James Rouse, a Pioneer of the Suburban Shopping Center, Now Sets His Sights on Saving Cities

updated 07/06/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/06/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Turning a market into a 'festival' is the stamp of Rouse's success

Like many revolutionary ideas it seems obvious in retrospect. "Shopping shouldn't be an annoying, cold necessity of life," says real estate developer James W. Rouse. "It should be happy, visually appealing and uplifting." On that premise, Rouse, 67, has constructed some of the nation's most striking and successful shopping oases and, in the process, begun a movement to revitalize blighted areas in Downtown America. His $30 million Faneuil Hall Marketplace project in Boston, $38 million Gallery at Market East in Philadelphia and $18 million Harborplace in Baltimore are the dramatic realizations of Rouse's latest vision. They prove that with a mixture of pluck, panache, taste and massive capital, retailing—which once capitalized on the postwar suburban boom—can help save the cities. "People like the heart of a city, and the one place everyone goes to is the market," he observes. "There are very few places in any city where people can go just to walk around and have a good time—for free. There is a yearning for that kind of festival life."

With an entrepreneur's savvy, an evangelist's fervor and a humanist's concern, Rouse has given the profession of developer a good name for a change. His 52 retail centers in 15 states and Canada are notable for their design quality. "If everyone developed like Rouse, there wouldn't be an unsightly mall in the United States," says Albert Sussman, executive VP of the International Council of Shopping Centers. Handsome but not startling, Rouse's centers avoid the starkly minimal look that is so often seen. "Architecture should not be sculpture," Rouse believes. "A building should be warm and human in its texture and feeling. It should dignify more than the architect and never belittle people."

Frank Gehry, who designed Rouse's California extravaganza, Santa Monica Place, calls him "a certifiable romantic—he likes softer colors, more sentiment, and occasionally the kind of schmaltz that gives architects fits." The environmentalists, another likely natural enemy, have had fewer battles with Rouse than with many of his breed. As Robert C. Embry Jr., a former Assistant Secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, says, "Rouse is almost alone in being concerned about the social impact of physical development."

One reason might be Rouse's disarming thoughts on corporate greed. "The business mentality today is that the pursuit of profit is the purpose of life, and that people come second or third," he says. "I think that's deplorable. It's why development has such a bad name, and why cities suffer from so much ugliness. What should be important is to produce something of benefit to mankind. If that happens, then the profit will be there."

The life story of James Wilson Rouse amply supports that sentiment. The last of five children born to a wealthy canned goods broker, Rouse grew up in an eight-bedroom Victorian mansion in Easton, a small town on Maryland's rural Eastern Shore. Despite their affluence, his parents encouraged Jim to work as a golf caddie, a can factory grunt and, at 15, as a Fuller Brush man. It was invaluable preparation. In 1930 both his parents died six months apart, leaving behind enormous business debts. Shortly after, the bank foreclosed on the family home, and young Rouse was left almost penniless. After driving cross-country in a Model T, he shipped out steerage class to Hawaii, where a sister lived with her naval officer husband. With help from the sister and his older brother, plus scholarship assistance, Jim finished two years of college; but then, flat broke in the Depression, he moved to Baltimore and found work parking cars. Attending law school at night (he received a degree from the University of Maryland in 1937 but has never practiced), Rouse soon switched jobs, becoming a legal clerk at the Federal Housing Administration. By the time he was 22, he was managing the mortgage department at Baltimore's Title Guarantee and Trust Company.

Borrowing $20,000 from family and friends in 1939, Rouse joined forces with real estate appraiser Hunter Moss and set up a mortgage banking company. Then, after a World War II tour on an admiral's staff back in Hawaii, Jim returned to Baltimore and expanded to underwriting apartment houses and shopping centers. By 1954 he had bought out his partner and established his own firm. Today the Rouse Company is one of the U.S.'s ranking mortgage banks (holding a $1.5 billion portfolio of loans) and in the top six in shopping center development, and in the process the boss's personal worth has climbed to $16 million.

But Rouse still claims to know many of his 2,800 employees by name, and a lot of them call him Jim. The firm is run out of a modern, four-story headquarters in Columbia, Md., halfway between D.C. and Baltimore. During the winter, employees from the president down to office boys attend monthly luncheon briefings on new company projects (New York City's South Street Seaport is one), and many staffers keep pictures of shopping centers they have worked on alongside the family photos on their desks.

Indeed, the company's achievements chronicle the postwar evolution of shopping in America. In 1955 Rouse opened the Mondawmin Mall on 46 acres in northwest Baltimore. Still bustling, it seems now a typical two-level shopping mall surrounded by a parking lot, but at the time it was a breakthrough design. Three years later his Harundale Mall south of Baltimore helped pioneer the fully enclosed, heated and air-conditioned mall, which then swept the American scene. One Rouse hallmark—small shops to replace chain stores—evolved gradually during the '70s. The characteristic Rouse landscaping was inspired by his late sister Dia, a gardening buff.

Rouse's most audacious experiment was the creation of the entire city of Columbia, built on 14,000 acres he acquired for $23 million in the early '60s. To some it seemed quixotic; today it is a thriving community of 56,000. "It was never a dream," says Rouse. "It was a very rational thing that emerged out of the irrationality of suburban sprawl." Columbia is a largely affluent community (although four percent is low-income housing), with 50 miles of foot and cycle paths, 16 outdoor swimming pools, four schools of higher education, a hospital, a 5,000-seat music pavilion, almost 1,000 businesses and, of course, a shopping mall. The town is mixed racially (about 20 percent of the residents are black) and topographically (23 percent of the city is open space, including three lakes).

Though frustrated by occasional outbreaks of youth vandalism and the failure of the bus system to wean residents from their cars, Rouse generally feels "very good about Columbia." For a real estate developer, there's remarkably little hustle or hyperbole in his talk, but his actions are eloquent. For the last 10 years Rouse has lived right in Columbia, now in a five-bedroom glass-and-frame house on a lake with his second wife, Patricia Traugott, 55. (He met her in 1973, after he separated from his wife of 31 years, and they married a year later.) Rouse is in close touch with his three children from his first marriage: Robin Norton, 38, who is married to a lawyer and lives in Columbia; James Jr., 34, a Baltimore artist who helps support his family by waiting on tables; and Ted, 29, a construction foreman rehabilitating old buildings in Baltimore. His five grandchildren range in age from 2 months to 11 years.

The Rouses enjoy watching waterfowl through a telescope ever present in the living room. Outdoors, he favors vigorous backpacking, canoeing, hiking, fishing and tennis. Raised a Presbyterian, he attends an ecumenical church in Washington, often visiting socially other churches in Columbia. Despite his wealth, Rouse wears penny loafers and madras jackets, drives a Chevrolet station wagon and flies coach. His company eschews such perks as chauffeured cars and executive dining rooms. "I'm not a believer in privilege," he says. "As people acquire position and wealth, they allow it to become a force in their lives. You have to resist it because it separates you from life."

Now chairman, Rouse retired from the job of chief executive officer two years ago, although he has carried over his old work habits to his new projects. "He was always on his hands and knees on the floor, going over plans," recalls Jerome McDermott, a senior vice-president. But as another Rouse associate adds, the chairman "has an amazing ability to shift gears; once the pressure of a meeting is over, that's it. He doesn't carry it around."

Much of Rouse's business time now is devoted to building for the poor and restoring America's inner cities. In April he formed the Enterprise Development Foundation to finance low-income housing. The organization, which he originally and whimsically titled the Robin Hood Trust, is now proposing a $13.5 million project on the waterfront of Norfolk, Va. (where his wife, Patricia, was a housing redevelopment commissioner). At the same time Rouse, a founder of the National Urban Coalition, is working on the renovation of five apartment buildings in an integrated neighborhood in northwest Washington. "By the end of the '80s, a black family will be able to live comfortably wherever it wants in almost every American city," he says. Too hopeful? No, replies Rouse. "I have a conviction that optimism is a value, not a sentimental state of mind. It helps to bring about what ought to be."

That is a dream of a man who has never envisioned any blueprint as a monument to himself. Rouse remains a self-effacing sort whose criteria for the ideal shopping center describe also his view of a master builder. "Good architecture is the architecture that's so good it's unimportant," he says. "The really well-designed center is one in which people feel such pleasure and joy that no one need speak about the place."

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