Developer Ryland Kelley of Woodside dies

'Renaissance man' included poetry, theater and community involvement in a rich life

Palo Alto native and Stanford graduate Ryland Kelley, a prominent real estate developer who with his brother was responsible for such planned communities as Lindenwood in Atherton and Ladera in Portola Valley, died on Saturday, Aug. 30, friends and family have confirmed. He was 88.

Mr. Kelley, who was a partner in the firm started by his father, Hare, Brewer & Kelley, died of liver cancer after a short illness, longtime friend Joe Pickering said.

Mr. Kelley and his wife, Shirley, were founding shareholders in the Palo Alto Weekly. Publisher Bill Johnson recalled Mr. Kelley's vivacious personality.

"Rye was a fire hose of ideas, some brilliant, some ahead of their time, and some completely crazy. This creativity and joie de vivre touched everything he did professionally and, in retirement, came out in beautiful poetry written for friends and family," Mr. Johnson said.

"Rye was an enthusiastic and active supporter of the Weekly when we started and the source of countless ideas for how we could best serve the community. He had very high expectations and aspirations for the paper, which set a high bar for me and our staff."

As developers, Mr. Kelley and his late brother, William ("Bill") Kelley imagined and brought to life a variety of landmark projects that were ahead of their time and often controversial, his son, Bruce, said.

Their developments include the beach resort community Pajaro Dunes on Monterey Bay; the 10-story 525 University in Palo Alto, which is the tallest building between San Francisco and San Jose; La Tour in Palo Alto, one of the first five-star restaurants on the Peninsula; Mayfield Mall, one of the first major indoor malls; and the planned communities of Lindenwood in Atherton and Ladera in Portola Valley. He was also involved in the creation of Stanford Research Park.

Mr. Kelley's development career both peaked and cratered in the 1980s after two beachfront proposals that were among his most ambitious -- a boutique hotel on Redondo Beach and a combination artists' retreat, performing arts center, hotel and housing development in Santa Cruz -- were defeated after narrow public votes.

"(He) was a fearless advocate of farsighted, if contrarian, initiatives Bruce Kelley said. "He helped stoke anti-war sentiment by serving as strategist to his friend Paul N. 'Pete' McCloskey, who opposed the Vietnam War as a moderate Republican and (who) in 1971 ran against his own president in the New Hampshire primary."

Mr. Kelley's belief in technologically based solutions to ecological problems was evidenced by his support in the 1970s for geodesic domes -- the energy-efficient structures promoted by Buckminster Fuller -- and by his creation of World Energy, a 21st-century scientific campaign to revive heavy-ion fusion as a source of clean energy, among other interests and pursuits, Bruce Kelley said.

He had dozens of quixotic ideas he pressed for, from putting players' names on both sides of their jerseys for better television viewing to solving the West's water shortages with massive desalination of the Pacific, Bruce said. 

Mr. Kelley's company rescued and completed the 500-home Ladera development in Portola Valley, which included the shopping center, in the early 1950s, after he was approached by the nonprofit cooperative Peninsula Housing Association. The cooperative, which was made up of Stanford University faculty members, faced bankruptcy. The Kelleys turned the project into one of the most desired communities in the Bay Area.

He and his wife lived in Ladera for 55 years. At the time of his death, the couple lived in Woodside, his son Rich said.

In the early 1960s, Mr. Kelley opposed annexing then-unincorporated Portola Valley into the town of Woodside as an unsound merger. It would not create an adequate tax base for community services, according to Portola Valley Town Historian Nancy Lund.

Born in 1925 at the old Palo Alto Hospital, which was located at Embarcadero Road and Cowper Street, Mr. Kelley attended Palo Alto High School. He graduated from Stanford University in 1949, where he met his wife of many years, Shirley (nee Sneath), Rich Kelley said.

Mr. Kelley was also an accomplished poet for nearly 50 years, and hosted a live monthly show, "The Live Poets Society," on Cable Coop television from about 1992 to 2002, Rich Kelley said. He also wrote a 100-page book of poems for Palo Alto's 100th anniversary, titled "Rings of Growth." Proceeds from the book benefited the Palo Alto Historical Association and the Centennial Endowment Fund.

Mr. Pickering, his friend of 68 years, said the two men met at early football practice in 1946 at Stanford University. The Kelleys introduced Mr. Pickering to his wife in 1947 during a blind date, and the couples have been close friends ever since, he said.

"He was a goodhearted person. He had a marvelous wit -- a clever wit. He was a great reader and he was a talker. He was easy to like," Mr. Pickering said. "He was a Renaissance man who could do everything. He was extremely creative."

Mr. Kelley built the community of Hidden Valley in Woodside and Pajaro Dunes resort in Watsonville on Monterey Bay. He is also known locally for land preservation efforts that include donating the first land acquisition to the nonprofit Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) in 1979. That 535-acre property became the Windy Hill Open Space Preserve, which was transferred to Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. The land is now a popular destination for hiking and birding.

He was a co-founder and chairman of the board of trustees at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, and he served on the board for more than 30 years. He and his wife were also supporters of the arts, with many donations to visual and theater arts at Stanford University and the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Woodside.

Mr. Pickering said that Mr. Kelley deemed convincing Stanford University to not issue 99-year leases on Stanford Shopping Center and the Stanford Research Park his greatest legacy. Limiting leases to shorter periods of time, such as 25 years, allowed the university to negotiate higher prices and to reconsider the leases in relation to inflation, he said. Mr. Kelley considered it a boon to Stanford and the community, especially regarding the research park, Mr. Pickering said.

In his retirement years, Mr. Kelley became a prolific poet. He wrote and staged a play, "Lyndon," about former President Lyndon Johnson in a fictitious role in the death of President John F. Kennedy. The play included Palo Alto developer and friend Charles "Chop" Keenan, and it debuted at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts in May 2006.

When he was diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer three months ago, he staged a "retirement party" for his life with a Live Poets Society poetry reading before more than 100 close friends, Mr. Pickering said. "He retired as a poet one month ago. It was moving, touching and hilarious."

Mr. Kelley's last word was "Wonderful!" after listening to jazz trombonist Jack Teagarden's "Misery and the Blues," Bruce Kelley said. He did not suffer any pain. He survived colon cancer in the mid-2000s and a stroke in 2012, neither of which seemed to slow him down, Bruce said.

Mr. Kelley is survived by his wife, Shirley; sons Rich, a retired NBA basketball center and real estate investor; Tom, who is also in real estate; and Bruce, a journalist. Survivors also include four grandchildren, Riley, Sam, Rachel and Neil; and daughters-in-law Gina and Susan.

No services are pending. The family requests that donations be made to Project Inform in San Francisco and to the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.


1 person likes this
Posted by Ladera neighbor
a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on Sep 3, 2014 at 1:56 pm

Ry was a giant of a man and a gentle soul. He will be missed.

2 people like this
Posted by Jay Gertridge
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Sep 3, 2014 at 3:46 pm

Loved that guy!

2 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on Sep 4, 2014 at 5:18 pm

Rye was as a good a man as I will ever meet. He will be missed, but his legacy is all around us

1 person likes this
Posted by Janet Ditz Tarr
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Sep 7, 2014 at 11:19 pm

So many great memories of Ry - A gentle man, so insightful, interested and interesting. He was talented, kind, thoughtful and funny. I will miss him but will never forget him.

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