Urban visionary succumbs at 81 Obituary: Throughout his extraordinary career, the founder of Columbia and developer of Harborplace sought to restore a sense of community to American life.

April 10, 1996|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers James M. Coram, Fred Rasmussen and Albert Sehlstedt Jr. contributed to this article.

James W. Rouse, the developer and social architect who turned idealism into bricks, mortar and profit with projects as diverse as Harborplace, Charles Center and Columbia, died yesterday of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, at his home in Columbia.

He was 81.

Mr. Rouse, born on Maryland's Eastern Shore and founder of the internationally known Rouse Co., made his money as a developer. He made his reputation as a visionary. And he made (( his name synonymous with cities and better ways to build them.

At each stage of his extraordinary career, Mr. Rouse saw the future and made it his. He had profound influence on life in Maryland -- and the world beyond.

In the 1950s, he anticipated the migration to the suburbs, built Harundale Mall and went on to become one of the world's largest builders of regional shopping malls.

In the '60s, disappointed with the sterility of subdivisions, he created Columbia, a much-copied new town meant to infuse the suburbs with urban vitality.

In the '70s, he conjured up the festival marketplace to rejuvenate decaying downtowns, building Boston's Faneuil Hall and Baltimore's Harborplace, projects copied across the country.

In the '80s, Mr. Rouse began yet another career in retirement: He established the Enterprise Foundation, taking on the goal of providing decent, affordable housing for every American, no matter how poor.

Mr. Rouse was an original, a tough but enlightened capitalist who believed that the purpose of the real estate business lay in two inextricably connected goals: serving people and making money.

He had enormous energy and an unappeasable appetite for the bigger and the better, yet those who knew him remarked on his deep humility. He was relentlessly optimistic and folksy, his speech punctuated by "golly" and his attire tending toward a madras jacket and penny loafers -- often with the penny. He was a consummate salesman, pursuing his goals with the zeal of an evangelist.

"Spiritually," said C. William Struever, a developer influenced by Mr. Rouse, "he was one of the most important people in America -- giving us the courage and boldness to take on our toughest problems. He knew no despair. He was constantly getting fired up to take on the impossible and make it happen."

'Dream wildly'

Mr. Rouse encouraged the audacious. "Dream wildly," he would say, "because feasibility will compromise you soon enough."

His projects were varied, some might even say contradictory: Mr. Rouse made the suburbs more appealing and then turned around to repair the cities that were left faltering as city dwellers fled for better lives in the suburbs.

Mr. Rouse saw it differently. "It wasn't the mall that drew blood out of downtown," he said a few years ago. "It was the obsolescence of downtown, the inability of the central city to meet the demands of the automobile."

A common thread bound his efforts. Mr. Rouse wanted to restore sense of community to American life. He wanted people to feel connected to where they lived.

"Before Jim Rouse," said Walter Sondheim Jr., another legendary figure in Baltimore's downtown redevelopment, "builders only built houses. He wanted to build a place to live."

Mr. Rouse's achievements garnered him numerous honors. In September, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of building Columbia and devising "a blueprint for reviving community."

In Columbia, Mr. Rouse wanted a place where people of all races and religions could live together in comfort, convenience and a sense of community. The way he went about it was characteristic of his style.

He assembled 14 people from the behavioral sciences, education, religion, government and communications. Over a four-month period, they met to brainstorm on how to create a new kind of suburban city. While other developers might worry about sewage systems, Mr. Rouse was delving into loneliness and angst.

Nearly 30 years later, Columbia is a thriving city of 82,000 residents and 2,400 businesses. When Mr. Rouse sought to build Harborplace in Baltimore, many initially resisted. They wanted to preserve the open space that had been created around the harbor. Mr. Rouse and city leaders persisted. In a referendum in November 1978, Harborplace was approved.

More than 15 years after it opened, Harborplace is still bustling with life -- the most frequently visited attraction in the state.

His early life

James Wilson Rouse was born April 26, 1914, the fifth child of a prosperous Easton canned-foods broker, Willard G. Rouse, and Lydia Robinson Rouse.

Though the family had servants, the children were instilled with a work ethic. Young Jim raised vegetables in the family's garden ++ and sold them to a local grocer. He also caddied and worked in a can factory.

He went to Easton High School, where his enormous energy and leadership abilities were already evident. He was on the basketball and track teams, edited a school paper, and was elected president of his class and president of the student council.

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