Williams built a ‘city within a city’

Published 2:36 pm Monday, March 1, 2010

Robert T. “Bob” Williams grew up playing football in The Plains – a rural town in northern Virginia of 266 during the 2000 census – and has since built a city of 131 times larger than his hometown’s population in just over 20 years.

It would be no understatement to say Williams very well may be one of the most visionary people in Suffolk. His vision that began in 1986 has materialized as Harbour View – the commonwealth’s largest planned community.

“Back when we were rezoning and I was going to Rotary and Kiwanis giving presentations and talking about building hospitals and schools, people laughed and said,

‘That guy has lost his mind,’” Williams laughed. “Little did they know…”

The “city within a city,” as it has been called, is a $750 million development located at the crossroads of Route 17 and Interstate 664.

“Harbour View has been a catalyst for growth for Suffolk,” said Patrick Roberts, Suffolk’s deputy city manager. “It has helped attract additional growth — not just to the north, but to other areas of the city. It has really helped us attract private investment, been an opportunity for people to move to Suffolk, to relocate businesses and find gainful employment. It’s been a good opportunity for us to balance the tax base, as well.”

To be specific, Harbour View has provided Suffolk with 8,000 jobs, 35,000 residents and 3,000 dwellings. It also boasts its own golf course; 800,000 square feet of high-tech space known as Lakeview Technology Park, home to Joint Forces Command Center; Rose and Womble headquarters; Towne Bank operations center; Harbour View Grand Theatre and shops; SunTrust Bank; medical facilities; a Super Walmart and additional retail.

For Williams, Harbour View began as a dream in 1986. He had worked as a city manager in Portsmouth and he saw the Western Freeway extend west. Later, he worked as the city manager in Newport News and watched as the Monitor Merrimac Memorial Bridge spanned the James River.

When he saw the two roadways connect, he knew the surrounding land would become a hub for the thousands of people traveling the roads from Williamsburg to Virginia Beach to Chesapeake to Portsmouth to Hampton. At the time, the land consisted of farms owned by an oil refinery that had plans to turn it into a tank farm.

Because Williams had worked both sides of the river, he was in an ideal spot when he was approached with a contract to a master plan to help develop the area. At that point, he resigned and went to work designing and working on a master plan for the “city within a city.”

A mere nine months after talks began, rezoning began in 1987. By 1992, he broke ground on the first home. The rest has become history.

“Harbour View is my first and biggest accomplishment,” Williams said. “That’s where I started. It was my lift-off and nothing has topped it. It has been everything I expected and more. ”

Also on his list of accomplishments are the developments of Oyster Point Park, Patrick Henry Mall, Target Import Center and Belle Harbour. He also attracted internationally known concerns, such as Canon, Army and Air Force Exchange Service, Thomas Jefferson Laboratories and Portsmouth Waterfront Projects.

His latest undertaking has been the development of a $77 million courthouse building in Portsmouth.

While his accomplishments have been great and success can often go to someone’s head, he has maintained a proper balance of generosity. In one instance, Williams donated his time, connections and knowledge to help a church that owned the 400 acres Belle Harbour sits on to develop the area.

“Bob is just a plain ‘ole good guy,” said Phillip McNeil, chairman of Belle Harbour Redevelopment Committee. “He didn’t have to help us develop our plans, but he stepped in and helped us out anyway. He was truly instrumental in getting us rolling.”

He is now CEO of Tri-City Developers, which he began in 1998, and lives in Harbor View with his wife, Judy. Their family includes his daughter, Cindy, and Judy’s three daughters, Michelle, Kristen and Carrie and eight grandchildren.

Williams is a1959 graduate of University of Virginia, where he attended on a football scholarship. And, now 51 years later, he remains a loyal UVA fan.