Every once in a while, someone comes along who challenges himself and those around him — and by doing so, transforms a community. Atlanta native John Williams, a mega developer and philanthropist extraordinaire, was such a man.
Williams, who died Monday at 75, founded Post Properties in 1970, took the apartment giant public in 1993 and used his company as a platform for sweeping community service projects that changed the face of metro Atlanta.
“His primary focus for all those years was Post Properties, but he had an overwhelming belief in giving back to the community, not only because it was the right thing to do, but because of what goes around comes around,” said Tad Leithead, interim executive director of the Cumberland Community Improvement District. For example, during the 1980s, when Marietta Square’s Glover Park had grown long in the tooth, Williams led the effort to revitalize it, personally donating a small fortune to the landscaping effort and sending his Post Properties crew to maintain it.
The apartment king is also considered the father of the Georgia’s community improvement districts. CIDs are an economic development strategy where commercial property owners agree to tax themselves and leverage that revenue to obtain state and federal funds for infrastructure projects that improve the area. Leithead said his friend and mentor learned about CIDs on a trip to Dallas in the 1980s. Williams pitched the concept to U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, who was in the Georgia House at the time, and former Gov. Roy Barnes, then in the Georgia Senate. Georgia voters approved a constitutional amendment allowing for CIDs in 1984. There are now three CIDs in Cobb and more than 25 in Georgia. Cumberland was the first, launching in 1988 with Williams as chairman.
Now home to the Atlanta Braves, the CID’s 6.5 square miles represents 5.4 percent of Georgia’s economy and 36 percent of Cobb County’s economy.
“None of that would have been possible without John and his vision, and Roy and Johnny,” said Lynn Rainey, an attorney for 20 CIDs.
Rainey described how CIDs are infused with Williams’ personality. A creative thinker, Williams was also a practical businessman who knew how to get things done. CID boards, likewise, dream up projects and build them. One of the signature characteristics that distinguished Post Properties from other apartment buildings at the time was their attractive, inviting landscaping. Isakson said 30 years ago, nobody planted a flower in front of apartment complexes. But Williams did things differently, becoming the largest importer of Holland bulbs in the U.S. so that tulips blossomed at Post Properties in springtime. Similarly, when drivers cross into a CID, landscaping is noticeably improved.
The real estate magnate resigned as chairman of Post Properties in 2003 after losing a proxy battle, but would strike gold a second time by launching Preferred Apartment Communities, taking the company public on the New York Stock Exchange. Atlanta business writer Maria Saporta writes how Williams once told her how he could be dropped in Times Square with only $10 to his name, and be a millionaire within a year. Such claims aren’t boastful if true.
Over the course of his career, he directed and coordinated the development, construction and management of more than $15 billion in real estate development. Credited with coining such phrases as “Smart Growth” and “Live, Work, Play,” his awards and recognitions would fill a book. The National Real Estate Investor’s list included him among the “The 20th Century’s Most Influential Developers.”
Before the Cobb Galleria Centre opened in 1994, there was simply a boutique specialty mall owned by Trammell Crow. It was failing because it wasn’t a destination site, said Leithead, then a leasing agent with the company. Leithead said he came across the idea of building a convention center around the shops to create a destination site, and he pitched the idea to Williams, knowing it would take someone of his stature to accomplish such a project. Williams embraced the idea, deciding the dormant Cobb-Marietta Coliseum & Exhibit Hall Authority was the vehicle to use to build it. He became chairman of the Exhibit Hall Authority and was the driving force behind building the convention center, which now includes the “John A. Williams Ballroom,” one of the largest such rooms in the South. Later to follow was the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, which Williams helped put together the financing for, and whose 2,800-seat theater is named after him.
Under Williams’ leadership as chairman of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, that chamber launched the Metropolitan Atlanta Transportation Initiative, which recommended the creation of an agency that would give broad powers to implement transportation and transit in the region. Shortly after Barnes was elected governor, he formed the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, which was a follow-through on the MATI recommendation.
Williams’ fingerprints are everywhere.
In a tribute to Williams on the floor of the U.S. Senate this week, Isakson said every politician in America should be lucky enough to have a Williams, who didn’t just tell him what he wanted to hear, but what he didn’t.
“I am sad today, and all of Georgia is sad today, and they will be even sadder on Monday when we say goodbye to John Williams,” Isakson said. “But all of us should hope and all of us should pray that all of us have the time in our lives to know somebody as good, as decent, as honorable and as compassionate for their community and as a lover of their country as John A. Williams of Atlanta, Georgia, my good friend.”