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San Antonio Missions: Progress Towards World Heritage Status

Officials with the city are hopeful that the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park will soon be tagged a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A representative from the International Committee on Monuments and Sites conducted an on-site evaluation a few weeks ago. Park superintendent Mardi Arce said the local alliance of missions’ supporters pushing for WHS status saw signs that the park could earn the prestigious distinction. “We were all pleased with the application process,” Arce said. “The evaluator kept us on our toes … but we had about a month to prepare our (presentation), and we’ve really been ready for much longer.”

Mission Concepcion, Staff Photo
Mission Concepcion, Courtesy National Park Service

The local missions typically receive more than 1 million visitors annually, and generate $33 million in area spending, according to a 2012 National Park Service study. The historic missions support about 480 local jobs.  The Bexar County Commissioners Court last year conducted its own study, which showed that World Heritage Site status could help to boost economic impact by as much as $105 million, possibly adding up to 1,098 jobs and potentially an extra $2.2 million in hotel revenue. There are presently 22 world heritage sites in the United States and 981 worldwide. UNESCO accepts and approves applications for a small number of sites each year.  By most accounts, the application process isn’t easy and, occasionally, a specific selection leads to controversy. A legal technicality related to UNESCO’s recognition of Palestine led to the removal of U.S. funding for membership dues at the organization.

Additionally, a recent series of multi-million-dollar residential and commercial construction projects near Mission San Jose and Mission Concepción have sparked worry that such developments will negatively impact viewing points of the missions and their surrounding environment.  The projects have sprung up alongside the development of the San Antonio River Mission Reach extension, which offers an increasing array of recreational activities for residents and tourists. National Park Service archaeologist Susan Snow said she didn’t expect these new developments to affect the local application process.

 

Mission Protection Overlay District Example
Mission Protection Overlay District Example

In the same report, San Antonio District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran said the city has helped to reduce concerns over any new construction near the South Side park by setting up four overlay zoning districts. These districts limit the height of newer buildings within 1,500 feet of markers in and around the missions.  Arce said that San Antonio won’t learn about any potential selection as a heritage site until the evaluator’s report is released later this year. The historic park has established a Facebook page, San Antonio Missions Quest for World Heritage Status, to keep people updated on its designation efforts.

El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historical Trail
El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historical Trail

In the meantime, the historic Spanish missions have earned another distinction. The missions are part of El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historical Trail.  Former Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, unveiled signs recently that designate the missions in this manner.  The trail runs from the Rio Grande to Louisiana and features Native American Indian routes that Spaniards used to set up area missions and presidios. The trail enabled the arrival of cultural innovations to Texas through three historic periods: Spanish colonial, Mexican and Anglo-American.  San Antonio officials and supporters of the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park are hoping that the South Side park will soon be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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