Berkeley city planning ‘giant’ George Williams dies at 89

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Urban planner and former Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board member George Williams died in his Berkeley home Nov. 6. He was 89.

Williams’ academic and professional career, which included writing legislation for former U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson and lecturing at UC Berkeley, had impacts around the country and world.

Williams moved to Berkeley in 1999, where he served on the Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board.

“I appreciated his sensitivity,” said Deborah Matthews, who served on the ZAB with Williams. “He was a very energetic voice for street beautification, so that all of the residents of Berkeley could enjoy the final results of the work that we did.”

Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, Williams graduated from the University of Utah in 1949 and earned his MBA from Stanford in 1951. After serving in the Army Finance Corps during the Korean War, Williams received his law degree from Harvard Law School in 1956.

Williams came to San Francisco to begin practicing law, and he discovered an interest in city planning while representing developers negotiating with the city. After returning to Harvard and receiving another degree in planning law, Williams returned to San Francisco, where his successful urban planning career caught the attention of the White House. He was called to Washington, D.C., where he helped draft legislation for then-president Johnson’s Model Cities Program.

Eventually he returned to San Francisco, where his skills as an urban planner made a lasting impact on both the city and the people he worked with.

“George Williams truly loved planning and vigorously argued for the critical role of planners and planning departments in helping shape cities for the better,” said Williams’ former colleagues at the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, or SPUR (an organization Williams volunteered for and served as a board member) on SPUR’s website. “We were lucky to spend time with him and learn from him.”

Williams also served as deputy director of San Francisco’s Department of City Planning for 20 years, and he was the principal author of San Francisco’s Downtown Plan, which shaped the growth of San Francisco’s city center.

As a proponent of city beautification, Williams co-founded the San Francisco Friends of the Urban Forest, which helps plant and keep street trees and sidewalk gardens in the city. Williams also served as a guest lecturer in the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design.

After retiring from San Francisco’s planning department, Williams became a consultant for the United States Agency for International Development, where he helped local governments grow and mature from posts in Jamaica, Slovakia and Kazakhstan.

He is survived by by his wife of 59 years, Sally Williams; his children: Peter Williams, Jennifer Peters, Maria Williams, Erica Orcharton; and grandchildren Peter, Jr., and Steven Williams; Ashley and Johnna Peters and Georgia Orcharton.

Contact Sam Levin at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @SamJLevin.