Mission San José. Photo by Scott Ball.
Mission San José Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Since October 2015, District 3 has hosted three World Heritage symposia designed to engage the public in the effort to preserve and sustain the Missions of San Antonio. The symposia have facilitated an open, engaging process not only for residents of San Antonio’s Southside, but also for the entire San Antonio community. These events were consistently well attended and served as positive mechanisms for collecting feedback about the UNESCO World Heritage designation, visitor experience, and sensitive development and land use. The City has used the symposia series to develop a work plan to maximize the benefits of the designation.

As I have shared many times before, the Southside, District 3 and the area surrounding our World Heritage Missions represent the past, present and future of San Antonio. Throughout this process multiple themes have emerged organically. One to highlight is the desire to maintain the authentic character of the community. Whether this character is displayed through our wayfinding/signage, transportation routes, infrastructure, land use and development, tourism and visitor experience, cultural heritage and storytelling, or small business development, we must ensure we capture this authenticity.

On Tuesday, April 5, the City will host a World Heritage Open House at the National Park Service Visitor Center at Mission San José at 6 p.m. The open house invites the public to view the progress being made on the World Heritage Work Plan and to provide feedback on that progress. City departments and community partners will have tables to display input and feedback received throughout the symposia series, and will be available to answer questions.

Councilmember Rebecca Viagran (D3) speaks at the opening of the River Return portal. Photo by Scott Ball.
Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) speaks at the opening of the River Return portal on the Mission Reach. Photo by Scott Ball.

This collaborative effort among all of the partners to obtain the designation and the development of the work plan has already gained national attention and San Antonio has become a model for other sites seeking UNESCO World Heritage designation. Stephen Morris, chief of the National Park Service Office of International Affairs, has stated that the nine-year collaborative effort of the many stakeholders in San Antonio has been outstanding, and our designation has reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to the World Heritage program. Furthermore, it is also our continued collaborative efforts to promote this designation and our status as an international city that make us a leader and model.

Last month, the City hired the first World Heritage Director, Colleen Swain, a San Antonio Southside native. This position is the first of its kind for designated World Heritage sites, again making San Antonio a leader for those seeking designation. Colleen will continue the work of the symposia series and engage our partners in the implementation of the comprehensive plan to preserve the cultural history of the Missions, to promote sensitive development, and to enhance tourism.

As before, it takes a team and all of us working together.

To date, the City’s Office of Historic Preservation has collected more than 70 stories about the traditions of our Missions, the areas surrounding them, and the people who love them. Collecting these stories enables us to map the culture of World Heritage and to preserve the traditions and intangible heritage that are integral to our Missions. We will continue to reach out to the community for more valuable stories and even arrange for home visits to collect them.

The San Antonio River Authority completed an inventory of existing wayfinding signage along the River Walk, Mission sites, and throughout the city. The assessment identified appropriate ways to promote the World Heritage designation, to improve the wayfinding experience to all five Missions, and to develop a multimodal concept to direct visitors to and from downtown and the Missions. Additionally, the assessment and feedback from the symposia led to the decision to use one common brand image for the World Heritage Trail and supplemental signage.

The San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau is working to enhance the overall visitor experience with opportunities to experience our Missions in new ways. Marketing materials now include World Heritage branding. The website explains the history of our Missions and the significance of our designation. The CVB will also look for promotional media opportunities similar to a recent piece in the Washington Post which drew national attention to our efforts to preserve Native American history at Texas’s first World Heritage site.

There are now behind-the-scenes and guided “Unforgettable Experience” tours. Soon there will be a new World Heritage ambassador certification available in conjunction with the Certified Tourism Ambassador certification program so those in our hospitality industry are well-versed in the history of the Missions and can be resources to visitors. A mobile website will allow visitors to easily access directions, history, event calendars, and other information in 5 different languages which will require improved cell service and Wi-Fi infrastructure at the Missions.

Ramón Vásquez and Jesús Reyes traverse the grounds at Mission Concepción. Photo by Scott Ball.
Ramón Vásquez and Jesús Reyes walk the grounds at Mission Concepción. Photo by Scott Ball.

In an identified effort to promote existing businesses surrounding the Missions, the City has partnered with UTSA on a market assessment that will identify tools for small business owners. It will also look to create a legacy business program that recognizes and promotes businesses that have been mainstays within our community. As we honor our rich history, we want to ensure our local businesses and the stories they tell remain within our community for decades to come.

Something we heard repeatedly at symposia was the desire to have public transportation for all five Missions. In late March, the VIA Metropolitan Transit Board of Trustees unanimously approved proposed route changes, including extended service to the Mission Reach. Starting on Monday, June 6, the route adjustments will extend service to all of the Missions with service extending to Mission Espada when construction on Espada Road is complete. VIA will also brand the new route to represent the history and heritage of the route.

Finally, I want to address the concerns some have expressed regarding the possibility of displacement associated with the World Heritage designation. The San Antonio Housing Commission to Protect and Preserve Dynamic and Diverse Neighborhoods is committed to encouraging investment in neighborhoods while preventing and minimizing displacement. This task force has formed subcommittees to address more focused areas such as creating more workforce and affordable housing, amending the zoning processes, and hosting annual housing summits. The effort is ongoing and not limited to the Southside alone, but is a city-wide effort that will be incorporated into our efforts to preserve and enhance our entire community.

Again, I reaffirm my commitment to ensuring that the economic development and growth surrounding our Missions is authentic to our character, respectful of the surrounding parishes, parks, neighborhoods, and businesses, and that it includes input from everyone.

We are the first World Heritage site in Texas and with it comes much responsibility. I believe the commitment of the City and our partners, as well as your continued feedback, will lead us as we all grow together in our global city.


Featured image: Visitors on the grounds of Mission San José, “Queen of the Missions.” Photo by Scott Ball

Related stories:

Open House: World Heritage Work Plan Updates Coming Soon

Swain Chosen as World Heritage Director

World Heritage Symposium Addresses Land Use Around Missions

World Heritage Symposium Highlights Need for Strategic Development, Storytelling

City Convenes First World Heritage Symposium

Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran is proud to be from a family whose 200-year history in San Antonio and South Texas has a long-standing legacy of service in the community she currently represents. She was...