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Developer Bill Rouse Dies at Age 60

Founder of Liberty Property Trust and Champion Of Philadelphia Causes Succumbs to Cancer
May 29, 2003
Bill Rouse, 1942-2003
Bill Rouse, 1942-2003
Liberty Property Trust (NYSE: LRY) announced that its founder and chairman, Willard G. Rouse, III, known to all as Bill, died at age 60 after being diagnosed with lung cancer 17 months ago.

A charismatic over-achiever who championed numerous civic and business causes in his adopted hometown of Philadelphia, Rouse embodied the traits associated with those of a major developer: unflagging confidence in himself and in his vision, and an inveterate risk-taker who was never happier than when facing a challenge that others said couldn’t be done.

Born June 19, 1942, Rouse came from the famous Baltimore family of developers whose name he bore. His uncle, James Rouse, founded The Rouse Co. and his father was vice president of the firm that went on to build Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston, Harborplace in Baltimore, New York's South Street Seaport, as well as numerous shopping malls throughout the country.

With development in his blood, Rouse started work on his first large-scale development, an 838-acre industrial park in Gloucester County in 1969, when he was 27.

Three years later, in 1972, he founded Rouse & Associates with his friends George Congdon, David Hammers and Menard Doswell. Over the next 20 years, the firm amassed one of the largest office and industrial real estate portfolios in the country. It set the quality benchmark for suburban business parks with the 650-acre Great Valley Corporate Center in Malvern, PA. And it made "Center City" trendy again and shattered downtown Philadelphia’s unofficial height limit with the twin towers of its Liberty Place skyscrapers when, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, "others clung to the notion that no building in the city should go higher than William Penn's hat atop City Hall."

Rouse also oversaw the development of the Philadelphia Stock Exchange Building in downtown Philadelphia, the largest construction project ever built in the State of Pennsylvania.

But then, in the early 1990s, the company faced its biggest crisis. A major recession had caused rental rates to plummet and many developers found themselves deep in debt with mortgages in default and lenders taking back buildings. Rouse & Associates itself was about $500 million in debt and eventually lost nearly a quarter of its portfolio.

With characteristic confidence, Rouse defied skeptics that predicted he would lose his company. Instead, he engineered one of the great real estate 'exit strategies' of all time, restructuring with his lenders and taking his company public as a real estate investment trust, which he renamed Liberty Property Trust.

Flush with $600 million in shareholder value, Rouse was able to pay down the company’s debt and begin a new era of growth. By 1996, Liberty had a market capitalization of $2 billion, and by 1998 its portfolio had grown to 44 million square feet to become one of the largest public real estate investment trusts in the nation.

In December 2000, after no major office building had been erected in Center City in a decade, Rouse shook up Philadelphia’s office market once again when he announced he would build a new skyscraper just west of Suburban Station. The building, called One Pennsylvania Plaza, has been designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects and will include a 735-foot office tower standing next to a second, smaller building. Although he will not witness its construction, Rouse’s company said it plans to press forward with the project after a significant percentage of the 1.2 million square feet of space has been preleased.

A tireless civic leader, Rouse's numerous public accomplishments reflected his dedication to the city of Philadelphia. He served as chairman and later as board member of We the People 200, the organization responsible for Philadelphia's hugely successful Constitutional Celebration. He took over responsibility for the development of the $265 million Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts when it ran into roadblocks.

According to reports at the time, Rouse called the Kimmel Center the most difficult and expensive project he had ever done. But also, "the most important thing, other than raising my kids." At the Philadelphia Orchestra's first concert in its new hall on Dec. 15, 2001, he received a long standing ovation for his efforts and served as board chair for the Center from 1997 to January 2003.

Rouse was profoundly influenced by his uncle's views on social responsibility and believed strongly in personal integrity and supporting one’s nation and local community. At the time of his death, in addition to his duties as chairman of Liberty's board of trustees, the boards of the Kimmel Center, Rouse chaired the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and was a trustee of the Enterprise Foundation, the organization founded by his uncle James Rouse to assist low-income Americans in helping them find a way out of poverty.

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