County Judge Nelson Wolff overlooks the San Antonio River and the Mission Reach from the newly constructed Bexar County Public Works building.
County Judge Nelson Wolff overlooks the San Antonio River and the Mission Reach from the newly constructed Bexar County Public Works building. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Bexar County voters of a certain age have grown accustomed to seeing Nelson Wolff’s name on their election ballots. He ranks as San Antonio’s longest-serving public servant of our time. By my count, he has spent 34 of the last 47 years in elected office: State representative (1971-73); State senator (1973-75); San Antonio City Councilman District 8 (1987-91); San Antonio mayor (1991-95); and Bexar County judge (2001-present).

In that time, Wolff also has been a prolific chronicler, producing several books, including three printed volumes chronicling his years at City Hall and Bexar County and the development of various major public works projects in San Antonio over nearly four decades.

Twenty-one years ago he published Mayor: An Inside View of San Antonio Politics, 1981-1995. A decade ago he followed up with Transforming San Antonio: An Insider’s View of the AT&T Center, Toyota, the PGA Village, and the River Walk Extension.

Now Wolff completes the trilogy with The Changing Face of San Antonio: An Insider’s View of an Emerging International City, published this month by Trinity University Press.  A book signing is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 10, 5:30 p.m. at the Twig Book Shop at the Pearl.

Wolff has been a major player in some of the most transformative big-ticket projects in the city and county, some controversial, like the Alamodome, and others, like the Mission Reach and Tobin Center, uncontested successes.

Wolff is a politician, not a wordsmith. He is, politically speaking, an insider. I don’t use that word pejoratively and neither does he. The word appears in all three of his books’ subtitles. All three volumes begin with a foreword by former San Antonio Mayor and HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, a friend and fellow Democrat with his own long record of public service.

Wolff’s new book covers six major projects and initiatives in San Antonio, and along the way offers a lot of political history and the many highs and lows that eventually led to each development. The redevelopment of the San Antonio River and San Pedro Creek and recognition of the Alamo and four Spanish colonial Missions as a UNESCO World Heritage Site take up the opening chapter.

The many efforts to preserve the San Antonio Symphony, the state’s oldest orchestra, and redevelopment of the Municipal Auditorium into the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts are covered in the second chapter, which also surveys the many other advances San Antonio has made in expanding its arts and cultural institutions and offerings.

The building of the Sky Tower at University Hospital follows. While each project offers ample background on the key players and funding mechanisms for each project, what interests me most in the book is Wolff’s encyclopedic memory for the deals and developments that preceded these later projects.

Understanding the long, tortured history that led to the establishment of the South Texas Medical Center, the medical school and the teaching hospital, not to mention the subsequent competition to establish one or more children’s hospitals, is essential to understanding the complex web of hospital systems and health care facilities and services at work in San Antonio today.

A chapter titled Therapeutic Justice addresses judicial reforms, the establishment of Haven for Hope, and other reforms meant to address social ills and reduce exploding county jail and state prison populations.

The emergence of a new downtown tech ecosystem, arguably a private sector initiative driven by largely by Rackspace Co-Founder and former Chairman Graham Weston  and associates, and the launch of BiblioTech, a County digital library system, complete the six-project narrative.

Wolff’s newest book could serve as a capstone on his long tenure as County judge. He turned 78 in October, no longer an unusual age to hold public office. Wolff won re-election on Nov. 6 with a comfortable 57 percent of the vote. He is arguably the most politically secure incumbent around, regardless of periodic musings that “this term” will be his last.

It’s impossible to read this book without casting an eye from the Bexar County Courthouse across Main Plaza toward City Hall and surveying the roiling politics following the recent elections and passage of two controversial charter amendment driven by angry firefighter union leaders. Looking back, this Tricentennial year has been a rocky one for Mayor Ron Nirenberg, City Council, and City Manager Sheryl Sculley, who recently announced her planned retirement no later than June 2019 after city elections.

My own view is the political waters will calm, although deciding on the next city manager will not be easy, and the term limits and financial constraints voters approved mean the city is unlikely to see another city manager of Sculley’s equal.

Other good things are happening, election results aside. Hemisfair‘s independent redevelopment continues apace, in concert with the City. The City’s public-private partnership with Weston Urban is on schedule and generating a lot of spinoff downtown development. River North development has accelerated, too.

The City’s partnership with the State of Texas and the private Alamo Endowment to redevelop Alamo Plaza survived serious challenges during the initial design phase. With $850 million in bond projects slated for the 2017-22 cycle, the investment of City dollars in major infrastructure projects is underway at an unprecedented level.

Challenges loom as everyone continues to talk about the metro area expanding by another 1 million people by 2040, especially with the city’s annexations powers limited by new legislation passed in the last session of the Texas legislature. The development community and affordable housing advocates are at odds over changing City incentives and whether they will drive or dampen infill development. No one has identified where funds will be found to invest in mass transit improvements under study by ConnectSA.

Wolff, in contrast, has always found a way to think big and line up his votes on the Commissioners Court. His new book is a portrait of an elected official who seems indifferent to political risk in pursuit of transformative public works projects. Not everyone agrees with him or the County’s spending priorities, or regards each project as a complete success, but no one can deny he gets things done.

The jury is still out on San Pedro Creek, for example, which is over budget, behind schedule, and with Phase One completed, not proving to be a place yet where locals gather in any numbers. That is in contrast to Yanaguana Garden in Hemisfair, a magnet for families from across the city. Phase Two funding has been approved, and with the completion next year of the new Frost Tower and anticipated bond spending on the Zona Cultural, San Pedro Creek should come to life in time.

No one can write an authoritative account of their time in elected office. Credible third party assessments must be left to historians and journalists, but first-person accounts have their place. The Changing Face of San Antonio is a reminder: When San Antonio and Bexar County think big, big things can and do happen.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.