The Rouse Co. is moving forward with plans to build 1,600 residential units in the area around Merriweather Post Pavilion, with a goal of creating a more vibrant urban environment.
If Rouse wins approval from the Howard County zoning board -- which is scheduled to meet July 23 -- some of the area around Merriweather, including its parking lots, could be used for new construction, company officials say.
Meanwhile, executives of Rouse, which owns the amphitheater, also have had informal conversations with County Executive James N. Robey about the possibility of the county's taking over Merriweather, County Councilman Ken Ulman said.
Dennis W. Miller, a Rouse vice president and general manager of Columbia, declined to comment on that possibility. Robey also declined to comment.
The site "will always be land which is dedicated to the arts in some form or fashion," Miller said.
Miller said the rezoning request should not come as a surprise because there have been plans to develop the area around Merriweather ever since Columbia was first developed.
"I think what is happening is that everyone is getting on some kind of rumor mill that unfortunately is not founded in any sort of reasonable truth," he said.
But possible change to what has become a cherished landmark has reverberated through the community.
Justin Carlson, 28, an information technology specialist who lives in Columbia and who has been to about 25 shows at Merriweather, is preparing for a fight. He has established an e-mail address, firstname.lastname@example.org, and plans to design a Web site for his cause.
"It would be such a shame," Carlson said. "Columbia lacks a lot of identity and culture to begin with, and if Merriweather were to close down, it would make a bad situation worse."
Thirty-six years ago, when Merriweather opened, Rouse made it the cultural centerpiece of its "new town," Columbia. It became a wooded mecca for generations of summer concertgoers, who have come to see everyone from Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead to Nine Inch Nails and Britney Spears.
But the number of shows at Merriweather has dwindled since the opening in 1995 of northern Virginia's Nissan Pavilion, a larger facility with more -- and more profitable --reserved seating. This summer, for example, Nissan Pavilion has 28 concerts scheduled to Merriweather's 19.
Both are operated by Clear Channel Entertainment, the San Antonio-based company that has become one of the country's largest radio broadcasters and concert promoters.
But Clear Channel owns Nissan Pavilion, whereas it only operates Merriweather. That arrangement means that Clear Channel has "a stronger motivation to book Nissan" because it doesn't have to share the profits, said Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of pollstar.com, a music industry publication.
Jean Parker, Merriweather's general manager, said Nissan's larger supply of fixed seating translates into more money for the acts and the venue.
If bands are "going to make one stop in this market, they are going to play where they have the highest growth potential, and that's Nissan," she said.