A plan to grow the arts on nearly three acres of downtown Columbia is underway as the town chases a vision of becoming a vibrant, urban core.
The concept proposed by Orchard Development Corp. would create the county's first cultural arts center — a $130 million facility that integrates art organizations under one roof, caters affordable housing to artists and creates a year-round laboratory for artists and art lovers alike.
The plans, which the developer stressed are preliminary, are part of downtown Columbia's quest for artistic vibrancy, the defining but intangible character of a city that in the midst of major redevelopment.
"This is something that has been a long time coming and will be sort of a crown jewel for downtown Columbia," said Scott Armiger, president of Orchard Development Corp. "It's a gateway spot into Columbia or will be when the Crescent [neighborhood] gets developed."
As proposed, the center would relocate Toby's Dinner Theatre, the Howard County Arts Council, the Columbia Festival of the Arts and the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts. The center, proposed in the Crescent neighborhood, would include a parking garage, a visual arts center, a performing arts space, black box theaters, studios and a cafe.
Orchard Development is still working on the deal with the Howard County Housing Commission and the owners of Toby's Dinner Theatre. Once the project is completed, the commission would own the property and give the county and other tenants a long-term lease, said Tom Carbo, the commission's director.
The county expects to make an announcement about its role in the project soon as discussions with stakeholders continue, said Andy Barth, the county's press secretary.
If approved, the center could break ground as early as next August and would take four years to complete. Toby's would remain open as its new location is built.
The proposal fills a gaping void in the arts community, said Toby Orenstein, owner of Toby's Dinner Theatre and founder of the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts.
"I have three buckets full of plans for centers or for buildings that I was going to use. They're all in my house," Orenstein said. "This is the furthest we've gotten with this dream. And these are hopes and dreams that have been around for ever and ever and ever."
Orenstein has run Toby's for 35 years. Under the proposal, the theater will join other organizations as a tenant in the center.
Artist flats geared for artists who may be part of the center are included in the proposal.
The plans for housing, part of a proposed binding agreement with Columbia's master developer, Howard Hughes Corp., create 209 one- and two-bedroom apartments atop the cultural arts center, around 100 of which would be affordable by targeting people who earn about half of the county's median income of $110,133.
The Columbia Festival of the Arts would find a small home in the center, a big move that board president Ron Nicodemus said represents "the perfect intersection of great ideas and great energy" ahead of Columbia's 50th anniversary next year.
"Over the last 29 years, we've seen a steady explosion of arts activity in Columbia," Nicodemus said. "We are painting a picture of the future for the next generation. It's a new time for Columbia. And we want to be part of setting the brand of Howard County."
The project would also provide a permanent location for the CCTA, a permanent location. Created at the direction of Columbia founder Jim Rouse, the CCTA aims to teach theatrical arts to children.
For the Howard County Arts Council, the move would mean departing from its home in a former elementary school on a quiet, tree-lined suburban street, where around 50 parking spaces barely accommodate events that can draw up to 600 attendees.
While the council's current location is "off the beaten path," executive director Coleen West said the new center aligns with the council's vision to find a larger, more centralized location and provide expanded programs.
"The plan is to make Columbia a vibrant arts district. The arts are a symbol of that urban lifestyle," West said.
Like other organizations, the council is working on plans to raise private funds for the project.
Orchard Development plans to submit a development plan to the county this week, said Armiger.
Though the plans are early in the development process, Nicodemus said there's reason for optimism.
"We don't have all the answers yet. Those are being shaped right now," Nicodemus said. "But the focus and the synergy and the energy is all moving in the right direction."