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The Vision Thing 

Are you weary of "economic summits" that serve as little more than an excuse to spend a day with people who see things exactly as you do? Do you break out in hives when the cheery fellow who has just led your assembled group in an "ice breaker exercise" points you to the newsprint, hands you a marking pen and directs you order your economic development priorities in under three minutes? Have you experienced an uncontrollable urge to dial up your travel agent after receiving an invitation to participate in yet one more "strategic planning" séance, complete with the promise of "visioning"?

If this is you — and despite the fact that you do seek answers about the future of the city that seem so hard to arrive at — I suggest you add to your New Year's resolution list the purchase of Joshua Olsen's recent book, Better Places, Better Lives: A Biography of James Rouse. While on a Fulbright scholarship, Olsen, a Yale grad who also works as a developer, became interested in Rouse. The result is a book we all need to read.

Rouse began his career in Baltimore as a mortgage banker. He then transformed himself into a developer and became a builder of suburban malls. When Rouse died of Lou Gehrig's Disease in 1996, his company claimed some 175 properties, 50 of them regional malls. Rouse, however, isn't remembered for his many malls he built in the suburbs for the automobile. Nor is he remembered for his heartfelt and deep involvement with the disastrous '50s and '60s mega-scale public housing and urban renewal programs. No, Rouse is remembered because of the "better places for better lives" he left us.

The stories of three of his projects are considered case studies in good urban design, economic development and improving city life: Quincy Market in downtown Boston; Columbia, Md., a planned community, and the Inner Harbor development in Baltimore. (To this list, we might also want to add the downtown mall project he did in Santa Monica, Calif., with architect Frank Gehry.)

Those who now argue against future "public-private partnerships" need to understand that every one of Rouse's successes was dependent on just such a partnership. When deciding on whether to go ahead with the Inner Harbor project in Baltimore, Rouse referred to a rule of his that "did not involve looking at maps or walking around a site." Instead, it was this: "For an urban project to be successful, the local municipality had to support it, and the city leaders had to be competent enough to make it happen."

Rouse found this kind of leadership in Mayor William Donald Schaefer, just as he had earlier in Boston Mayor Kevin White. The lesson? Spokane's problem with the River Park Square project wasn't the idea of a public-private partnership; it was that Spokane, led by an incompetent city government, was drawn into a lousy partnership.

And there are other lessons. Suspicious civic activists who feel overmatched by developers learn from Olsen that in Rouse's experience, "the road to reach opening day had never been certain." Always the optimist, Rouse believed that it was out of near disaster — and he faced many — that you discover your powers of creativity. He lived by this belief his entire life. In one of his speeches, Rouse talked about "the loneliness of top executives," and he certainly experienced a lot of that, too.

Consider the Quincy Market project. This 150-year-old downtown market, housed in three buildings, was literally falling down, the area around it almost abandoned. Water from the bay sloshed in the basements, as nature seized on the chance to reclaim what landfill had taken away. Rouse struggled to secure financing. Boston bankers could envision only malls with anchor tenants linked together by upscale chain stores. Rouse would have none of any of this, and, as a result, he couldn't raise the necessary amount of money.

Rather than quit, Rouse decided to restore the three buildings that made up the market one at a time, beginning with the centerpiece building. He set the grand opening of his partially completed project for August 26, 1976, exactly 150 years after Quincy Market first opened. But Boston empties out in the summer, Rouse was warned. Even the hopeful Kevin White cautioned Rouse not to expect too much on opening day. Rouse said that he didn't have time for "eventually," and that if the project didn't take off immediately, he would be ruined. And, no, he wouldn't wait until fall to open. History and symbolism mattered. He would roll the dice.

That first day astonished observers, who watched more than 100,000 people show up. Quincy Market was an instant hit.

Rouse, a developer who didn't need to "vision" to have a vision, a man who valued cities and civic life, a businessman for whom the bottom line was more a challenge than an imperative, saved downtown Boston by doing something as obvious as it had become novel. He restored street life and history through a single very high-risk development in partnership with the city. During its first year, Quincy Market drew more people than did Disneyland and did almost twice the business as any of Rouse's suburban malls.

So pick up the book and read it. And this year, when you are asked to attend another summit, or to vision together, or to list your priorities on newsprint, offer instead to sit down with others and discuss the James Rouse story. There is much here to benefit Spokane's public dialogue.

Publication date: 1/06/04

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