Charles Martin Wender had a problem.
He was watching San Antonio grow under dynamic leadership in the 1970s and feeling trapped and dissatisfied in a family home-building business. He wanted in on the action.
“I just knew the city was going to take off and I wanted to be in the middle of it,” he said.
By the early 1980s, the future developer had put a stake in the ground, altering his own path one deal at a time and indelibly changing the course of this city’s growth and development and its economic trajectory.
Without Wender and the hurdles he surmounted in life and his work, the far West Side of San Antonio would look very different than it does today.
“The moral of this story is, I am a problem-solver,” said the prominent land developer who many know as Marty. And after five decades working as a large-scale land developer in San Antonio, he has a lot of stories to tell.
At age 76, Wender is widely known as a great salesman, an optimistic and confident dealmaker, and the man who overcame seemingly impossible challenges to put places like Crownridge and Westover Hills on the literal map.
It was Wender’s inveterate positivity, said former Mayor Henry Cisneros, that made skeptics “look silly” when they opposed him in a meeting. “He had this ability to turn a room that was going the wrong way,” Cisneros said.
Wender recently sat down with the San Antonio Report in his home-based office where, beyond a life-size UT Longhorn statue made of aluminum situated on the 14th-floor balcony, he enjoys a bird’s eye view of Alamo Stadium and the city’s skyline.
As he talked, Wender frequently bobbed from his chair, pointing out locations on a map on the wall where he had made his mark. The hallmark of each anecdote: Wender knows how to fix big problems.
When it came to the high-profile Crownridge development, there was plenty to fix. To begin with, the 1,220 acres of ranchland he set his sights on, what became a residential subdivision known as Crownridge on the far North Side, had a price tag of $5 million. “And I had no money,” he said.
In addition, City officials were reluctant to approve water infrastructure that far north; the land was next to a massive rock quarry, and large power lines spanned across the hilly terrain.
Wender was undeterred. He saw the “unbelievable views” and the potential, and he knew what it would take to compete with other developers to attract buyers.
He borrowed the money and built “a better mousetrap,” he said of his plans for a competitive edge. “I decided I will put in the major infrastructure — sewer water, major boulevard — and sell [tracts] to the home builders,” Wender said.
The landscaped thoroughfare, or boulevard, he built there became something of a signature in his long career in land development. Today, Crownridge is a thriving neighborhood surrounded by rapid commercial and residential development on the leading edge of the Hill Country.
“And that’s how I started out doing large-scale land development,” said Wender, transitioning to another story, another major deal he brokered and another lesson in perseverance and doing things right.
A city on the move
Born in Fort Worth, Wender grew up coping with dyslexia, a learning disorder that makes reading difficult.
“I thought I was dumb,” he said.
But his mother, an educator, knew differently. She took him for optic therapy to help with reading and he learned how to compensate for the disability by becoming a good listener.
“If I had a choice of being dyslexic or living my life not being dyslexic, I would not choose [to change] it,” Wender said. “I think the dyslexia made me what I am.”
It was a high school history teacher who imparted to Wender the value of putting forth extra effort and because of that lesson, “I never do anything that’s expected of me — I always do more,” he said.
In college, a class on logic taught him that “a positive can’t be proved with a negative,” a philosophy that motivates him to this day. “My whole life people have told me what I can’t do and … that gives me more incentive to do it,” he said.
Wender graduated from the business honors program at the University of Texas at Austin, where he met his wife Rene. In 1969, he went to work in San Antonio in the business his father-in-law owned on the near West Side.
A friendship with a young Henry Cisneros developed as did other relationships across the city.
“He decided to run for mayor and I just believed that the city was going to go someplace with Henry Cisneros as mayor, so I left the family business to go out on my own and with no idea what I was going to do when I grew up,” Wender said.
If you build it
When Wender searched for property to start his career in real estate in the early 1980s, he landed at the ServTex Ranch along Interstate 10 West, north of Loop 1604. Relying on the political goodwill he had developed while working in a downtown office, he convinced city officials to support his request for water service at the site.
Then, based on a hunch that homebuilders would be more likely to buy tracts of land along a boulevard, and not just a two-lane collector road as required by the City of San Antonio, he extended Camp Bullis Road.
Wender also built a road in 1985 in the South Texas Medical Center, pooling investments from the city and local hospitals to turn Floyd Curl Drive into a boulevard from Wurzbach Road past Hamilton Wolfe to Huebner Road, thus creating a new north entrance to the health care district.
Those two road projects eventually led him to look west at a time when the city was growing north with projects like Stone Oak at a rapid pace.
“Everybody thought the ‘golden corridor’ was going to be [U.S. Highway] 281,” where it intersects with Loop 1604 on the far North Side, he said.
But in the late 1980s, 1604 was still a two-lane “death loop” and commercial development along 281 north of there wasn’t yet happening very fast, he explained.
Wender also saw a lot of factors that eventually would limit development going north, including environmental concerns related to the Edwards Aquifer and endangered species and the difficulty in building infrastructure.
And he realized that the potential for San Antonio to grow west from I-10 was greater ever since corporate campuses like USAA and Valero, along with UTSA, had been built.
151 and Westover Hills
It was also a wide-open area that didn’t have the development challenges of the far North Side. Wender soon went about acquiring 3,500 acres of available ranchland southwest of Culebra Road.
But to achieve its full potential as a large-scale, master-planned development, access to the property was a challenge. “So I hired this land planner, and he said, how about a freeway?” Wender said.
That was the start of what became State Highway 151, a freeway that connects Loop 1604 to U.S. Highway 90. But it didn’t come easy, and in true Wender fashion, he said, “there’s a whole story behind it.”
Officials with what was known then as the Texas Highway Department thought it was a great idea, Wender said. But it would take years to get the right-of-way and the funding.
“Well, I can’t wait years,” he said.
At the urging of Raymond E. Stotzer Jr., a district supervisor at the department at the time whose name now graces the roadway, Wender successfully convinced other landowners in the area to join him in contributing the right-of-way for access roads so the freeway could be built.
But the city was $3 million short of what it needed to also buy land for the freeway. To the dismay of other developers in a meeting room who didn’t think he should spend the money, Cisneros convinced Wender to chip in half that amount.
“I wanted that freeway,” Wender said. Less than two years later, they celebrated with a ribbon-cutting for the access roads. In those early days, the highway was known as the “Wender Bender,” a nod to the developer and Ralph Bender, the architect and land planner, who died in 2012.
The area also needed a moniker. Forgoing costly consultants to give the burgeoning area a worthy name, Wender reached into his past. “I’m from Fort Worth and the ‘Alamo Heights of Fort Worth’ is [a neighborhood called] Westover Hills,” he said.
Then SeaWorld came knocking.
Shamu and fiber optics
SeaWorld’s owners initially chose a site for the marine-animal park on the East Side before later pursuing a different site west of San Antonio near Highway 90. The expansive clay soils there posed a problem for a park with water tanks large enough to keep killer whales, however.
City officials worried the company would decide to pass on building a park in San Antonio, what had been considered a boon to the tourism industry. So Cisneros called Wender. “He said, ‘Marty, you’ve got to close this deal,’” he said.
Wender started making calls and when SeaWorld owner William Jovanovich was finally scheduled to fly in a helicopter to the site, Wender wanted him to see that there was adequate access to the site. He arranged to have trucks drive up and down a road he had built nearby in order to mimic the freeway, which was still in the works.
Wender also ordered up a platform, which was built in a day so that Jovanovich could climb above the tree canopy to see the views of downtown.
Eventually, Jovanovich was convinced, and SeaWorld San Antonio opened in 1988.
Highway 151, completed six years later, created access to the theme park and a steadily growing number of corporate campuses.
In 1987, the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort and Spa opened near SeaWorld, the first of what would become three such resorts in San Antonio.
As someone who doesn’t play golf or tennis or go on vacation to relax, Wender said he had little experience with the concept of a destination hotel, and though it wasn’t his idea, he followed through despite the challenges.
“It was the end of the ‘80s — everybody’s going broke,” he explained about the financial crisis when many Texas banks failed between 1980 and 1994. Wender lost most of the land for Westover Hills during the crash, which later reverted back to him and a partnership led by a Canadian investor.
Wender eventually found investors for the hotel project in Japan.
“There was a time it really was tough, but I always knew even when it was the darkest day, I knew that my biggest asset was knowing this land and my ability to sell it,” he said.
In 1985, the telecommunications company Southwestern Bell proposed to Wender the idea of putting fiber optics underground in Westover Hills. The company just needed the land. Wender had never heard of the new technology, but he went for it.
“I said, ‘Look, I may be the world’s worst negotiator, I may be leaving a lot of money on the table, but if you’re going to put millions of dollars in this stuff called fiber optics in Westover Hills for nothing, I’ll take it,’” Wender said, and handed over the property. “I didn’t realize what that decision meant for 10 years.”
What it meant was that companies, including Microsoft — now building a third data center there — would find Westover Hills an attractive place to do business.
Northwest Vista College opened in 1995. A number of neighborhoods and apartment complexes and a service industry that includes retail, food and beverage, entertainment and even hospitals, has followed.
The resulting impact on the city’s economic development is significant, said David Adelman, founder and president of Area Real Estate, a development firm mostly focused on downtown projects.
“In our industry, you’ve got to have the availability of inventory to be in the running for opportunities,” Adelman said. “Marty created one of the best corporate potential campus sites in the region, and just through pure vision and sheer willpower. Ultimately, there are a lot of jobs in San Antonio that wouldn’t be here but for his development.”
Cisneros said he is probably Wender’s biggest fan.
“There’s never an obstacle he didn’t believe he could wear down, never a project he didn’t think could be done, never an impediment that he didn’t figure out a way around,” Cisneros said. “And it was contagious.”
What sets Marty apart from other developers is that he recognizes the need for “thoughtful, professional land development,” said retired developer Ed Cross, and for the potential he saw in the far West Side.
The “new urbanism” project Cross began in 2019 is at the front door of Westover Hills, which is what attracted him to the site, he said.
“Like any real estate project, there’s an element of luck to it, and in Marty’s case, he had the benefit of a good planner in Ralph and the political support of Henry Cisneros,” Cross added.
A will to live
“People thought I was crazy to go west,” Wender said. “They thought the freeway idea was crazy. Then with SeaWorld, they really thought I was crazy.”
He proved them wrong. Wender sold his last remaining piece of property in Westover Hills earlier this year. “As my lawyer said to me, it took me 40 years to be an overnight success,” he said.
But he hasn’t stopped working despite an accident that nearly took his life.
In 2016, Wender suffered second- and third-degree burns over 20% to 30% of his body when he suffered an apparent medical episode in a steam shower. Emergency responders thought he was dead.
In a coma for 90 days, he experienced vivid dreams. “In a lot of the dreams, I had the choice of life or death, and death was easier the two choices and life was the hardest,” he said. But “I was determined I was not going to die.”
Wender believes his attitude is what kept him alive, but credits the San Antonio Military Medical Center for saving him. “If I didn’t live in San Antonio, I’d be dead,” he said.
The accident wasn’t his first victory over death. In the late 1970s, while working in the family business, Wender suffered internal bleeding that led to a surgeon removing multiple tumors and about 80% of his stomach.
Health scares have not slowed him down. Today, Wender’s passion project is working to promote the Holocaust Memorial Museum of San Antonio and its message of tolerance and respect for human dignity.
Wender was 7 years old before he knew his father could speak fluent German. Walter Wender had been born in Vienna, Austria, and emigrated to the United States during WWII. Soon after, his entire family perished in the Holocaust.
In addition to the museum, Wender is actively mentoring other up-and-coming entrepreneurs and real estate professionals. Wender has been a mentor to Adelman since 1995, using storytelling to guide and counsel.
“That’s also what makes somebody a good mentor,” Adelman said. “He’s always been willing to share not only stories but little pearls of wisdom. That’s something that I’ve tried to do [and] that’s definitely a lesson I learned from him.”
Reflecting on his life and career, Wender sees the obstacles he overcame as having made the work that much more fulfilling and worthwhile.
“Many times, I’ve been backed up against the wall,” said Wender, who knew a solution was there, just waiting to be found.
“Every time that that’s happened to me, which has happened a lot, the answer to solving the problem was better than if I never had the problem.”