Is Rouse's community approach still viable?

Many residents familiar with Columbia's early development highlight the fact that Jim Rouse was only able to accomplish what he did, and with such speed, because of the trust and confidence he was able to engender in the local farmers whose lives would be changed by the new planned city.

His example should be heeded today, they say.

In 1963, when The Rouse Co. first announced its plans to transform thousands of acres in Howard County into a planned community, the then-county commissioners encouraged Rouse to talk to citizens about his plans, according to the 1996 book "Creating a New City," edited by Robert Tennenbaum, a Rouse Co. employee in the 1960s who is still involved in the community.

But by July 1964, residents were still wary of the project, according to a Howard County Citizens Association newsletter from the time, which read, "It is still difficult for the average person to grasp the scope and potential of the proposed new community that the Rouse interests have so far presented in only vague outlines."

That sentiment would soon be erased, however, by an extensive outreach blitz by the company, according to Tennenbaum's book. The company sent a tabloid flier to every household in the county explaining the project's vision. It created an exhibit center in a historic house off Route 29 and invited residents to come for an escorted tour. It sent "company people" to meetings of all 22 neighborhood and homeowner associations in the area, to speak about the project being an alternative to unplanned sprawl.

"Every night, someone was out speaking," the book states.

By September of 1965, the Howard County Citizens Association was expressing "unequivocal support" for Rouse's vision in its newsletter. The residents had been won over.

"There was a trust factor with the Rouse Co.," said Cy Paumier, a local urban design consultant and former Rouse Company employee. "They never thought that the Rouse Co. was going to tattoo them."

Today, that trust is no longer there, Paumier and others said, and companies working on much smaller projects can not dedicate so many resources to community outreach.

Still, Rouse's approach remains a viable one, said Joan Lancos, land-use liaison for the Hickory Ridge Community Association who has followed Columbia's development for decades. Lancos remembers representatives from Howard Research and Development, a Rouse affiliate, sharing early plans for development in Hickory Ridge — and in the context of the overall vision for Columbia — at very early stages of their work in the 1980s.

"They would come in and say, 'Here's what we're planning. Here's what we have,' so we had a heads up," Lancos said. "They came to us and showed us, so even though there wasn't an official pre-submission process, there was a de facto pre-submission process that was taking place."

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