In an effort to jump-start Howard Hughes Corp.'s anticipated makeover of Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman has levied a call to action to the developer, which he said has shown a "lack of urgency" toward its promise for the downtown concert venue.
"I fought to prevent Merriweather from being torn down, and now I'm fighting for it to be strengthened and preserved for the next generation," Ulman said.
Ulman's words come as downtown Columbia is in the midst of a massive revitalization, most of which is on Howard Hughes-owned property. Three mixed-use apartment complexes, which would add approximately 900 rental units, retail and office space to downtown, are at varying stages of construction, while a Whole Foods, a lakefront wellness retreat, a new wing at the Mall in Columbia and new lakefront Petit Louis Bistro restaurant have opened or are scheduled to open this year.
Plans for redeveloping the area surrounding the concert venue are also taking shape. At the nearby crescent property, which is also owned by Howard Hughes, an employment center and a hotel are planned. In Symphony Woods, 36 acres of woods that encircles the pavilion, the Inner Arbor Trust has submitted the first phase of plans for a grand arts park, which would include an arts district, theaters, restaurants and other attractions.
"The frustrating part for me is that virtually every piece in downtown is moving along toward a shared vision except Merriweather," he said. "There was a lot of planning that went into it, and it appears to me that the owners of Merriweather feel that it isn't important to them. That's why we need to have a community discussion around it."
As a response to the stagnant renovation, which Howard Hughes is required to perform under the Downtown Columbia Plan, Ulman said the county last month rehired Ziger/Snead Architects, a Baltimore firm contracted in 2004 to perform an analysis of the downtown concert venue's infrastructure.
Ulman expects an updated report to be complete by the end of the month at a cost of $15,000.
John DeWolf, Howard Hughes senior vice president, said the developer has also contracted AEA Consulting in New York to study the venue. DeWolf said AEA, an arts, culture and entertainment consulting firm, has been hired to evaluate the programming of the venue, which he says is key to determining any future renovations.
"We are coming at it from a different direction," DeWolf said, adding that a draft of his consultants' study is expected to be completed by the end of the month. "We are asking what is the programming future of the facility? ... What can we do to bring more life to it?"
DeWolf, who said Howard Hughes has been performing ongoing maintenance to the facility – including $500,000 to renovate the venue's roof before the 2014 season — said the developer welcomed the study update and the two consultants compliment one another.
"There ought to be a collaboration between the two consultants," he said.
Ulman said there needs to be more focus on overhauling the infrastructure of the aging facility, which he said has been kept together with "Band-Aids."
"We can not afford a Band-Aid approach any longer," he said. "It's remarkable what the current operator has been able to do with the lack of facilities."
'Sense of urgency'
Ulman announced the update to the study last month in a letter to the officers of the Downtown Arts and Culture Commission, the future owner of the pavilion. The commission, which was formed by the master plan, will eventually assume ownership of Merriweather from Howard Hughes.
Earlier concerns about Merriweather were voiced by the commission's officers, Deborah Ellinghaus, Ian Kennedy and Jeffrey Lavis, who also questioned Howard Hughes' commitment to redevelopment.
The officers were chiefly concerned that Merriweather is lagging behind other developments in downtown, including many overseen by Howard Hughes. The officers specifically cited the Inner Arbor Plan. Site development plans for phase one of the plan, which includes the arts park, were submitted to the county this month to be vetted.
"There are renovations that are called for and so as the future owner at some undetermined point, I think we are saying we are concerned about these two properties going at different paces," Kennedy said.
"I have a real sense of urgency on this," he said. "Everything is moving forward except for one piece; that's what troubles me."
Ellinghaus said the commission is in contact with DeWolf, who has an ex-officio seat on the commission, but that more information about the company's plans for redevelopment are needed.
"Without ownership of Merriweather Post Pavilion and/or a definite timeline, we are at a crossroads," said Ellinghaus, who also serves on the board of directors for the Inner Arbor Trust. "Inner Arbor is moving on the belief that Merriweather will be updated per the plan, but there is not a whole lot happening to make us feel comfortable."
DeWolf said the redevelopment of Merriweather and the Inner Arbor plan needed to go "hand and glove."
"My guess is that we are going to move forward lock step to get this done," he said.
DeWolf added that he estimates Howard Hughes will end up transferring Merriweather to the commission in 2018 or 2019.