No longer new, the corridor's 'capital' is reeling from the recession. To its developer, that means lost profit, but Rouse is looking to the long term.


February 11, 1991|By David Rosenthal | David Rosenthal,Sun Staff Correspondent

COLUMBIA — Columbia

From a distance, the brick and glass building on Gateway Drive casts an impressive profile. Sleek and angled, the suburban-modern structure rises up five stories from a field of yellowed grass, dominating a corner of the Columbia Gateway office park.

It's a symbol of Columbia's emerging role as capital of the Baltimore-Washington corridor.

The site, along Interstate 95, once was reserved for a sprawling General Electric complex, an industrial anchor designed to bring blue-collar jobs to the new city sprouting nearby. But Columbia's robust growth -- and the rapid development of the corridor -- soon attracted bankers and engineers to the site, too.

Today, Columbia's eastern edge has been recast as a modern office park, a cradle for young, high-technology companies.

But look closer. Look past the large sign that shouts: "LEASE"!

The silver-framed doors at 6751 Gateway Drive are locked. The parking lot is empty. And the large, tinted windows provide see-through views of barren office suites.

For all its promise as corridor capital, for all its affluence and lofty goals, the planned community of Columbia can't escape the problems triggered by a nationwide recession.

The economic slowdown has left Columbia Gateway, a 620-acre project of The Rouse Co., littered with vacant offices. Meanwhile, Rouse's plans for completing Columbia have been interrupted -- a move that has depressed earnings and has created a mood of cautiousness at the corporate headquarters.

Still, Rouse officials aren't panicking. They're pushing ahead with some low-risk projects in Columbia, including the new 165,000-square-foot headquarters for The Ryland Group. And they're resisting pressures to boost profits by slashing land prices or by loosening tight development controls in Columbia.

Douglas A. McGregor, a Rouse executive vice president and general manager of the Columbia project, dismisses such pressures. With the confidence -- or, some would say, arrogance -- that characterizes Rouse, he says simply, "Short-term profits are not what we're about."

That attitude reflects Rouse's unusual role in Columbia: somewhere between corporate citizen and benevolent despot.

The planned community was born in 1967, when James Rouse began subdividing 14,000 acres of farmland he had assembled. Mr. Rouse, founder of the company that bears his name, dreamed of a new kind of city, without the helter-skelter development common in American suburbs. His carefully sculpted city would be characterized by parks, cul-de-sacs and street names taken from Walt Whitman's poetry.

In many ways, The Rouse Co. is Columbia. Like a government agency, it sets architectural and construction standards for homes and offices built in Columbia. Like a bank, it can demand pre-leasing agreements from developers who want to buy its land. Like the overseer of a company town, it is a demanding business partner and a tough negotiator, able to set land prices with little regard for the laws of supply and demand.

Developer Robert Manekin, whose company has built several buildings in Columbia Gateway, says, "The Rouse Co. has an extremely high opinion of itself. We feel they have earned it. As Will Rogers once said, 'If it's true, it ain't braggin'.' "

Mr. McGregor, 48, always has taken the long view of Columbia. He came to Rouse -- after short stints as a trial lawyer and as head of a computer software company -- when the new city was but 5 years old.

He was looking for a spot on the front lines of development, where risk-taking was a way of life. And he was driven by an "edifice complex" -- he wanted to work for a company that built big, signature projects.

Like Columbia.

Mr. McGregor's entry to Rouse wasn't very glamorous. His first job, as associate development director, involved rerouting a small road that separated the Harpers Choice shopping center from area residents. Later, he handled the development of Clemens Crossing, a neighborhood in Hickory Ridge Village.

In those days, Rouse's Columbia development was divided among several teams, which acted like small businesses and competed with each other. That spirit honed entrepreneurs -- in fact, two development directors, John Liparini and John Troutman, soon left Rouse to found their own companies.

Mr. McGregor, who sought the big project, the home run, stuck with Rouse.

Tall and solid, cloaked in a veil of earnestness, he fits Rouse's corporate image as the nation's largest publicly held real estate developer. Yet he also has a lighter side, which allows him to defuse tense situations with a witty, well-turned phrase. And his innate ability to charm large groups -- from pin-striped financiers to pee-wee lacrosse players -- earned him the nickname "The Dancing Bear" among Rouse insiders.

Today, Mr. McGregor steers the city of 73,000 toward the lofty goals set when development began in rural Howard County. The goals: building a complete city, encouraging human growth, respecting the land and making a profit.

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