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Living: He Digs Downtown

22 minute read
Michael Demarest

For Master Planner James Rouse, urban life is a festival

The people are the city. —Shakespeare, Coriolanus

They come in every size, costume, complexion, class and age, an ever renewing multitude, lured to ocean’s edge as inexorably as water sprites. From early morning until well past midnight, natives and tourists by the thousands turn Baltimore’s Inner Harbor into a continuous celebration: milling on the promenades, perching on the bulkheads, dangling feet in the drink, flirting on the benches, lounging in the outdoor cafés, ogling, jogging, strolling, munching, sipping, savoring the sounds and sweet airs. In their midst, jugglers hurl batons, mimes mime, clowns pratfall and dancers soar. At one time or another, the sounds of jazz, Mozart, marching bands, rock, Rodgers, Bach, bagpipes and bouzouki fill the air. The air is filled, too, with the fragrances of fresh-baked bread, cheeses, chocolate, roasting coffee beans, crepes, French fries, fruit, sausage, seafood, soul food, souvlaki, spices and herbs.

All this wafts like a siren song from the twin glass and green-roofed shopping pavilions that form the year-old Harborplace: two-story, block-long, translucent pleasure domes where visitors can be seen from outside swarming in rhythmic schools like the angelfish at the nearby National Aquarium in Baltimore, a dazzling, $21.3 million piscine habitat that was formally opened Aug. 8 (see box).

Fifteen years ago, the 3.2-acre site of Harborplace was part of a 250-acre wasteland of rotting wharves, markets, warehouses and railroad yards, the worst of Baltimore’s then decrepit downtown. Its transformation into the commercial and social centerpiece of the Inner Harbor and the energizing jolt it has sent through the entire city are the result of $20 million worth of construction, plus the ideas and energy of an affable Marylander named James Wilson Rouse.

Rouse, 67, considers himself a developer, but is best described as an urban visionary. Over the past five years, in such innovative ventures as Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace, Philadelphia’s Gallery at Market Street East and Santa Monica

Place, a covered shopping mall in the heart of the California coastal city, he has shown a unique and uncanny ability to blend commerce and showmanship into a magnetizing force in the inner city. In the process, he has also sought to reshape current-day thinking about the functions and rewards of city life. The Rouse philosophy revolves not so much around real estate as around meeting the needs and desires of people—which, to say the least, seemed bizarre to most mortgage bankers when he was starting out. He has more than proved his point, and nowhere more spectacularly than in Baltimore.

Harborplace, in its first year of operation ending last month, attracted more visitors (18 million) than Disney World, earned $42 million, created 2,300 jobs and returned to the city more than $1.1 million in taxes. More important, it has lived up to Master Planner Rouse’s criterion of the inner city as “a warm and human place, with diversity of choice, full of festival and delight.” Like Faneuil Hall Marketplace, it has helped restore a sense of community and vitality to a divided, decaying, once apathetic older city.

The National Aquarium, the most advanced and by all odds the most attractive of its kind in the world, caps a $1.5 billion revitalization program on which Baltimore embarked 25 years ago. The renaissance has been led by a remarkable coalition of preservationists, Big Business and city government and, since 1971, has been accelerated by Mayor William Donald Schaefer (“Baltimore Is Best”), one of the most effective urban executives in the U.S. today (see box). Few cities anywhere can boast so dramatic a turnaround.

First, Baltimore literally disemboweled itself, clawing out 33 downtown acres to make way for Charles Center, a high-rise office development fronting on the city’s main north-south thoroughfare. Next, moving harborward, came I.M. Pei’s 28-story World Trade Center. It was accompanied by a long-needed Convention Center and the Maryland Science Center, where visitors are encouraged to touch exhibits, push buttons, pull levers and turn wheels. Also on the waterfront, a music tent called the Outdoor Concert

Pavilion has unfolded delicate wings, embracing thrice-weekly crowd pullers ranging from Yehudi Menuhin and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Collins and the Lettermen. The city’s surprisingly lively local theater scene encompasses the 1,800-seat Morris A. Mechanic Theater, the city-renovated Center Stage Theater, the Arena Players, one of the oldest black theatrical groups in the country, and half a dozen smaller companies. An eight-mile subway is due to open in 1982. A handsome 500-room Hyatt Regency Hotel has arisen on the harbor’s edge.

Mercifully, the emphasis has been on saving the good old buildings of the downtown’s surrounding neighborhoods rather than destroying them. Baltimore’s homesteading program, the nation’s most ambitious, has preserved scores of blocks of dilapidated but essentially sound and potentially elegant 19th century red-brick row houses—something of a city trademark. For a $1 purchase price per house and the promise of “sweat equity,” private citizens are restoring such historic neighborhoods as Ridgeley’s Delight, Otterbein, Barre Circle, Stirling Street, Durham Street and Washington Hill. There is a similar program of “shopsteading,” whereby businessmen are encouraged to salvage old stores. Notes City Planner Larry Reich: “Nothing happens here by itself. People have to make it happen.”

The ferment has stirred the spirit of the city’s neighborhoods, 100 of which now mount their own festivals. In addition, 16 ethnic groups in the city, ranging from Estonians to Italians, hold festivals each year in Charles Center or the Inner Harbor.

This is the new Baltimore, not to be confused with the old, a.k.a.

Bawlamer, in the state of Merlin.

(The naves drop consnans as liberally as cockneys dispense with aitches.

The machine with which you mow your lawn is, of course, your paramour.) It has long been called Survival City. Another monicker was Mobtown, after its citizens’ proclivity for rioting. Because it was long famed for 50 beer, 100 crabcakes and 150 rye whisky, it was more affectionately dubbed Nickel City. Bawlamer, 252 years old, was traditionally a blue-collar, beer-and-shot town, built on 19th century technologies, mainly steel and shipbuilding, that have since trailed off, as has its population. Of its 780,000 people, down from 939,000 in 1960, almost 55% are now black, of whom 40% or more are jobless.

A urban evangelists like Mayor Schaefer or Rouse (coauthor of a 1955 treatise titled No Slums in Ten Years) saw it, Baltimore could become a valuable and joyous town. It is, after all, the home of the Orioles, the Ouija board, the softshell crab, the national anthem, the nation’s first passenger railroad (the Baltimore & Ohio), Johns Hopkins Hospital and University, the Preakness, H.L. Mencken and Edgar Allan Poe (not to mention Spiro Agnew). It is also one of the last American possessors of a genuine honky-tonk district, known fondly as The Block, though even that lusty landmark has been sadly vulgarized by topless dancing and a renewal project that has largely plasticized its façade. Mencken once complained that the Baltimore harbor of his youth had smelled in summer like “a billion polecats.” Today the Inner Harbor is not a cesspool but a scene of jams and jollity. The white middle class is returning from the suburbs in droves. More than 20% of Harborplace visitors are torsts from out of state. Baltimore is no longer, as they used to say, “a town on the way to another town,” or “Washington’s Brooklyn.”

On his frequent visits to Harbor place, the Most Happy Fella among all strollers and browsers is Jim Rouse himself. Though the Maryland-based Rouse Co. is one of the world’s largest real estate development and management organizations (1980 revenues: $119.5 million), controlling a nationwide retail kingdom that in aggregate acreage is bigger than the principality of Monaco, its multimillionaire founder is not a regular at the “21” Club or Maxim’s. Rouse is more comfortable with his feet on the ground of his own projects, and the new Baltimore is clearly the one dearest to his heart; indeed, he was a founder of the potent renovationist Greater Baltimore Committee in 1955, and has been a resident witness to its progress over most of the years since. “The only legitimate purpose of a city,” he believes fervently, “is to provide for the life and growth of its people.” Which is not too far from

Aristotle’s injunction: “The goal of the city is to make man happy and safe.”

Rouse is a stocky (5 ft. 11 in.), balding, bespectacled man who looks like —and has been—an elder of the Presbyterian Church. On a recent late-morning tour of Harborplace, he was dressed like an avuncular preppie in a blue button-down shirt, a loud madras jacket and Bass Weejun loafers. Ankling around his waterfront pavilions, he is not so much a monarch surveying his turf as a wide-eyed tourist in a wonderland of consumer goodies. In the Light Street Pavilion, he sniffs the potted hydrangeas at the entrance, saunters beamishly past scores of food outlets, surveys Remembering You, a handsomely stocked gift shop, and peeks in on a shop crammed with antique postcards. He exchanges a few joky words with Anthony Hawkins, the 36-year-old black manager of Harborplace. At the Kite Loft, Rouse pays $1.95 for a “puddle jumper,” a wooden propeller on a stick that whirls aloft and settles gently into the harbor. Rouse is pleased to note that on a busy weekday, the pavilion is spotless.

Lunch-bound, Rouse strolls across the brick promenade to the Pratt Street Pavilion, passing broadside the still formidable-looking cannons of the three-masted frigate U.S.F. Constellation, one of the first warships commissioned by the infant republic in 1797. The developer looks in on several retailers in the Pratt Street complex, which houses mostly smart boutiques and specialty stores like the Chesapeake Knife and Tool and the Powder Room, which sells cosmetics. The Rouse Co. carefully screens the tenants in all its projects. At Harborplace, out of an initial 2,000 applications, only about 30 were chosen. Says Rouse: “When we have openings in our shopping centers, we look for tenants who fit in, and who add something to our overall plan.” Even the names of businesses are checked in advance to avoid excessive cuteness. The secret, says Benjamin Thompson, the Cambridge, Mass., architect who designed Faneuil Hall Marketplace and Harborplace, “is individual proprietorship, with immense, chaotic variety.”

Over lunch, Rouse expands on his philosophy of urban development: “We have lived so long with grim, congested, worn-out inner cities and sprawling, cluttered outer cities, that we have subconsciously come to accept them as inevitable and unavoidable. Deep down in our national heart is a lack of conviction that cities can be beautiful, humane, and truly responsive to the needs and yearnings of our people.”

That attitude, he believes, is wrong-headed and dangerous. After the riots that rocked cities across the U.S. in 1967, Rouse recalls, he told the Senate Finance Committee that “the task of making the American city a fit place to grow our people is the No. 1 priority of our civilization.” Without viable and vital cities, there would be no civilization. Most cities were founded either as fortresses or marketplaces, Rouse points out, and nowadays he recovers the original impetus of modern cities by creating a marketplace-festival as the dynamo of downtown. He invokes a phrase he has made familiar among urbanologists: “Profit is the thing that hauls dreams into focus.” Another familiar Rouse-ism: “It’s not how many people live in a city. It’s how many people use it.”

The suburbs, Rouse argues, “sucked the blood out of the central cities and left behind some of the urban basket cases we see today.” The middle-class exodus from the cities was to a large extent facilitated by the Federal Government, which built the freeways, provided relatively low-interest FHA and G.I. mortgages, and allowed homeowners to discount mortgage interest against their income taxes. Rouse believes the American city could well have gone the way of the brontosaurus, the dodo and the 30 stamp.

Instead, the cities eventually bottomed out and started climbing back up.

One factor, Rouse believes, is that American values have changed. While as many as 65% of all U.S. households now have two wage earners, more than half have no children; thus two of the compelling arguments for suburban living, acceptable schools and affordable housing, are becoming increasingly irrelevant for a sizable segment of the population. Moreover, says Rouse, “the old dream of suburbia —the house with a fence and the backyard barbecue—is fading. Young people increasingly tend to look at the suburbs as sterile and uninteresting.”

Urban decline is being stopped by the cities themselves—and by ventures like Faneuil Hall Marketplace and Harborplace. “The rebirth of the cities really started during the past decade or so,” Rouse says. “Now we’re right on the edge of a big transformation of the central city. Reports of the death of the American city were premature. The American city isn’t dying.

It’s being reborn.”

It will have to be. By the end of the century, nearly half of all Americans may be living in dwellings that do not exist today, on land that has not yet been broken. Rouse maintains that the nation’s population grows by about 300,000 a month, enough to fill a city the size of Toledo. Between now and the year 2000, the population of Los Angeles and that of the San Francisco Bay Area may both double. Baltimore’s population could increase by the size of present-day Miami. There is a compelling need for the kind of long-term urban planning that draws on every available social and sociological discipline —and imagination. Rouse says that “our cities grow by sheer chance, by accident, by the whim of the private developer and public agencies. A farm is sold and the land begins to sprout houses instead of potatoes. Forests are cut. Valleys are filled.

Streams are turned into storm sewers. An expressway is hacked through the landscape. Then a clover leaf, then a regional shopping center, then office buildings, then high-rise apartments. In this way, the bits and pieces of a city are splattered across the landscape. By this irrational process, non-communities are born, formless places without order, beauty or reason, with no visible respect for either people or the land.”

Ultimately, of course, urban-suburban sprawl is intolerable not just because it is ugly, oppressive and dull but because it is inefficient. Says Rouse: “Suburban sprawl stretches out the distances people must travel to work, to shop, to worship, to play.

It fails to relate these activities in ways that strengthen each other, and thus it suppresses values that orderly relationships and concentration of uses would stimulate. Sprawl is inhuman. It is anti-human.” Yet, Rouse notes, there is probably not one metropolitan area in the U.S.

with a really comprehensive, credible plan for its long-term development.

Planning is the key to any Rouse enterprise. How that can work for the future of the American city can best be seen in Columbia, Md., a new kind of community that was developed and planned down to the shape and color of the street lights (round and white) by the Rouse Co., whose four-story, stucco-and-glass headquarters are located beside one of the town’s three man-made lakes. The community’s 22 sq. mi., almost the size of Manhattan, were quietly, even furtively, assembled over nine months. The farm land had been an obvious target for piecemeal subdivision. Modeled largely on British garden cities and new towns, Columbia was designed around three major goals: preservation of the natural terrain, provision of different types of housing for different groups, and the creation of jobs.

With a population of nearly 60,000, a highly regarded school system, branches of four colleges, one hospital and almost 30,000 jobs, Columbia has five self-sufficient village centers, each made up of three or four neighborhoods. The city’s population is about 20% black. “Columbia works,” says Rouse, who lives in a low, modern home there. “It’s not some half-baked Utopia. It makes good use of the land—hell, 30% of Columbia is park land.

Streams and flood plains have been left alone. It also provides living proof that the races can live together. What is really important about Columbia is the marvelous advance in race relations.”

Accent survey of Columbia residents showed that 63% of those who settled there did so, at least in part, because they wanted their children to grow up with those of other races. “Racial problems can only be solved in the cities,”-Rouse maintains.

At Harborplace, the Rouse Co. was one of the first commercial enterprises in the U.S. to create a special unit with the sole function of setting up black-owned firms.

Of its 134 businesses, 18 are black-owned, some with financial aid from the Rouse Co. Most of them are extremely successful despite the fact that, as Rouse puts it, “black people have no image of success in business.” More than 40% of the Harborplace workforce is drawn from minorities. In most urban renewal projects, blacks and other minorities often complain, with good reason, that they have been displaced to make room for affluent whites. This is not a fair charge in Rouse’s case, however, since most of his developments have been planned around thinly populated areas and have in fact helped stabilize adjoining neighborhoods.

Jim Rouse was born in the gracious Eastern Shore town of Easton, Md., itself a fine place for the growing of people.

Though both his parents died when Rouse —one of six children—was 16, he attended the University of Hawaii, the University of Virginia and the University of Maryland, where he earned his law degree at night. His first job was at the Federal Housing Administration (FHA); in 1939, he and a partner started a mortgage banking company in Baltimore that was to be the forerunner of the Rouse Co.

Returning to Baltimore after Navy service in World War II, Rouse became involved in the city’s efforts to rehabilitate its growing and steadily worsening slums.

As a member of numerous planning and housing groups, he became a nationally recognized expert on urban problems.

Ironically, the James Rouse who was later to be so vehement a critic of suburban hemorrhage built his fortune on that very phenomenon. Starting in 1957, Rouse cashed in on suburban migration by building some three dozen huge shopping centers outside such cities as San Antonio, Keokuk, Iowa, and Paramus, N.J. His Harundale Mall, outside Baltimore, was the first enclosed shopping center created by a developer in the U.S. and the biggest commercial venture in Baltimore history when it opened in 1958. Rouse became a convert to urban revitalization following the city riots of the 1960s and his realization that the suburbs were not working as livable communities, while the cities were capable of a new grasp on life.

Since its founding, the Rouse firm has financed more than $3 billion worth of real estate through its own mortgage banking company; it now has nearly $1 billion in real estate developments, including 35 regional retail centers that it has developed and 19 centers that it manages, in 18 states and Canada. The company, which netted $4 million last year, has 3,000 employees, 600 of whom work in Columbia. A wholly owned Rouse subsidiary, the American City Corp., has served as a planning consultant to cities like Lowell, Mass., and Akron, charging around $20,000 a month for its services. Explains Rouse Co. Vice President W. Scott Ditch III: “American City is a means of transferring the knowledge we’ve gained working in large cities to other cities, some of which are smaller.” Over the past ten years American City has been responsible for $ 1.1 billion worth of development in two dozen cities.

Though he retains the title of chairman and keeps a rarely used office in its Columbia headquarters, Rouse has retired from active management of the company that bears his name. Says the firm’s $427,500-a-year president, Mathias DeVito, 50, who, like Rouse, is not an architect but a lawyer by training: “Of all his creations, the finest thing Jim Rouse brought into being was the Rouse Co.” Some critics are not so sure. Architect Thompson has nothing but praise for Rouse’s vigor and vision, but concedes, “I now tend to speak of Rouse as a large company.” Indeed, it is the Rouse Co. that most often draws fire. Critics argue that it is nowhere near as creative as it was when its founder was in full-time charge. Says one: “They lack the scope of thought Rouse has. They are far more involved in making money than anything else.”

Profits, of course, are essential to the success of all Rouse enterprises: profits not only for the developer but for the city as well. “Architects,” says Rouse, “are interested in using design and material to make statements. They are not always interested in people. We’re interested in designing places for people.” Critics of what has been called Faneuilization denigrate

Harborplace on aesthetic grounds. Nory Miller, an associate editor of Progressive Architecture, maintains that “the buildings of Harborplace are a mash of cliches —high tech, antique store, postwar modern, 19th century band shell and pavilion-by-the-sea—not well reconciled to each other nor resolved in themselves.” Miller likens Harborplace to “Atlantic City’s boardwalk with a touch of Disneyland.”

But this opinion is not shared by city planners and urbanologists, who see in the Rouse Co. philosophy of pleasure and profitability a talisman for urban revitalization. The most important of its current ventures:

South Street Seaport, Manhattan. A pet project of Mayor Edward Koch’s since he first saw Faneuil Hall Marketplace, the $250 million venture as now envisioned will encompass eleven blocks of New York’s oldest neighborhood. It will include expansion of the sprightly but small South Street Seaport Museum, renovation and expansion of the venerable Fulton Fish Market and construction of a pavilion for restaurants and shops that Ben Thompson has designed. To be completed, in its first phase, by the end of 1983, the development, which is a short walk from Wall Street, may bring a little Baltimore pizazz to a moribund area of Manhattan.

The Grand Avenue, Milwaukee. A $60 million, three-level shopping mall in the heart of downtown, the development will link two existing department stores three blocks apart. With financing from private and public sources (the Rouse Co. plans to invest about $15 million), the 245,000-sq.-ft. project is constructed around a 1915 landmark, the Plankinton Arcade, which is being brilliantly restored. Estimated completion date: spring, 1982.

St. Louis Station. The most challenging venture now on the company’s boards, this will entail redevelopment of an abandoned railroad passenger terminal and 56 acres of rail yard six blocks from the fringes of downtown St. Louis; it will include a hotel and offices as well as stores and restaurants.

Yerba Buena Gardens, San Francisco. A $350 million effort, in conjunction with Toronto-based real estate giant Olympia & York, to turn a 21-acre former Skid Row into a complex of festival-marketplace facilities, cafes, an amusement park inspired by Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens, and an underground convention center, which is nearing completion.

In addition, the Rouse Co. is studying potential downtown development projects in eleven cities, among them Miami Beach and Denver. It is bidding against several other organizations for the contract to complete the Faneuil Hall complex by developing 70,000 sq. ft. between the market and the harbor. In Philadelphia, where the four-level Gallery at the Market Street East shopping mall, linking two department stores, was an immediate success—despite doubts that it could flourish in an area that had been a shopping district for poor blacks —the company is building Gallery II, a similar arcade, and may turn an abandoned commuter train station into a shopping center. Eventually Rouse expects the development to cover some ten city blocks between the city hall and Independence Mall.

On summer weekends, Jim Rouse and his second wife, Patti, a former commissioner of housing and development in Norfolk, Va., often board their 30-ft. cabin cruiser Adequate and head for a small island he owns on the Miles River. But Rouse is not about to retire to his watery fastness. In April he announced a new venture, the Enterprise Development Corp., owned by a nonprofit organization, the Enterprise Foundation. The most ambitious Enterprise enterprise to date is a $13.5 million program to spruce up Norfolk’s dreary waterfront. The project, about half the size of Harborplace, will employ much the same concept and include four or five restaurants, up to 20 other eating establishments and as many as 50 stores. Rouse estimates that the development will attract up to 6 million visitors in its first year. The foundation will concentrate, as a commercial company cannot, on what Rouse calls “the crucial necessity for inventing new processes, new systems for dealing with social needs.” He explains: “We will be working with the very poor. We will set up a list of criteria for organizations that want to help change the lives of the poor.” The foundation will also use the corporation’s profits to encourage smaller developers by giving them technical and financial aid.

Rouse is as enthusiastiec about his new commitment as he was about his first. Indeed, he is a man of infinite, meshing enthusiasms.

One of them being food and wine, he and his wife set off on a recent Saturday evening for a Hemingway-style movable feast at Harborplace. It started with a drink and half a dozen North Carolina oysters at Shuckers Raw Bar in the Light Street Pavilion, followed by soft-shell crab par-migiano at the Big Cheese. Dinner was at the Taverna Athena, a Greek bistro in the Pratt Street Pavilion. Afterward came coffee and dessert at Tandoor and a nightcap at the Phillips Harborplace restaurant, where a banjo band plays until 11 p.m. “I never get tired of Harborplace,” Rouse sighs. “There’s always something to do and see.” Gazing across the harbor at the floodlit aquarium, he adds: “Cities are where the action is. Without them we would have none of the things we associate with a modern society. No arts, no education, no culture, no commerce.”

And no fun. —By Michael Demarest.

Reported by Robert T. Grieves and Peter Stoler/Baltimore, with other U.S. bureaus

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