Ray Watt, a prolific builder who did much to define the look of modern Los Angeles, died Tuesday of natural causes at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage. He was 90.
Watt was a pioneer and innovator in the development industry who continually created new products to meet the tastes of Southern California as the region grew after World War II. He was widely credited as the first in the West to popularize condominiums, strip shopping centers, time-share vacation homes and residential communities with shared amenities such as golf courses, tennis courts, swimming pools and lakes. FOR THE RECORD: Ray Watt obituary: The obituary of developer Ray Watt in the July 8 Section A said Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza was among more than 50 shopping centers Watt built or bought. Watt owned Crenshaw Plaza, a neighborhood shopping center, not Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, a regional mall. —
Watt entered the real estate business after the war, when GIs returned from overseas to find a housing shortage. Watt and his brother, Don, built a mobile home park in 1946. Working with a small crew and a battered pickup truck, they called their company Night and Day Construction to match the schedule they were keeping to meet demand.
He continued to build for more than six decades, though he took time out during President Nixon's first term to serve as assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development. He returned to the private sector in the early 1970s.
Watt built more than 100,000 single-family homes, mostly in the San Fernando Valley and South Bay and on the Westside, but was also keen to develop other types of property, including industrial centers, when there was a market for them.
Among his best-known projects were Watt Plaza, a two-tower office complex in Century City, and Fairbanks Ranch, a luxury housing development in Rancho Santa Fe.
"Ray was the quintessential capitalist," said his longtime accountant and friend Kenneth Leventhal. "He was a risk taker and an innovator."
Watt started building multi-unit for-sale housing in Goleta in 1959, "when most people thought condominiums were low-cost birth control," Leventhal said.
Like most developers, Watt had setbacks, and not all of his proposed projects were completed. In the 1980s he and a partner announced plans for a massive office and retail complex with some low-income housing west of the 110 Freeway in downtown Los Angeles.
When the L.A. real estate market went bust with an oversupply of office space in the early 1990s, Watt's project and many others were canceled. In 1993, hammered by a recession and credit crunch that brought the development business to a near halt, Watt sold almost all the assets of his housing subsidiary to a British-owned company for $116 million.
Watt went on to develop or buy about 50 shopping centers in California, Las Vegas and Arizona, including Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza in Los Angeles. His Santa Monica-based Watt Cos. continues to manage most of them, along with hundreds of thousands of square feet of office and retail space in region.
Raymond Aneas Watt was born Feb. 26, 1919, in Keota, Colo., one of seven children. His father worked as a set builder in the film industry after moving the family to Los Angeles when Ray was 5. He graduated from University High School in Los Angeles and attended UCLA as a business major.
By the 1990s Watt had passed along day-to-day control of his company to others, but he continued to be active in the business and serve as a mentor to others.
Watt was much honored in his industry with such awards as Builder of the Year from the Building Industry Assn. of California in 1968. He became a trustee of USC in 1967 and contributed to the school for years. Watt Hall of Architecture and Fine Arts is named after him.
Watt's 1940 marriage to his first wife, Nadine, ended in divorce. His second wife, Joyce, died in 2002.
He is survived by his third wife, Gwendolyn, and his children, Sally Oxley, Janet Van Huisen and J. Scott Watt, who is now chairman of the board of Watt Cos. He is also survived by seven grandchildren and a number of great-grandchildren.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to the USC Elaine and Kenneth Leventhal School of Accounting or the Eisenhower Medical Center Foundation's Renker Pavilion.