James Rouse shaped our cities

Builder: Harborplace and Columbia are among the many grand projects he developed.

Marylanders Of The Century

August 16, 1999

CAN YOU IMAGINE Baltimore without Harborplace? Or the Baltimore-Washington corridor without the vibrant community of Columbia? Or the nation without enclosed shopping malls that are America's new Main Street?

A half-century ago, none of those projects were on our radar screen. The vision, business acumen and salesmanship of James Wilson Rouse, the Eastern Shore-born developer extraordinaire, put all these landmarks on the map.

Rouse thought on a grand scale. And because his ideas bore fruit, he became the country's most important real estate developer in the second half of the 20th century.

He turned a tiny Baltimore real-estate financing office into a powerhouse developer of urban and suburban shopping centers. Locally, he built the city's first shopping mall, Mondawmin, and the region's first enclosed mall, Harundale. His Village of Cross Keys remains an idyllic urban community.

Along the way, he gained national prominence. President Eisenhower named him to his Advisory Committee on Housing. He chaired its subcommittee on urban redevelopment, rehabilitation and conservation. Four decades later, President Clinton awarded him the Medal of Freedom.

He made the cover of Time magazine. "Cities are Fun!" it proclaimed. This phrase captured his optimism for urban life, whether for cities as old as Baltimore or as new as Columbia.

As a real estate developer, he etched his signature on more than 100 city centers on five continents.

Rouse led the drive to rescue the Inner Harbor, first as chairman of the Greater Baltimore Committee and then as head of the Rouse Co. He restored Boston's Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston, built Gallery at Market East in downtown Philadelphia, South Street Seaport in New York and numerous similar urban marketplaces.

He had a knack for catchy phrases to promote his projects: He is credited with coining the terms "shopping mall" and "urban renewal." Most of his developments remain prime attractions.

It would be fair to compare him to architects who shaped London, Paris and Vienna, or to Frank Lloyd Wright and Frederick Law Olmsted or even to Walt Disney.

Like all of them, Rouse could look at a vast expanse and dream wildly. The Inner Harbor consisted of rundown wharves before he envisioned a new Baltimore.

Before he turned his attention to a 14,000-acre area between Baltimore and Washington, most people saw farmland. Rouse dreamed of a new city, bustling with 100,000 residents, a strong business base and a new concept of racial and socioeconomic harmony.

Columbia is 32 years old and close to buildout. It has lost some of the idealism he championed, but the quality of life, strong economic base and anti-sprawl planning have made it a hit.

Jim Rouse was first and foremost a businessman. His companies built up an impressive financial track record. But making money was never his only reason for work.

Long before we heard the phrase "compassionate conservative," Rouse showed that a businessman could have a big heart. His fight against poverty and urban blight dates to the early '50s.

"He was disdainful of people in business who were not committed to improving the human condition," former Rouse Co. lawyer George Barker said after Rouse's death in 1996. "He believed that you could do that and still make a profit."

Rouse remained a general in the war on poverty. His Enterprise Foundation formed a partnership with City Hall to help the poor find jobs, build decent housing for them and provide health care in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood. The foundation is duplicating that effort elsewhere.

In spite of his success and drive, Rouse remained humble, favoring madras sports jackets, penny loafers and his trusty, dated Buick.

Giving cities renewed vitality -- and conquering social ills -- were key Rouse objectives. Giving suburbs a more human and cosmopolitan face were also priorities. James Rouse's vision has become America's vision.

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