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The master planner

A man with a sharp vision, Ray Watson may have been the single most important influence on 21st-century Orange County.

By Steve Churm
Publisher and Executive Editor
Published: November 01, 2012

The city of Irvine is a success story beyond any developer’s wildest dreams. And, like any story with a happy ending, lots of people are quick to take credit for this tale of modern achievement. But Ray Watson was one man who never went out of his way – and, frankly, should have – to claim his fame for Irvine’s world-class reputation as North America’s largest master-planned community.

As the headline on the cover of the Orange County Metropolitan in December 1992 proclaimed, Watson was the “Architect of Irvine.” He was the single most important individual in shaping the look, the feel and, ultimately, the flow of this 66-square-mile city that today is home to 233,000 residents and more than double that number most weekdays, as highly skilled workers fill the offices at scores of companies operating here.
Watson was simply masterful.
He died late last month from complications of Parkinson’s disease, passing poignantly in his Newport Beach home of 48 years, one of the first Irvine Company residential villages that he helped design and plan in East Bluff. News of 
his death was reported mostly in the business press, and the tributes were genuine. But it is near impossible to encapsulate the measure of Watson’s impact not just on Irvine but also on 21st-century Orange County.
As the Irvine Company’s first urban planner, Watson was instrumental in persuading the state to locate a University of California campus to the hills of south Irvine, and he shepherded the development of Newport Center as an office hub and Fashion Island as a retail destination. Watson went on to serve as president of the Irvine Company in the 1970s and as vice chairman from 1986 to 2003. But his influence stretched to Hollywood and beyond when he joined the board of the Walt Disney Company and served briefly as its chairman.