William E. Finley, urban developer who helped make Columbia a reality, dies

William E. Finley, a renowned urban developer who as a Rouse Co. executive in the early 1960s made James W. Rouse's "dream city" of Columbia a reality, died Jan. 25 of congestive heart failure at Boca Raton Regional Hospital in Boca Raton, Fla.

The Boynton Beach, Fla., resident was 93.

It was Mr. Finley, in his role as director of planning and development for the Rouse Co. and second in command to Mr. Rouse, who was the man most responsible for getting 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Tennenbaum, an urban designer who followed Mr. Finley to the Rouse Co. in 1963 to work on the design of Columbia, a new city that would rise in Howard County on 15,000 acres.

"If he felt something was right, he'd back up his feelings and wouldn't back off," said Mr. Tennenbaum, who was the chief architect-planner for Columbia and worked closely with Mr. Finley. "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 and completed pilot training in 1944. He 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.

Mr. Finley earned a bachelor's degree in 1949 from the University of California at Berkeley, and two years later received that university'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," Mr. 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."

Mr. Finley began his professional career as an urban planner, city builder and developer in Richmond, Calif., and after working on a master plan for Ravenswood, W.Va., 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, Mr. Rouse offered Mr. Finley the opportunity to be the developer of Columbia, a new city he was planning between Baltimore and Washington.

"Rouse first gave him Cross Keys, which was a much smaller project than Columbia," Mr. Tennenbaum said. "Bill made a few mistakes, but he learned quickly and understood the process and what was important about development."

"You need planning that meets needs, not just pretty pictures that look good from the air," Mr. Finley told The Washington Post in 1967 regarding Columbia.

He spelled out his philosophy of creative development in The Post article.

"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."

"Rouse is engaged in land development, an industry that has been historically one of the riskiest enterprises in American business. Its ranks are filled with overnight millionaires who have gone bankrupt," observed a Baltimore Sun article in 1970.

"This business is full of graveyards," Mr. Finley, who was also a Rouse Co. senior vice president, told the newspaper at the time. "The reason is that most developers don't understand the development process. They don't have the management tools."

He was sent to Miami in 1972 by Rouse officials to plan and build the Inter-American Trade and Cultural Center on Biscayne Bay, which was scheduled to open in time to mark the U.S. bicentennial four years later.

The project foundered after the bond market collapsed, and the $200 million project was never completed. Today, it is the site of Florida International University.

Mr. 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, Fla.

After Hurricane Andrew devastated Homestead, Fla., in 1992, he was tapped by state and city officials to help rebuild the city, with assistance from the Enterprise Foundation, which had been founded by Mr. Rouse and his wife Patty.

"She wouldn't let it rest," Mr. Rouse told The Sun in a 1993 interview. "But it had to begin somewhere, and it had to begin where we began, with Bill Finley, to get all the dope on the existing conditions and to find out what the people wanted."

Mr. Finley, who had not retired at his death, also worked on projects in Texas, Minneapolis, Delray Beach, Fla., 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, Fla., 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.

He was 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.

Plans for a memorial service are incomplete.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Finley is survived by three stepsons, Kelly Cuthbertson of San Francisco, and Chandler Finley and Joey Richards, both of Miami; a daughter, Kim Finley of Portland, Ore.; and four grandchildren. His first wife, Jane Finley died; and a second marriage to Laverne Cuthbertson ended in divorce.

frasmussen@baltsun.com

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