By Steve Pike
At 92, William Finley certainly doesn’t need the work or the frustrations. He distinguished himself first as a B-17 pilot in World II and then as one of the country’s leading urban planners. But ask Finley why he has challenged the nation’s top 80 billionaires with his new book, A Bold Proposal for American Cities, and you get a cold stare from the normally affable Boynton Beach resident.
“After the service I went back to being Catholic,’’ Finley said. “The priests were good people but they didn’t have the answers. So I figured I’m on the Earth for X number of years and I owed something to the larger society if I can do it.
“It’s purely personal drive. I don’t want to just sit around. I’ve given this (project) 10 years and I’m two years into it.’’
Bold Proposal is the follow-up book to Finley’s 2008 book, Curing Urbanitis: The Metropolitan Disease, in which he mapped out ways America’s cities can be rejuvenated. In Bold Proposal, Finley and co-author Robert Tennenbaum seek to tap into the billions of dollars in funds America’s billionaires have pledged for philanthropic purposes. The authors propose a joint action program that combines assistance to older cities and a building of a “new city’’ at the 500,000 population level.
The latter is not without precedent, as Finley spent a decade as senior project director for the Rouse Company, which developed the “new city’’ of Columbia, Md., nearly 50 years ago.
“I want to find the mechanism and the money to start the process in several cities so there is confidence and places like Topeka and Toledo that there is hope and we’re not going to be worse off in 10 or 20 years,’’ Finley said.
Finley, who founded the nonprofit Partnership for Community Building to operate the project, sent copies of Bold Proposal to the people Forbes magazine identified as America’s top 80 billionaires — those with fortunes of at least $4 billion.
The only response he has received so far is from, well, a galaxy far, far away.
“George Lucas wrote me a note that said, ‘Thanks, but I’m not in your world.’’’
But that hasn’t deterred Finley.
“There is plenty of land’’ to build new cities, he said. “But it’s impossible to finance because there is no ‘patient’ money in America. Wall Street wants a payoff in 90 days and HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) doesn’t do anything. But there is a source of funds if people will pay attention to it.
“What I’m doing is challenging the billionaires — who have more money than they know what to do with and have already agreed to give it away — to build new cities and set an example to the world with modern technology.’’
A bold proposal, indeed.