William E. Finley, urban developer who helped make Columbia a reality, dies
By Frederick Rasmussen
The Baltimore Sun
11 February 2017
Photo courtesy Baltimore Sun
College of Environmental Design alumnus William E. Finley (BA City & Regional Planning ‘49, MCP ‘51), a renowned urban developer who as a Rouse Co. executive in the early 1960s made James W. Rouse's "dream city" of Columbia, Maryland a reality, died January 25 of congestive heart failure in Boca Raton, Florida. He was 93.
Finley, in his role as director of planning and development for the Rouse Co. was the man most responsible for getting the city of Columbia built, according to the Columbia Association.
"Bill was an idea man who would say, 'Why can't we do this or that?' His discussions were very realistic, and if we had to delay a phase, we did," said Robert Tennenbaum, who became acquainted with Finley when they both worked for the National Capital Planning Commission in Washington in the late 1950s.
"He took criticism but was very realistic about it," said Tennenbaum, an urban designer who was the chief architect-planner for Columbia and worked closely with Finley. "If he felt something was right, he'd back up his feelings and wouldn't back off. He'd say, 'Now is the time, and this is what Jim [Rouse] wants.' He was sort of a tough guy that way — after all, he had flown combat missions during [World War II] — but he was also very outgoing."
The son of William Finley, a furniture salesman, and Cathy Keating, a waitress, William Edward Finley was born in Chicago and was raised there and in Milwaukee, where he graduated in 1942 from high school. He enlisted in the Army Air Forces in 1943, completed pilot training in 1944 and was assigned to the 8th Air Force in England, flying Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers. He completed 35 missions and was decorated with five air medals, three battle stars and two unit commendations.
After returning to the United States, he earned his bachelor's degree in City & Regional Planning at CED, and two years later received UC Berkeley’s first master's degree in city and regional planning.
"At the time, there were only a couple of schools — I think Harvard and MIT — that offered degrees in planning,” Tennenbaum recalled. "Because they knew that Bill was interested in economics and development, the faculty at Berkeley gave him the OK to design his own course in architecture, planning and economics. This was always on his mind and the reason Rouse wanted to hire him as his chief planner."
Finley began his professional career as an urban planner, city builder and developer in Richmond, California and after working on a master plan for Ravenswood, West Virginia moved to Washington in 1958 when he was appointed director of the National Capital Planning Commission, whose mission was to revitalize the city.
In 1962, Finley was offered the opportunity to be the developer of Columbia, a new city he was planning between Baltimore and Washington. "You need planning that meets needs, not just pretty pictures that look good from the air," Finley told The Washington Post in 1967 regarding Columbia.
"Any new community which is going to make it must have a special magnetism … must respond fully to the problems, anxieties and demands of the American family," he said. "We have broken our neck … to get Columbia launched, which it is, pretty successfully."
Finley left the Rouse Co. and in 1980 joined Bankers Land Co., the real estate arm of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, where he developed the city of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. After Hurricane Andrew devastated Homestead, Florida in 1992, he was tapped by state and city officials to help rebuild the city.
Finley, who worked up until he died, was involved with projects in Texas, Minneapolis, Delray Beach, Florida, and Russia, where he oversaw the building of a small community in Siberia. He also converted a former 1939 National Guard Armory in West Palm Beach into the Armory Art Center. He turned the Royal Palm Festival into SunFest in West Palm Beach, and co-founded with his wife of 43 years, the former Anita Peltz Richards, Boomer Times and Senior Life, a multimedia company.
Finley was also the author of "Air Force Cowboy," "Curing Urbanitis," "Shaking Up Boca," "Live to Be 100 Plus," and was co-author with Mr. Tennenbaum of "A Bold Proposal for American Cities."
"William E. Finley is one of the few living city building gurus who has experienced the building of cities from the planners' point of view, from the business point of view, and last, but not least, with a heavy sense of the humanist point of view," noted American architect Frank Gehry said in 2008.