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John Davies, San Diego civic leader, dead at age 76

May 26, 2011 |  8:24 am

John Davies. John Davies, a major civic figure in San Diego for decades, has died of cancer at age 76. He was key to the redevelopment of downtown and later served on the University of California Board of Regents.

Davies and Pete Wilson met when they were law students in the 1960s. Davies was a confidant and key supporter of Wilson during Wilson's rise from the state Assembly to mayor to the U.S. Senate to California governor.

Davies was a passionate fan of USC football and rarely missed a game. He loved golf, jazz (he once owned part of a jazz radio station) and thoroughbred racing at Del Mar. At Wilson's request, he served on the city planning commission and redevelopment agency board

"I want San Diego to avoid the sprawl that exists in Orange County and Los Angeles," he said once.

Mike Stepner, a longtime city planner and former city architect, said it was Davies' persistence that kept developer Ernie Hahn from building "just another shopping mall" in downtown San Diego. Instead, the multistory Horton Plaza built by Hahn has a festive appearance, almost like a theme park, and has  been a catalyst for the renovation of an area once in decline.

"He pushed everyone to think bigger than just the traditional stuff," Stepner said.

While it was not uncommon for political appointees to be looked at with suspicion by professional planners, and vice-versa, Davies was different, Stepner said, recognizing planners for hard work done under political pressure.

Davies threw out the first ball at the planners' softball season, arriving in a limousine, a mock on his own wealth. And he established what was called the Persistent Planner award presented to the planner who developed the best, most publicly beneficial project only to see it scuttled by politics.

Cordial and low-key in his public comments, he also had a biting wit and and sometimes oddball sense of humor.

He once described a political tyro he didn't think much of who was the son of a similar tyro of small acclaim as "a chip off the old chip." At one party, he dashed into a backroom and emerged dressed as country singer Willie Nelson.

Davies also evaluated judge candidates for Wilson when Wilson served as senator and governor. "You want to see John Davies' influence?" asked activist Ben Clay. "Just go to the courthouse and look at all the judges he helped get appointed."

Read the full L.A. Times obituary: John Davies dies at 76


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-- Tony Perry in San Diego

Photo: John Davies.