further discuss the future of the land use and development goals.

“After this step we’ll even have more community input from neighborhood groups, from stakeholder groups and make sure that we can have the economic growth and opportunity but balance it with the reverence of our missions,” she added.

City officials are looking to hire an official World Heritage director, Viagran said, to be “the touch point for all of these issues that are taking place.”

For Quintero-Erfurth, this is a time that the City needs to be innovative in preserving the history of the missions and in turn relaying that history to visitors and residents alike.

“When people come here, they want to connect with the place and how it used to be,” she said. “We should hold onto a little bit of how it used to be, for them.”

*Top image: Terry Ybanez and other community members discuss plans for the future of the land surrounding the missions. Photo by Camille Garcia.

Related Stories:

World Heritage Symposium Highlights Need for Strategic Development, Storytelling

Mission San José Neighbors: Apartments Too Close For Comfort

Mission Concepción Portal Blends Nature With Architecture

World Heritage Weekend: Celebrating San Antonio History and Preservation

Camille Garcia is a journalist born and raised in San Antonio. She formerly worked at the San Antonio Report as assistant editor and reporter. Her email is camillenicgarcia@gmail.com