San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)

Agency leader fought to conserve S.F. Bay

- By Sam Whiting

On a summer architectu­ral tour of the masterpiec­es of California, Will Travis was driving a VW Beetle from Hearst Castle to the Marin County Civic Center when he passed through San Francisco to stop for lunch at a waterfront dive.

That 1965 detour with two college friends made him forget about Julia Morgan and Frank Lloyd Wright. It wasn’t the burger and it wasn’t the beer. It was the view of San Francisco Bay that compelled him to dedicate his life to preserving a resource that he had only just discovered, at age 22.

Travis went back to Penn State to complete a bachelor’s degree in architectu­re and a master’s degree in regional planning, and when he arrived for good, in another VW Beetle, he was just in time to join the San Francisco Bay Conservati­on and Developmen­t Commission, a state agency launched in 1965 to regulate commercial and recreation­al use on the bay. Travis rose to the position of executive director of the commission and served a 16-year tenure that put him at the forefront of the movement to reclaim the bay from industry and to warn and plan against global warming and subsequent rising sea levels.

What he saw coming in the environmen­t could have turned him into a depressing bureaucrat, but Travis had an unsinkable dispositio­n and a sense of humor that ranged from dry to dark. When he retired, in 2011, a farewell party that included Chuck Prophet’s band and comedian Will Durst, in addition to the unpaid comedy provided by Travis himself, was held in his honor at the Ferry Building. Then he switched his energies to a crusade to create housing on the parking lot at the North

Berkeley BART Station, a 10minute walk from his home.

The first meeting in that plan was held in his living room, and he stayed in the battle through a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease 12 years ago. The progressiv­e disease didn’t stop him, but a subsequent diagnosis of bone cancer finally did. Travis died April 24, at the same starter home where he had lived with his wife, Jody Loeffler, for 47 years. He was 81.

“For Travis, aesthetics was a driving force,” said Loeffler. “Sitting on the San Francisco Bay waterfront for the first time, he just knew that it doesn’t get any better than this, and he wanted people to understand the story of how the bay came to be saved, and how to keep it saved.”

Travis fought for the entire bay, from the picture-postcard shoreline where he helped expedite the Ferry Building makeover as a food court to the unglamorou­s salt ponds. Personalit­y and charm, wit and sarcasm went a long way in those wars. When studies first revealed a possible rise in sea levels that could flood areas around the bay, in 2007, Travis was typically measured in his warnings.

“San Francisco won’t become the Venice of the West, and Silicon Valley won’t become the lost city of Atlantis. Salt water won’t come out of the taps in Southern California kitchens,” he told Chronicle environmen­tal writer Jane Kay.

“Trav was a rare blend of serious, efficient, effective profession­alism, low key, ingenuous team play, and always-lurking puckish whimsy,” said Berkeley attorney Richard Hammond, who noted that his last phone call with Travis included a typical observatio­n: “They’ve got me surrounded,” Travis said, “but I’m working on outwitting them.”

William Hobart Travis Jr., was born Feb. 26, 1943, in Allentown, Pa. His father was crippled by polio but still worked on an assembly line at a Mack Truck factory. His mother, Clara, who was Pennsylvan­ia Dutch, stayed at home to raise William and his two older sisters. At newly opened Dieruff High School, he served as yearbook editor and was elected chaplain of the campus Key Club, which he took some delight in since he was an atheist. He graduated from Dieruff in 1962 and enrolled at Pennsylvan­ia State University to study architectu­re in a five-year program.

After his junior year he and two friends piled into a VW Beetle on the architectu­ral tour that changed his life. He came back to Penn State with stories to tell and one night went into a campus bar to tell them. The only customers he could interest were two Britons. It was only midconvers­ation that they revealed that seated on one barstool was Sean Connery, who Travis would have known as 007, and on the other was Richard Harris.

Travis liked to retell that story and also the one about his other close call with stardom, when he and film producer Ron Blatman persuaded Robert Redford to narrate a four-part ecological history called “Saving the Bay,” which aired nationwide on PBS in 2009.

Travis completed his bachelor’s degree in 1967 and continued on at Penn State to earn a master’s in regional planning in 1970. He had a job offer from a San Francisco consulting firm and left Pennsylvan­ia with his new wife, Barbara.

It was a slow trip in a VW Beetle, and while he was making his way west a letter advising him that the consultant’s job had fallen through was waiting for him at the wrong address in Pennsylvan­ia. He wasn’t about to turn around and go back east, so he found a job as the first Bay Design Analyst hired by the Bay Conservati­on and Developmen­t

Commission. Two years later, he was lured away to develop the first master plan of the East Bay Regional Parks District.

It was a one-year project, which was just long enough for him to meet Jody Loeffler, secretary for the project. By the time the year was up they were each on their way to a divorce. They married in 1977, in a living-room ceremony that was meant to be held in a redwood grove that turned out to be too drippy for nuptials.

That same year they bought the starter house in North Berkeley that they were never to move from. It came with two attic rooms, one an office they shared and the other a Berkeley High bedroom for their daughter Katherine, whom they had adopted as an infant from Paraguay in 1992.

He and Loeffler later wrote a memoir of internatio­nal adoption, called “Katherine’s Gift,” published in 2008.

“He always said, ‘Everything I do is to preserve the environmen­t for you,’ ” said his daughter, who goes by Kate, and is now 32.

To this end, Travis moved back and forth between positions at the Bay Conservati­on and Developmen­t Commission and the California Coastal Commission before ending up back at BCDC in 1985. For 10 years he was chairman of the Shell Oil Spill Litigation Trustee Committee, which managed an $11 million settlement after a 1988 accident at a refinery in Martinez.

Mitigation included purchase of 10,000 acres of salt evaporatio­n ponds on the northern shoreline of the Bay, an area now being returned to wetlands.

He also guided BCDC to becoming the first state agency in the nation, in 2011, to adopt developmen­t regulation­s for dealing with sea level rise.

“Travis was laser-focused on planning for a rising bay, and he spent the rest of his life working toward that end,” said former BCDC regulatory director Brad McCrea, referencin­g a 2017 article Travis wrote called “The Shoreline of the Future: Permanentl­y Temporary.”

“He consistent­ly called for the bay region to find new and innovative ways to build and live along a shoreline that is trying to forever migrate inland,” McCrea said.

After Travis retired from BCDC, he started commuting to his attic office to work as a consultant to the Oakland A’s when there was still hope for a ballpark near Jack London Square.

He served as chair of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee in Berkeley, to map out the future of the city, and later launched the move to turn a two-block-long parking lot at the North Berkeley BART Station into a transit-oriented developmen­t, a controvers­ial idea if there ever was one. It took five years, but ground will be broken in 2025 for 750 residentia­l units.

“Travis was smart, clever, and a lot of fun to be around,” said Victoria Eisen, a transporta­tion planner, who hopes to get the project named for Travis.

He considered himself an educator above all else, and his list of publicatio­ns, lectures and symposiums was 25 pages long. He often lectured in the College of Environmen­tal Design at Wurster Hall at UC Berkeley.

“I’m being called to lecture at a school that would not have accepted me as a student,” he’d say before setting off on foot for campus.

In 2015, Travis consented to a long series of interviews in his home with a historian at the Bancroft Library. The resulting 200-page document is titled “Will ‘Trav’ Travis: Leading Environmen­tal Regulator for the Public Interest.”

He loved trains more than cars, unless it was a 1937 Mercedes-Benz roadster, which had a body that he found aesthetica­lly pleasing. He had two grandchild­ren and three dogs, and he loved to load them all up and drive to the Albany Bulb, where he could walk out on the beach and stare across the water.

“Every time he looked at the bay he’d say it reminded him of why he left Pennsylvan­ia to come here,” said Kate Travis.

 ?? Sean Culligan/The Chronicle ?? Will Travis, shown in 2012, brought a sense of humor to his 16 year-tenure as executive director of the Bay Conservati­on and Developmen­t Commission and his later work. He died April 24 at 81.
Sean Culligan/The Chronicle Will Travis, shown in 2012, brought a sense of humor to his 16 year-tenure as executive director of the Bay Conservati­on and Developmen­t Commission and his later work. He died April 24 at 81.
 ?? Mathew Sumner/Special to the Chronicle ?? Will Travis considered himself an educator above all else, and his list of publicatio­ns, lectures and symposiums was 25 pages long.
Mathew Sumner/Special to the Chronicle Will Travis considered himself an educator above all else, and his list of publicatio­ns, lectures and symposiums was 25 pages long.

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