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Legendary Architect, Planner, Businessman Ray Watson Passes at 86

Career Included Irvine Ranch Master Plan, Irvine Company Leadership, Guiding Disney Expansion

Raymond L. Watson, 86, a community planner, architect, builder and significant force in shaping the modern foundations of Orange County, Calif., passed away on Oct. 20, 2012, his family announced today.

Watson died from complications of Parkinson’s disease in his Newport Beach home of 48 years in one of the first Irvine Company residential villages that he helped design and plan.

“Our father was passionate about his work and could never imagine doing anything else professionally,” son David Watson said. “But to us, he was a loving and devoted husband, father, grandfather and brother who supported us in our life journeys with love and support. He will always be lovingly remembered by his family and friends for his keen intellect, ever-ready problem solving skills, commitment to fairness and balanced devotion to his family and work. His wonderful manner of dry and fun humor often kept us all laughing and crying at the same time.”

Hired as the Irvine Company’s original architect and urban planner, Watson was instrumental in bringing to life the ambitious desire to create one of the largest and most successful master planned communities in the United States on the historical Irvine Ranch.

His work included the creation of the City of Irvine, the University of California, Irvine, Newport Center and Fashion Island and numerous residential villages and employment centers in Newport Beach and Irvine.

Watson, who went on to become president of the Irvine Company and later chairman of Walt Disney Productions, was a trusted confidant and counselor to legendary Orange County visionaries including Walt Disney, Donald Bren, founding UC Irvine Chancellor Dan Aldrich and former Irvine Company Chairman William R. Mason, who commissioned the master planning of the Irvine Ranch in 1959.

“Ray Watson was a gifted man who offered tireless work, boundless energy, creative ideas and persuasive leadership,” said Donald Bren, Irvine Company chairman. “When the master plan for the Irvine Ranch was nothing more than a dream, Ray brought that dream into focus and helped create something very special and unprecedented, the new City of Irvine. A wonderful friend and confidant, Ray had a unique impact on everyone he knew and countless others who benefited from his life’s work.”

In 1960, Watson accepted the Irvine Company’s invitation to become its chief planner as the Company confronted what to do on its 93,000-acre ranch representing nearly one-fifth of Orange County. The Company was under pressure to sell its land piecemeal in the face of enormous growth in Southern California.

Working with a notable team including famed California architect William Pereira, Watson used his visionary gifts of planning, persuasion and collaboration to drive the monumental effort to gain widespread community and political approval of the Company’s master plan.

He then went to work to guide implementation, insisting on quality, imagination and practical business sense to achieve a thoughtful balance among communities, employment centers, shopping centers and abundant parks and open space. In short, Watson set the template for the 50 years of community development that continues to this day on the Irvine Ranch.

In addition to his initial position as chief planner for the Irvine Company, Watson also served as executive vice president in 1966 and then as president from 1973 to 1977. He rejoined the Company to serve as vice chairman from 1986 to 2003.

One of the most visible and direct monuments to Watson’s work is the pedestrian bridge that links UCI to University Center shopping center. Named the Watson Bridge in 2005, an inscription at the site credits Watson as a “Modern Renaissance Man” and adds, “over time Watson championed educational excellence, city self governance and a distinctive sense of place as critical components of this lively new city.”

For more information about Watson’s role in the planning and development of UCI and the City of Irvine, see the Raymond L. Watson Archive Papers at: http://sites.uci.edu/ucisca/2010/11/01/raymond-l-watson-papers.

Watson’s work and leadership caught the eye of Walt Disney, who was considering expansion to Florida and beyond.  Watson was invited to the Walt Disney Company board of directors in 1974, where he helped guide the company’s vision for expansion. He served as chairman of the board in 1983 and 1984. He later served as chairman of the company’s executive committee before retiring from the board in 2004.

Watson was active in the regional and national business communities. In addition to his roles at the Irvine Company and Disney, he served as:

  • A member of the board and the executive committee of Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Company (1975-1998).
  • A member of the board of Mitchell Energy and Development Company (1983–1996).
  • A trustee of Occidental College
  • A member of the Board of Directors of the Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Corp.
  • A director of the Public Policy Institute of California, including serving as chairman of the board from 2000 to 2004.

Watson’s professional achievements were widely recognized. He was elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 1971; served as University of California Regent’s Professor in the Graduate School of Management at UCI; received the California Council’s 1986 Award for Excellence in Architects in Industry; and was elected to the California Building Industry’s Hall of Fame in 1988.

Born in Seattle on Oct. 4, 1926, Watson grew up in Oakland. He received a bachelor’s (1951) and master’s (1953) in architecture from the University of California, Berkeley. For complete transcripts from the Raymond L. Watson Oral Biography see: http://digitalassets.lib.berkeley.edu/roho/ucb/text/watson_ray.pdf

Watson is survived by his wife of 58 years, Elsa Watson, and their four children (and spouses): Kathy (husband Bill), Bryan (wife Lisa), Lisa (husband Michael) and David (wife Julie).

Watson also is survived by his sister Doris and 10 grandchildren, Ryen (Emily), Andy, Caitlin, Alex, Megan, Christopher, Emma, Cameron, Harris and Peter.

A memorial service for Ray Watson is tentatively planned for Nov. 11 in the Irvine area.

In lieu of flowers, the Watson family requests donations to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation at www.pdf.org or the Michael J. Fox Foundation at www.michaeljfox.org.