Mission San José. Photo by Scott Ball.
Mission San José. Photo by Scott Ball.

With World Heritage inscription ceremonies completed, City Councilmember Rebecca Viagran (D3) has organized and will host a World Heritage Symposium on Saturday to explore how the designation will guide San Antonio’s future preservation and presentation of the Alamo, the four Missions, and Rancho de las Cabras.

The symposium will take place Saturday, 10 a.m.-12 p.m,. at the Buena Vista Theater at the University of Texas at San Antonio‘s (UTSA) downtown campus, and is free and open to the public. This inaugural symposium will explore the meaning and application of the “outstanding universal value” of the city’s World heritage properties and how those words guide and define those responsible for UNESCO’s 1,031 World Heritage sites worldwide. There are only 23 sites in the United States. San Antonio’s Spanish colonial structures are the only World Heritage site in Texas.

Symposium organizers say Saturday’s event could be the first in a series, each one examining a different aspect of what it means to be part of the World Heritage community. Preservation, historical interpretation, marketing, infrastructure needs, sensitive development and protection of the properties and neighborhoods that surround the colonial treasures, all are important topics now being studied by local government, community, preservation and Catholic Church authorities.

Panelists include Father David Garcia, the Archdiocesan director of the Old Spanish Missions; Susan Snow, archaeologist for the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park; Suzanne Scott, general manager of the San Antonio River Authority; Betty Bueche, director of the Bexar County Heritage & Parks Department, and Bill DuPont, the director of UTSA’s Center for Cultural Sustainability. Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard will moderate the panel discussion.   

Earlier this month, City Council unanimously approved a key zoning request for a $26 million multi-family development near Mission Concepción. 210 Development Group will transform the former St. John’s Seminary school complex into a multi-family apartment complex and build additional apartment buildings on the 11.1 acre property.

210 Development Group also has plans to build a 144-unit apartment complex adjacent to Mission San José. In July, about 50 neighbors and stakeholders in the area surrounding Mission San José met at Mission Branch Library to discuss the project. Much of the audience, including state Rep. Roland Gutierrez (D-119) and Councilmember Viagran, expressed concern with the proposal. Councilmember Viagran was one of several people who expressed concern that the height of the proposed project would partially block the view of Mission San José. On June 17, 210 Development Group received conceptual approval from the Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) for the project. Sources in the development community say the project might now be canceled in the face of growing community opposition.

Building massing and site plan for the proposed Mission Concepción apartment and office building complex. Image courtesy of Moule & Polyzoides.
Building massing and site plan for the proposed Mission Concepción apartment and office building complex. Image courtesy of Moule & Polyzoides.

The United Nations Education, Science, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designates World Heritage sites based on a list of 10 selection criteria and the “outstanding universal value” of a site.

According to UNESCO, the Missions are of “outstanding universal value” because they have “evolved over time” with their surrounding communities. While Mission de Valero (the Alamo) is mostly a tourist site, the remaining four Missions are community gathering spots. The Missions continue to serve as active Catholic parishes. Masses are regularly celebrated even as visitors and locals are welcomed to tour San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. Hike and bike trails, and portals leading from the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River serve to integrate the Spanish colonial treasures into the fabric of daily life on the Southside.

The community has grown with the Missions, rather than away from them. For this reason, Bueche supports sensitive development near the Missions.

“It is not accurate to assume that if apartments are built that they will degrade the outstanding universal value,” Bueche said. Instead, the apartment development will further the “continuing cultural tradition” of the historical sites. “The Alamo and each of the Missions and the community surrounding them show evidence of this continuing cultural tradition. Because of that, UNESCO is not opposed to development.”

Betty Bueche, director of Bexar Heritage and Parks Department. Photo by Joan Vinson.
Betty Bueche, director of Bexar Heritage and Parks Department. Photo by Joan Vinson.

Now that the formal inscription ceremony and other celebrations have ended, Bueche hopes to “take a couple of steps back and explain to people what it means to be a World Heritage site.”

“The neighborhood associations (which are protesting development) don’t understand the inscription requirements,” Bueche said.

When the Missions and the Alamo were being considered a World Heritage site, UNESCO sent an evaluator to inspect each site.

“We were very open, very honest, and very frank” with the evaluator, Bueche said, adding that those involved told the evaluator of future plans for development.

“UNESCO is not opposed to development,” Bueche said. “What they are opposed to is development that might degrade what they defined as the outstanding universal value.”

According to UNESCO’s website, “There is continual monitoring for potential threats to the property to ensure none jeopardize the attributes that sustain the property’s Outstanding Universal Value. Perhaps the most significant potential threat is the rapid growth and development of the City of San Antonio.”

The City has established regulations to protect the Missions while San Antonio grows, such as the Mission Protection Zoning Overlay Districts that provide individual buffer zones that protect the Alamo and the four Missions and their viewsheds.

“This first session is intended to educate people and explain to them all of the layers and complexities of the ordinances and regulatory requirements that are in place,” Bueche said.

For UTSA’s DuPont, change is inevitable, so the conversation should be about determining if the change will positively or negatively impact the “outstanding universal value” of the Alamo and the Missions. DuPont cited other World Heritage cities throughout the globe that have already dealt with some of the issues 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

“It’s not like you have to reinvent the wheel. … We can look to those cities as examples,” he said.

DuPont believes the trickiest part of protecting the Missions is creating “intangible” protection mechanisms for the people who live, work, and worship near the Missions. Since the Missions were not designated solely on their architectural elements, but on their continuous ability to attract local community members to their grounds for daily activities, losing the local presence would result in a loss of historical and even contemporary value.

“If you displaced all of the local people and just had tourists then you would lose some of the value,” he said.

Councilmember Viagran hopes the symposium will “get people on the same page to plan together.”

“The focus of the symposium is on coming together and working together,” Viagran said. “We don’t want to cause division. We want to work together to see how we can make (the Missions and the Alamo) a visitors experience for tourists and locals. This is just the first step.”

*Top image: Mission San José. Photo by Scott Ball.  

Related Stories:

World Heritage Weekend: Celebrating San Antonio History and Preservation

San Antonio’s World Heritage Balancing Act

Native Americans to Guide San Antonio Mission Tours

Mission San José Neighbors: Apartments Too Close for Comfort

Former Rivard Report Assistant Editor Joan Vinson is a San Antonio native who graduated from The University of Texas with a bachelor's degree in journalism. She's a yoga fanatic and an adventurer at heart....