In the story of Irvine’s growth into arguably the country’s premier masterplanned city over the past 50 years, Raymond L. Watson plays a pivotal role.
Watson was the first urban planner and architect for Newport Beach-based Irvine Company and designed some of the first villages for the city of Irvine. He also played a key part in the creation of the University of California, Irvine.
Watson would go on to become president and later vice chairman for Irvine Co. during the developer’s growth into one of the country’s most prominent real estate companies. He also served as a board member of Walt Disney Co. for more than 30 years.
But for many in Orange County, his early work on the Irvine Ranch is the lasting legacy of Watson, who passed away on Oct. 20 from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was 86.
Business and community leaders who knew Watson—the son of a carpenter who was raised by his grandmother in a modest upbringing—said he was instrumental in turning the long-term vision of Irvine into reality.
“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,” Irvine Co. Chairman Donald Bren said.
Irvine, incorporated in 1971, now counts about 224,000 people and is the county’s third-largest city.
In 1960 Watson joined Irvine Co., “a company six months earlier I had never heard of,” he told the Business Journal in 2006.
“But to an architect/planner, the opportunity to work for a company that owned 93,000 acres debt-free and proposing to build a new town around a new University of California campus was overwhelming,” said Watson, who worked with a team including famed California architect William Pereira in the city’s early years.
Watson credited much of his success to understanding business issues that sometimes eluded other architects.
“My view of myself was my job was more than overseeing the physical aspects (architecture) of building communities,” Watson said in a series of 2003 interviews that have been archived with the University of California, Berkeley’s Oral History Office.
“I had the responsibility of being an integral part of a very risky and challenging business,” Watson said. “Fortunately, I understand how to do economic analyses as well as an economic business major could, because I was mathematically inclined.”
He also “found out quickly, when I went to work as an architect, that I was a good manager.”