Will Columbia notice Rouse's absence?

Planning: The town and the company that built it were drifting apart, some say.

August 29, 2004|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Although the sale of the Rouse Co. signifies the end of a hometown company that made its mark on American development, the company's impending takeover may not be all that noticeable in Columbia.

Rouse's presence and influence in Columbia has been waning for years, say many residents, scholars and public officials.

The town that Rouse built nearly 40 years ago has grown into a national model for planned communities, and many of Columbia's 96,000 residents have become more skeptical of the company. Development proposals that decades ago would have probably sailed through are being protested by residents and voted down by officials.

"The writing has been on the wall for quite some time - they weren't going to get everything they wanted like they used to," said Alex Hekimian, president of the watchdog group Alliance for a Better Columbia.

There's no question in the minds of residents and leaders that Rouse has been the defining corporate citizen in the community - from its founder, James W. Rouse, building Columbia as a community where people of all racial and economic backgrounds would live side by side, to employing more than 500 people at its waterfront Lake Kittamaqundi headquarters in downtown Columbia, to donating money and employee time to community foundations.

"The Rouse Co. was the quintessential good corporate citizen, stemming from the days of Jim Rouse and his vision," said Richard W. Story, chief executive of Howard County's Economic Development Authority.

But now Columbia is essentially built out on more than 14,000 acres, and Rouse has other development interests in the 67,000-resident Summerlin, Nev., near Las Vegas, and owns 8,060 acres near Houston that are earmarked for development.

Defeats for company

There have been several signs that the community has begun challenging Rouse, and that the developer has been disengaging from Columbia. Rouse's proposal to increase housing density in downtown Columbia was rejected this year by the Howard County Zoning Board. And it was turned down by the Columbia Association, which it created, on a proposal to annex its new Emerson development into Columbia.

The company has also been unloading some of its most significant Columbia commercial properties - selling eight village centers in 2002 to an out-of-state company and offering to sell the Merriweather Post Pavilion to Howard County this year.

Joshua Olsen, author of Better Places, Better Lives: A Biography of James Rouse, called the village centers the "nexus of the Columbia concept," creating a place in each village where people could congregate while buying groceries, gas and other necessities. Rouse's ownership of the centers showed its dedication to the town, so its sale of them - a deal that stunned the community - signified the company's final withdrawal from its daily interaction with the town, he said.

"The Rouse Co. has been diminishing its involvement in Columbia for at least the last decade," Olsen said.

Once the $12.6 billion acquisition of Rouse by Chicago-based General Growth Properties Inc. is finalized, "I think that on a day-to-day basis, people will see that not much has changed because Rouse has moved on to other things, and it's no longer the only business that matters in Columbia," Olsen added.

Rouse spokesman Bob Rubenkonig disputed that Rouse has been losing its stature in the community.

"I think that when you look at the Rouse Co.'s legacy in Columbia and how it was a part of creating a vibrant, thriving city and a community ... that has become a model worldwide, the fabric that is Columbia will always be something that the Rouse Co. is very proud of," he said.

Howard County Executive James N. Robey agreed that the company hasn't lost any political standing.

"I have to look at the success that Howard County has, in terms of economic growth and a great school system, and I attribute a large part of that to Rouse," he said.

Last week, Rouse said it would still pursue its development of the land around Merriweather. Blocked from its residential development, the company is planning to build offices and shops on the 51-acre parcel and may construct big-box stores such as a Wal-Mart or a Home Depot.

Threat of legislation

County Councilman Ken Ulman, who was born in Columbia 30 years ago, said he was disappointed that Rouse didn't act collaboratively with the county in its development plans and threatened the company with legislation that would block big-box development in Town Center.

Whether General Growth will continue Rouse's commercial development plans is unclear. General Growth President John Bucksbaum said it's too early to tell what will happen to those plans or to Merriweather. He said the company is learning about those issues as well as contemplating the future of Rouse's planned communities.

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