Friday, October 30, 2009

Jim Rouse Was Not an Oracle

Photo Credit: City Paper
Bob Tennenbaum was the chief architect for Columbia in the early years. He worked at Jim Rouse’s side as Columbia took shape on the farm lands of Howard County. Recently he remarked to me that he never heard Jim use the word “vision.”

You’d never know that by listening to the debate over General Growths redevelopment plans for Columbia Town Center. Proponents and opponents frequently bring up Jim’s “vision” for Columbia when arguing their points.

Jim Rouse was a real estate developer. All real estate developers are visionaries by necessity. They possess the ability to see homes and shopping centers on empty fields. They can “see” bustling modern marketplaces in dilapidated urban wharves. This is an essential tool to their success because the most important skill a successful developer needs is salesmanship. A developer needs to convince politicians and financiers buy into his plans. To do that he needs to articulate a vision of his plans to compliment his architectural renderings and colorful layouts.

This vision needs to be understood in its context. It is an essential part of the “sell.”

For example: Early plans for Columbia included a dedicated roadway system for mini buses. This was a part of Rouse’s plan that distinguished it from other developments. It was widely touted as a mass transportation innovation in those early years and some of the roadways were actually built. It was later abandoned because it proved to be economically unfeasible.

Does that mean his vision was flawed?

Hardly. Like any developer he simply adjusted his plans and moved on.

That is the other skill required of a real estate developer; the ability to adapt to change.

For example: Rouse worked hard to get General Electric to locate a massive appliance park in Columbia. He believed Columbia needed a combination of heavy and light industry jobs to succeed. When GE decided to abandon Columbia and consolidate manufacturing operations in Louisville, Kentucky, Rouse adjusted his plans. Realizing that Columbia’s labor force was changing from what he originally expected, the company exercised its option to buy back the industrial park from GE and created Columbia Gateway Corporate Park.

Those who “reach back” and point to what Jim Rouse may have said forty years ago seem to forget this. Jim Rouse was not an oracle. He was a successful real estate developer who understood that in order to prosper, you need to adapt.


Sarah said...

Similar, I think, to the discussion of what the "founding fathers" wanted for our country.

Who cares? They were men who lived 200 years ago-- and were products of their time, not oracles. I wonder what they'd think of the United States of today.

B. Santos said...


Great post. I added a few more details over on my blog.

Columbia Compass

Bob O said...

Excellent post. "Adapt and overcome" is a truism in many professions, and, truth be told, life in general.

Great post, thanks for the historical context.

As a relative newcomer to HoCo (1992) and a native of New Jersey, with its reputation for flawed development, I find the history of development here fascinating. From what I understand, this was literally virgin territory back in the 60's, and Columbia was made from whole cloth. I found one engineering/developer textbook about Rouse on amazon, and I'll order a copy. Any other suggestions for background material?

BTW, as I always say, I disagree with many of your opinions, although I think you are spot-on with Rouse. Have you thought about putting your observations and knowledge about the development of Columbia and Howard County down in a more permanent form than a blog or a few magazine articles. Most histories are facts and interpretation blended together. You could do a collection of essays on specific topics relating to HoCo, or do a straight-up "how we got where we are today" narrative about the last 50 years or so.

With development in America at a cusp right now, it could find a wide audience. (I will be merciless in my review of any such book, of course.)

Anonymous said...

I don't understand why this post is considered by some "great" or "excellent". It's point is lost to me.

Anyone with familiarity with Social Darwinism could write generalities such as this regarding many such topics.

Bob O said...

Or anyone with a smidgen of knowledge of economics, Mr. (or Ms.) Anon.

I think the point is that you'll still find people who tout the "dream" of Columbia as handed down from Rouse the father to the socially-concious masses of sixties and seventies.

Much like Disco, I think Rouse's "dream" has come and gone. Hence, the post.

PZGURU said...

More to the point, Jim Rouse was a slick salesman who made a great pitch with a lot of promises that he subsequently reneged on. Sort of like what a lot of developers and some politicians are doing in the here and now, including the current proposals (ie: traffic models that "guarantee" a certain amount of pedestrian traffic and/or bus usage).
Just more empty promises (which are also known as lies).