Columbia marks 50 years since Rouse began buying land for town

Columbia marks 50 years since Rouse began buying land for town
Columbia historian Barbara Kellner is shown near the Hobbit's Glen neighborhood. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun)

In terms of its size and composition, Harper's Choice isn't all that different from other villages in Columbia.

What sets it apart from other places in town is its location: The Village of Harper's Choice was built on the first tract purchased to make up the land that eventually became Howard County's biggest city.

That assemblage is now marking a key milestone: 2012 is the 50th anniversary of the year Maryland developer James W. Rouse secretly began buying up properties.

Although Columbia officially marks its beginning as June 21, 1967, the day Wilde Lake was dedicated and opened to the public, years of behind-the-scenes planning led up to that event. Historians say 1962 was the real year of Columbia's genesis, because that is when Rouse, head of James W. Rouse and Co., took title to the first parcels needed to create the city for 100,000 that he wanted to build between Baltimore and Washington.

"That's when it really began," said Barbara Kellner, director of the nonprofit Columbia Archives, which maintains many early records. "That was the start of Columbia."

Assembling so much land in secret would be difficult to do today, said Phil Engelke, a longtime Columbia resident and board member of the Village of Oakland Mills.

The immediacy of blogs and other Internet sites would make it essentially impossible to keep word from getting out, and the rising value of commercial property would make it hard for anyone to acquire as much land as Rouse did when the area was still mostly large tracts of farmland, Engelke said.

"You could not do it anymore," he said. "Back then you had a traditional group of farms, basically. ... It was still very rural. Route 29 was a little tiny road. There wasn't very much out here. The idea that this was in the path of development was pretty much inconceivable."

Acting in secret to prevent sellers from catching on and inflating their prices, Rouse and his investment partners paid $18 million to acquire 14,100 acres over an 11-month period beginning in November 1962. The following October, he publicly confirmed that he was the mystery buyer behind what some newspaper reports had termed a "secret land grab."

The property he had gained control of stretched across eastern Howard County, on both sides of Route 29, between Routes 108 and 32. Acquired at an average price of $1,470 an acre, it was one eighth of the land in Howard County and about one quarter the amount of land in Baltimore City.

According to land records, Rouse acquired or gained control of more than 140 different farms and other parcels. The first tract to be purchased was a 1,039-acre parcel on Cedar Lane, roughly halfway between Ellicott City and Laurel. Today, it's occupied by portions of two Columbia villages, Harper's Choice and Hickory Ridge. In the early sixties, it was the site of four farms.

According to documents on file at the Columbia Archives, that first tract was purchased by an entity called Howard Estates on Nov. 3, 1962. Howard Estates is one of five "straw companies" that Rouse created to conceal the buyers' identity. According to Kellner, the land was actually put under contract before that, perhaps as early as that spring.

The secret was revealed on Oct. 30, 1963, when Rouse met with Howard County's three commissioners and articles appeared in local papers identifying him as the mystery buyer.

In his meeting with the Howard County officials, Rouse outlined plans to build a city containing housing, stores, offices, schools and recreational space. He said he wanted to build a new kind of "planned community" that would provide an alternative to the piecemeal developments he saw and disliked around much of the country. He described his project as "a community without urban sprawl."

Other details of note:

• The name Columbia was taken from a post office address near what is now Route 108 and U.S. 29.

• A trusted longtime Rouse Company secretary, C. Aileen Ames, for "a split-second in time" owned all of the land Rouse had assembled up to Oct. 30, 1963 — $18 million worth.

•Rouse was never able to acquire some of the land he sought, including the Blandair property straddling what is now Route 175, and the Robinson property, site of Howard County's recently opened James and Anne Robinson Nature Center.

Kellner said the Columbia Archives, on the first floor of the American City building, contains old Rouse Co. records and documents that make it possible to trace the land acquisitions.

She said she intends to draw on those old documents and artifacts to mount exhibits and programs about the purchases and the planning that went into Columbia's development.

Kellner said the roots of the assemblage can be traced to the late 1950s, when Rouse was developing shopping centers such as Harundale in Glen Burnie, Cherry Hill in New Jersey and Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore. During those years, she said, Rouse began to question the seemingly unplanned way in which America's cities were expanding, and wondered if there could be a better method to accommodate the country's population growth.

On May 5, 1959, Rouse outlined his thoughts about combating sprawl in a speech to a housing group in Newark, N. J. In his speech, he revealed a desire "to marshal all available powers and resources into a total plan and total program for making our cities livable, efficient and beautiful, in the shortest practicable number of years."

Soon afterward, Rouse began testing his ideas. One early experiment was the Village of Cross Keys, a community for 5,000, built on part of the Baltimore Country Club's former Roland Park golf course in North Baltimore. He also prepared plans to build a community on Wye Island, part of Maryland's Eastern Shore, but was never able to carry it out.

By the early 1960s, Rouse had formed a subsidiary, Community Research and Development, that began exploring ways to create large communities from scratch. CRD's studies indicated a developer would need between 12,000 and 15,000 acres to accommodate a city of 100,000.

Rouse also reasoned that, in order to succeed, a new city should be between two larger, fast-growing metropolitan areas, should be easily accessible to the interstate highway system, and that the land could not be prohibitively expensive to acquire. He knew that the eastern seaboard of the United States was a logical place to build, and that the area between Baltimore and Washington was an obvious candidate. But he did not have a specific site in mind.

The answer came in April 1962, when a CRD board member named Melvin Berman saw a four- by eight-foot sign on Cedar Lane advertising the availability of 1,039 acres of farmland, and mentioned it to Rouse.

The property had been assembled by a Howard County real estate broker named Robert Moxley. Moxley's uncle, James R. Moxley Sr., owned 632 acres. The rest was farmland owned by three other families that Robert Moxley contacted to see if they would be willing to sell: the Kahler, Carroll and Wix families.

According to Kellner, Rouse was interested, but he knew that 1,039 acres was only a fraction of the land needed for the project he had in mind. Still, with that land as a starting point, he was able to determine the location of his future city and develop a plan of action.

He wrote to Connecticut General Life Insurance Co., with which he had previously worked, about forming a joint venture, with the insurance company providing funds for land acquisition. He asked a lawyer outside his company, John Martin "Jack" Jones Jr. of Piper and Marbury, now DLA Piper, to represent the buyer. He and Jones set up the five straw companies to hide the fact that Rouse was involved. Besides Howard Estates, the names were Potomac Estates, Serenity Acres Inc., Cedar Farms Co. and Farmingdale Inc.

In his initial meeting with Howard County officials, in 1963, Rouse said he expected his planned city to have a population of 100,000 by 1980, 17 years off. As of 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, its population was 99,085.

In between, Rouse retired from the Rouse Company in the 1980s to devote time to a nonprofit foundation, and he died in 1996. The Rouse Company was acquired in 2004 by General Growth Properties, which later split into General Growth and the Howard Hughes Corp.

Although the population growth and physical development have taken longer than expected, Kellner said, the community turned out largely as Rouse envisioned it.

With his big ideas, Rouse was very much in sync with the times, Engelke said.

"It was the 1960s," he said. "People were talking about landing a man on the moon. People weren't thinking of limitations at that point."