At 80, Rouse has a lot behind him and a lot in front

May 01, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Jim Rouse, having strolled about the universe he created and seen that it was good, returns to his Columbia office the other day and pronounces himself not quite as energetic as he used to be. He must be kidding. He turned 80 last week, while almost nobody was looking, and he's still seeking entire worlds to conquer.

Without Rouse, Columbia's still Howard County farmland instead a place 80,000 people call home. Without him, the Inner Harbor's still home to winos and wayward pigeons who missed the last flight out of town, instead of the symbol of the city's emotional and economic rebirth.

xTC He's the country's most famous real estate developer with a conscience, and he's 80 years old, and he's still talking about hopes for the future.

"Eighty?" he says, not the least bit impressed. "I don't know that it's noteworthy."

OK, here's what's noteworthy. He's still plugging away. Forty years ago, he helped pioneer the American shopping mall. A quarter-century ago, he fathered Columbia. Fifteen years ago, he invented the center-city festival marketplaces like Harborplace. And, for the last decade or so, he's put his energies -- Diminishing energies? Don't believe it -- into housing the poor, in places like West Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester community, which prompted a fellow named Clinton to sit Rouse down over dinner last year for a few tips on saving urban America.

If this isn't a life to inspire and/or depress the rest of us underachievers, it'll do until the real thing comes along, despite occasional criticism. Yes, shopping malls have homogenized American life, a good idea run amok. Yes, Harborplace is mostly for the tourist types. And, yes, Columbia's. . . .

"Gratifying beyond anything I'd hoped for," Rouse says, 27 years after its birth.

He's heard all the dismissals about Columbia: too plastic, too cute, more an extended middle-class suburb than a real city. He rejects all such talk.

"Plastic, oh, sure," he says, numbly echoing the familiar put-down. "What are these people saying, that they want random sprawl and clutter? Gas stations and hot dog stands and fluttering pennants? We built Columbia to conform to the needs of people. Because it's not ugly and vulgar doesn't mean it's plastic."

He had certain guidelines when he built it. Wanted a real city, with its own schools and a hospital, with arms open to all races and religions. Wanted to respect the land -- pretty progressive thinking for three decades ago. Wanted a place where families could prosper. Wanted to make a profit -- and he has, handsomely.

Other cities were put together with engineers and bureaucrats, but Rouse talks of the teachers, the sociologists and psychologists and others who "know about life" with whom he met twice weekly for several months before he started building Columbia.

"We talked about definitions of success and failure, about relating man and God better than just having a church on every corner. We wanted a sense of what was important to people. And we wanted it open to all people."

He says no figures are kept but estimates Columbia's about 20 percent black and sizably "Orientals, East Asians, Indians. There are probably more racially integrated marriages here than anywhere in the world."

Today, two years after open heart surgery, he remains chairman of the Enterprise Foundation, the nonprofit organization he and his wife, Patty, founded in 1980 to develop low-income housing. It oversees about $85 million in development funds in about 150 cities and digs deeply into community self-help projects such as Sandtown-Winchester.

"The main job now," says Rouse, "isn't the center of cities, but the desperately poor neighborhoods. When we started the Enterprise Foundation in 1980, there were 30 million people below the poverty line. Now there's 38 million.

"And there's a pervasive state of mind that these conditions can't be managed, that it's overwhelmed us now. So we don't make any strenuous efforts to change conditions at the bottom. We want some simple answer, but there isn't any, and so we think it's impossible."

This is familiar ground for Rouse. In the last presidential election, he and candidate Bill Clinton dined in Annapolis to talk about bringing cities back to life.

"Build from the bottom," Rouse told him.

He says Clinton gives him more hope about cities than any president in years. Says he cares, says he's determined. Says he's brought good people into government. Says he sees a time down the road. . . .

There he goes again: He's 80 years old, and he's already created a universe or two, and he's still looking toward the horizon, somewhere out there in the great distance.

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