HAD HE DONE NOTHING ELSE, JAMES W. Rouse, who died last Tuesday at 81, would go down as the world's most self-effacing real-estate developer. He wore rumpled, off-the-rack suits, flew coach and drove his own car. More important, the man responsible for introducing America to downtown festival marketplaces denigrated his own part in the evelopment process. "I didn't design it, build it, lease it. I didn't open it. Jim Rouse couldn't do any of those things. But because I'm the top of that pyramid, it's all credited to me. It's absurd." Even when you allow for a little false modesty in that statement, it's still amazing, coming from a developer. Donald Trump won't talk like that on Judgment Day. But then, as social critic Joel Garreau observes, "Everything Rouse did came from an unexpected direction."
With the cold eye of an accountant, the touch of a Midas and the heart of a Sunday-school teacher, Rouse radically altered America's assumptions about suburbs and cities. Preaching his gospel of doing well by doing good, he became one of the most influential (and most imitated) social engineers of his time. In the '50s, he made a fortune--and changed retailing forever--by building shopping malls in the suburbs. In the '60s, he created Columbia, Md., from scratch. One of the few successful "new towns," Columbia was racially integrated from day one and home to people of all incomes. Rouse called it "a garden for the growing of people," and he lived there himself--modestly, of course. The '70s saw him resuscitating dying downtowns and preserving historic buildings with his concept of the festival marketplace, beginning with Faneuil Hall in Boston and Harborplace in Baltimore, then South Street Seaport in New York. But it was his fourth career, begun when he was in his late 60s, that most clearly revealed his knack for blending practicality and idealism. Creating the nonprofit Enterprise Foundation, Rouse worked with neighborhood groups to build decent, affordable housing--and promote home ownership--for the urban poor. Enterprise was the brainchild of a man who had watched his own family lose its home in a mortgage foreclosure during the Depression; by 1994, the foundation had financed some 42,500 housing units.
Rouse's record is not unblemished. The malls he built in the '50s helped suck the life out of the downtowns that he strove to save in the '70s and '80s. And his festival marketplaces weren't sure-fire cures, as the citizens of Richmond, Toledo and Flint, Mich., learned the hard way. Even when those marketplaces did succeed, the fun always felt a little ersatz. South Street Seaport, for example, is one of the Rouse Co.'s biggest successes, but it lacks the authentic grittiness of a real place. It's like a mall with tall ships. So he wasn't perfect. His idea of an ideal downtown was Disneyland; with a few exceptions, his creations were as esthetically dull as they were conceptually adventurous. But dull is not destructive, and when weighed against the good he did--in Boston and Columbia and dozens of inner-city neighborhoods--Rouse's lack of esthetic sense is hardly a sin. As architect Frank Gehry, who worked with Rouse in the early '70s, puts it, "I loved him and admired him in spite of the bad architecture he built." In the final accounting, he was that rare creature, a do-gooder who actually did some good.