WASHINGTON – As James W. Rouse sees it, past efforts to build Columbia, Md., revitalize downtown Baltimore and redevelop a historic part of Boston are less important than what he hopes to achieve in the future.
“That’s the least important part of my life,” the 81-year- old builder said just moments after President Clinton honored him and 11 others Friday with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.
After a lifetime of building communities and innovative shopping centers, Rouse said he is concentrating now on “working with the very poor and very bad neighborhoods. That’s where my life is now.”
But Clinton pointed to Rouse’s past achievements as he lauded the builder.
“By updating the colonial village for modern times, he gave a generation of architects and designers a blueprint for reviving communities all across our nation,” Clinton said at a White House ceremony.
“With Boston’s Faneuil Hall, Baltimore’s Harborplace and other developments, he put the town square squarely back into America’s urban life,” the president said before an audience of about 200.
With the Rouse Co. he had founded in 1939, Rouse purchased 14,000 acres in Howard County in 1963.
He began developing the area as the planned community, Columbia, in 1967. It now has a population of more than 80,000, according to the company.
During the 1970s and ’80s, Rouse developed retail marketplaces in Baltimore, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Milwaukee and other cities.
The developments, which offer shops, street entertainment and apartments, have been credited with bringing shoppers, residents and tourists into downtown areas that before had fallen into disuse.
But Rouse, who lives in Columbia, now has other ideas about how to apply his experience as a builder.
He retired in 1979 as chief executive officer of the Rouse Co.
He established the Robin Hood Trust in 1981 to build and renovate homes with community groups across the country. In 1982, the trust was renamed the Enterprise Foundation.
Rouse retired in 1993 as chairman of the Columbia-based foundation, but is chairman of its development company.
Among the projects the development company spearheaded is redevelopment of the west Baltimore neighborhood of Sandtown- Winchester, home to more than 10,000 residents.
Homes there were rebuilt and renovated. A city-sponsored neighborhood health center for pregnant women and new mothers was opened, along with a municipal food market and health centers in neighborhood schools.
Rouse said he hopes such efforts will help reverse troubling trends.
“I’ve been pleased with the work I’ve been doing,” he said. “I’m not pleased with the way the country is moving. There’s more joblessness, more homelessness, more poor people.”
Rouse’s ideas are sought out by at least one administration official.
“I ask him to lunch and pick his brain,” said U.S. Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros, who attended the White House ceremony.
Former Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer, contacted by telephone, described Rouse as “a great visionary, a tremendous visionary.”
Schaefer said when he was mayor of Baltimore in the 1970s and ’80s, he vowed to bar any construction along the city’s harbor. But when he heard that Rouse had plans for a development, he said: “That’s different. I had absolute faith in him.”
The result was Harborplace.
Among the other local recipients Friday of the Medal of Freedom were:
* William T. Coleman Jr., of McLean, Va., former Transportation Department secretary and chairman of the board of the Legal Defense and Educational Fund for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, for his efforts on behalf of civil rights;
* former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, of Bethesda, Md., for his advocacy against teen pregnancy and tobacco use and on behalf of AIDS research;
* and former U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, now living in Kensington, Md., for promoting environmental protection.