Utopia's Million-Dollar Homes

September 23, 1994

James Rouse, the founder of Howard County's Columbia, often reminded folks not to forget that the bottom line of his renowned planned city was to make a profit.

It was a caveat offered in recognition of the fact that so many looked upon the community solely as some grand social experiment due to its emphasis on economic and racial diversity. Because his work often embodied the social aspects of urban planning, Mr. Rouse found himself having to remind people that his company was, after all, in the development business.

As testament to Mr. Rouse's declaration, witness the new Forest Glen development taking shape in western Columbia. Groundbreaking took place yesterday on homes that will sell for $600,000 to $1 million each. They are the most expensive homes ever constructed in Columbia and among the priciest in the Baltimore region.

They will also fuel the mistaken notion that the Rouse Co. has lost sight of Columbia's original vision, supplanting it with the less noble end of making money. Even the fact that the Rouse Co. is simultaneously building "affordable homes" in an east Columbia project called Streamwood will probably do little to dispel this thinking.

Of course, Mr. Rouse is damned if he does and damned if he does not. The Streamwood townhomes will be marketed for households with incomes between $20,000 and $40,000 -- in a city where the average household income is more than $70,000. Some community leaders opposed to this project have sowed a conflict between Columbia's western haves and the eastern have-nots.

While it may be true that communities on the eastern side of Columbia have proportionally more subsidized units than in the west, there is no evidence that the concentration is intentional or absolute. In fact, the village with the third highest concentration of affordable housing -- Harper's Choice -- is in west Columbia, home of the new Forest Glen edifices.

Rather than a strategy to make one side of Columbia the dumping ground for low-income housing, the differences between Columbia's villages reflect the changes in the way homebuilding has been financed over the past quarter-century. Older communities -- east and west -- reflect the housing mix that private, federal and state financing allowed at the time. That continues in Jim Rouse's capitalistic Utopia today, from luxurious Forest Glen to livable Streamwood.

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