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Though both his parents died when Rouse —one of six children—was 16, he attended the University of Hawaii, the University of Virginia and the University of Maryland, where he earned his law degree at night. His first job was at the Federal Housing Administration (FHA); in 1939, he and a partner started a mortgage banking company in Baltimore that was to be the forerunner of the Rouse Co.
Returning to Baltimore after Navy service in World War II, Rouse became involved in the city's efforts to rehabilitate its growing and steadily worsening slums.
As a member of numerous planning and housing groups, he became a nationally recognized expert on urban problems.
Ironically, the James Rouse who was later to be so vehement a critic of suburban hemorrhage built his fortune on that very phenomenon. Starting in 1957, Rouse cashed in on suburban migration by building some three dozen huge shopping centers outside such cities as San Antonio, Keokuk, Iowa, and Paramus, N.J. His Harundale Mall, outside Baltimore, was the first enclosed shopping center created by a developer in the U.S. and the biggest commercial venture in Baltimore history when it opened in 1958. Rouse became a convert to urban revitalization following the city riots of the 1960s and his realization that the suburbs were not working as livable communities, while the cities were capable of a new grasp on life.
Since its founding, the Rouse firm has financed more than $3 billion worth of real estate through its own mortgage banking company; it now has nearly $1 billion in real estate developments, including 35 regional retail centers that it has developed and 19 centers that it manages, in 18 states and Canada. The company, which netted $4 million last year, has 3,000 employees, 600 of whom work in Columbia. A wholly owned Rouse subsidiary, the American City Corp., has served as a planning consultant to cities like Lowell, Mass., and Akron, charging around $20,000 a month for its services. Explains Rouse Co. Vice President W. Scott Ditch III: "American City is a means of transferring the knowledge we've gained working in large cities to other cities, some of which are smaller." Over the past ten years American City has been responsible for $ 1.1 billion worth of development in two dozen cities.
Though he retains the title of chairman and keeps a rarely used office in its Columbia headquarters, Rouse has retired from active management of the company that bears his name. Says the firm's $427,500-a-year president, Mathias DeVito, 50, who, like Rouse, is not an architect but a lawyer by training: "Of all his creations, the finest thing Jim Rouse brought into being was the Rouse Co." Some critics are not so sure. Architect Thompson has nothing but praise for Rouse's vigor and vision, but concedes, "I now tend to speak of Rouse as a large company." Indeed, it is the Rouse Co. that most often draws fire. Critics argue that it is nowhere near as creative as it was when its founder was in full-time charge. Says one: "They lack the scope of thought Rouse has. They are far more involved in making money than anything else."