Harbor Bay Isle developer, Ron Cowan,
passed away Jan. 11.
APPRECIATION | In 2014, I was commissioned to write a short history of Ron Cowan’s life and the building of Alameda’s Harbor Bay Isle. Cowan passed away on Jan. 11, at age 82. Over the span of nine months, I listened to hours of stories about his life, his connections to high-profile politicians and the fits and starts that resulted in Harbor Bay. I also got to ride around town in his Bentley. He was a complicated man whose early life shaped a constant thirst for achievement masked in a desire for unconditional love. Here is an excerpt from that 18,000-word piece.
On a bright sunny day, Ron Cowan drove his car to the recently reclaimed land on Bay Farm Island in Alameda. The sand was neat and flat in every direction. It was a blank slate on the bay ready for transformation. “I don’t know what drove me to go there,” says Cowan, “but it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.” Others had envisioned a static grid of stock homes at Bay Farm Island. Cowan imagined homes there, too, but also a canvass to create a better community.
The allure of Bay Farm Island, for Cowan, was about building a community from scratch—down to naming the streets and choosing the style of brick work to be laid at each home. “This was not manufactured housing. We didn’t plot 900 acres the land with little concern for affecting the lifestyle. We came at it as different as night and day.”
The housing development that would become known as Harbor Bay Isle could have been done on the cheap. The housing boom of the 1960s and early 1970s demanded maximum density built at low-cost. There were many times Cowan could have cashed in on the potential riches at Harbor Bay before witnessing it fully-formed, but this was never about a simple financial transaction. Cowan wanted Harbor Bay to stand the test of time.
“It wasn’t money that was driving me. It was the art,” says Cowan, a means to achieve progress through inspiration. In fact, Cowan’s ability for creative expression led a new trail in other endeavors furthered by the success of Harbor Bay. The development was one of the first test cases for the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the state’s landmark legislation to protect the environment. Following the breakup of the telecommunication companies in the early 1980s, Cowan saw opportunity and built a private cable company at Harbor Bay along with the ability for companies to utilize teleconferencing services at its business park. KJAZ, the Oakland-based radio station Cowan purchased, was the first to broadcast its signal via satellite across the globe. Today, privately broadcasting video and digital radio are commonplace.
Cowan’s legacy would include the formation of a new state agency, the Water Emergency Transit Authority, to oversee ferry services on the San Francisco Bay. Following an extensive legal battle with the Port of Oakland in the mid-1970s, federal regulations for airport noise abatement was enacted. Homeowners living near airports all over the country now had relief from airplanes flying over their dwellings following Cowan’s clash with airport administrators.
Early on, the opportunity to innovate was nearly scuttled. Harbor Bay was a dream that on numerous occasions never came close to a shovel piercing the sand dunes at Bay Farm Island. A raft of local regulatory agencies aimed to stop Cowan’s plan. The reclaimed peninsula rising from the bay waters was a prize everybody desired, it seemed. The Port of Oakland, in a dramatic court case nearly litigated Harbor Bay dead in its tracks.
It didn’t matter, either, that a good number of Alameda residents did not share Cowan’s enthusiasm for Harbor Bay. Not only did Alamedans, concerned about the changing character of its island, throw produce and other debris at Cowan during the first public presentation of the plan, but they drastically forced revisions to plan after approving a citywide measure greatly limiting housing density. Decades later, Alamedans would come to view Harbor Bay as a community asset for its much-sought after homes and excellent schools.
The building of Harbor Bay is a story about faith and resilience, not only for the construction of a new community, but of a man whose humble beginnings did not suggest the life he would ultimately live. He was abandoned by his mother and spent a portion of his early formative years at a children’s home. Cowan also never knew his father. He was a high school dropout who would become one of the most influential residents in the city’s history. Despite a life of glitz and glamour that followed the fruits of his labor, Cowan, like Harbor Bay was never a sure thing–always a work in progress.
In turn, his background created a personality that thought well out of the box, especially when it came to adversity. “I just broke rules,” he says. Numerous business associate would describe Cowan as someone who never took no for an answer. There just had to be another way to analyze the problem and Cowan seemed to always find it. “There is a Chinese character that stands for both crisis and opportunity,” he says. “For me, it was opportunity.”
He was also a businessman who had actually skin in the game. To achieve success at Harbor Bay, Cowan first had to risk everything he had. In reality, Cowan could not afford to look back. It was all or nothing. “I organized my entire life around Harbor Bay. I got divorced around the same and got rid of my business partner. All I had was Harbor Bay. We were one.”
It felt well worth the gamble for Cowan. Over 14 million cubic yards of earth had been used to build up 900 acres of Bay Farm Island and it was just ready for a spark of creation.
As Cowan looked across the sandy vista, he thought, “I want this. I want this bad.”