Rouse buyer encounters resistance

THE BALTIMORE SUN

What happens in a company town when the company that built it disappears?

A little more than a month after the sale of the Rouse Co., almost every trace of the former company's name has vanished from Columbia, replaced by the green-and-white logo of Chicago-based General Growth Properties. And in some quarters, the new company in town has not received a warm welcome, finding its plans opposed, at times fiercely, by local leaders.

On Friday, a citizens panel considering whether Howard County should purchase Merriweather Post Pavilion rejected the company's wish to have the amphitheater converted to an enclosed venue, calling it financially unsound.

In another recent meeting, a General Growth representative found himself under attack by local state legislators, who demanded to know why his company's executives hadn't called to introduce themselves. They called his reasoning "comical," and they questioned General Growth's commitment to the community.

The bitter encounter left the manager, who had been a longtime Rouse official, wondering aloud: What happened to the "spirit of cooperation" that once existed between the development company and the residents?

Barbara Russell, a member of the Columbia Council, remembers the early days, when living in the company-created town meant trusting the company. When she first visited the area almost 40 years ago, it was a smattering of apartments, a few paved streets and curvy dirt roads that ended in muddy puddles.

"James Rouse told us the muddy puddles would be cul-de-sacs," said Russell, 64. So she, like thousands of others, moved into town, putting her faith in Rouse's dream of a community where people -- rich and poor, of all races and religions -- could live together. Likewise, the county invested similar trust in Rouse's company during the 1960s, giving it tax breaks and creating a set of zoning rules for the company to build Columbia.

"That's what usually happens when a new company comes in. You give incentives. You welcome it with open arms," said Republican state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman. "But now we have General Growth coming in, and instead of being greeted with a handshake, it's greeted with a slap."

The hardest blows came at the recent meeting with the county's senators and delegates.

Coming at the end of a five-hour hearing Nov. 30, the legislators discussed a proposal to end by 2006 some of the reduced property taxes Rouse had enjoyed for about 40 years.

"It's a very punitive bill," said Dennis Miller, who has been general manager of Columbia developments for Rouse and its parent company, General Growth. He argued that legislators were breaking a compromise they had reached last year.

"Do you think we would have considered changing this if you hadn't been sold?" asked Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Democrat. "You would change like that [snapping his fingers] if you could make money off it, and then you're going to tell me that I'm being inconsistent."

"The point is, things have changed dramatically," said Del. Shane E. Pendergrass, a Democrat, later adding, "[General Growth's] going to be treated like anyone else ... [and will have to] play by the same rules everybody else does."

The heated discussion reached its peak when Miller said that the "anti-business" proposal comes at a time when General Growth is deciding whether to keep a permanent regional office in the former Rouse headquarters -- a comment some delegates took to be a threat.

Kittleman, however, said the comment wasn't threatening, but realistic.

"If you're going to tax me, why would I stay?" he later said. "I just don't understand the kind of distrust people are showing. I assume we'll continue to have a good relationship with General Growth, provided the delegates don't do something to drive them away."

Some say the recent discord is nothing new -- that the relationship between the Rouse Co. and the community had begun to fray before the sale.

In recent years, the county refused a Rouse plan to build more housing in downtown Columbia. The Columbia Association, a group Rouse created to govern the town, rejected another proposal to accept the company's new Emerson development into Columbia.

But the turning point, believes Howard County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, came when the Rouse Co. sold the village centers.

"The village centers were central to the whole concept of Columbia," Guzzone said, places where people shopped and gathered to talk. "After that, people started saying, maybe this isn't the same company as when James Rouse was there."

Now, county leaders and residents are focused on the sale of Merriweather Post Pavilion and the development of the land around it, which lies at the heart of downtown Columbia.

"There has been little communication from them," said County Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, "so we're looking at this as a signal of who they are, how they operate."

Miller, the General Growth representative, declined to comment on the relationship between his company and local officials, but said he would be meeting with all elected officials early next year.

And County Executive James N. Robey said he is satisfied with the communication thus far between the company and his office.

"When they bought Rouse, they didn't just buy [property in] Columbia. They bought communities in Texas and all over," he said. "To say we're the only item on their plate is just not reasonable."

General Growth executives in Chicago did not respond to phone calls for this article.

Shortly after the sale, executives said that they had not decided what to do with their newly acquired properties in Columbia. As part of the terms of last month's sale, however, the company is donating $20 million to Columbia charities -- a sign, Miller said, of good corporate citizenry.

In the past, the Chicago-based real estate company has dealt primarily with shopping centers.

"Planned communities is a business we have not been in," General Growth President John Bucksbaum said during the sale.

Russell, of the Columbia Council, a resident since 1967, said she understands that the new company needs time to learn about her town and decide what to do.

She has watched the town grow from a jumble of farmland into Maryland's second-largest population center.

"You used to be able to run into James Rouse at the grocery store and give him a piece of your mind," she said.

She doesn't expect the same from the new real estate company.

But "that doesn't mean we should just wait to see what happens," said Russell. "We want to be a part of what happens."

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