Cisneros: Building on Rouse's Urban Legacy

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If there ever was a patron saint of urban revitalization, it was James W. Rouse. As a developer and builder, he has a huge legacy for large-scale projects, mainly in core urban areas, that seemed risky at the time but always succeeded.

September 07, 2000

 

James W. and Patty Rouse, co-founders of The Enterprise Foundation

 

If there ever was a patron saint of urban revitalization, it was James W. Rouse. As a developer and builder, he has a huge legacy for large-scale projects, mainly in core urban areas, that seemed risky at the time but always succeeded. It is a legacy that Henry G. Cisneros, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, says he has taken up with the launch of his new home building firm, American CityVista.

A joint venture with Kaufman and Broad Corp., American CityVista aims to build single-family detached and townhome housing on infill sites across the West from San Francisco to San Antonio. The goal after two years is to build 2,000 homes per year.

"He was a dear friend and a real visionary," Cisneros says of Rouse, who died in 1996. "He accomplished so much in his life and in the end was committed to the cause of providing basic housing. American CityVista is a company very much in the tradition of Jim Rouse and his career."

In the 1950s, Rouse was among the first to build shopping malls. In the '60s, he assembled the land and secured the entitlements to build the entire town of Columbia, Md., from scratch. More recently he was the driving force behind the redevelopment of Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Ever visited Boston's Faneuil Hall or New York's South Street Seaport? He built those, too, establishing a trend by cities to clean up and rebuild historic areas for commercial purposes.

Finally and perhaps most significantly to Cisneros, Rouse helped found the nation's premier nonprofit builder, The Enterprise Foundation. Since his death, Rouse's life work has been honored with an annual lecture series sponsored by the foundation aptly named the Forum on the American City.

Cisneros says Rouse was known for his optimism and iron will. He never compromised on the size or scale of a project as he originally conceived it. In the case of his plan to develop the town of Columbia, over a nine-month period in 1963, Rouse acquired one-tenth of all the land in Howard County -- 14,000 acres -- through 149 transactions. Today, Columbia is a town of 30,000 residences and 2,800 businesses where 60,000 people are employed.

Home building companies do not often appear overnight with the potential to change the landscape of an industry. But that would be the likely result if American CityVista succeeds in its goal of building thousands of market-rate homes for average Americans in central cities throughout the West.

Specifically, it would debunk the widely held notion that margins are not big enough in the infill market, with all of its bureaucratic obstacles, to sustain a large regional enterprise. But to Cisneros, who has dealt with urban redevelopment issues throughout most of his political career, starting as a young mayor of San Antonio, the overriding benefit of American CityVista's success would be a social one: big steps toward the revitalization of core urban areas. The same benefit so often sought after and achieved by Rouse.

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