Michael McCall

At an information session on the Inner Arbor Plan earlier this year, Michael McCall talks to residents about building an arts village in Symphony Woods Park. (Photo by Nate Pesce, Patuxent Publishing / January 30, 2013)

Michael McCall's first impression of Jim Rouse dates back to the 1981, when, on a trip to Baltimore as a young developer, he picked up a copy of Time magazine with the iconic Columbia founder on the cover.

A year later, after many phone calls and even more letters, McCall found himself sitting inside Rouse's office, interviewing for a position he would land as a developer with Rouse's newest project, the Enterprise Foundation.

Now, more than 30 years later, that same persistence and initiative has led McCall to the forefront of the evolution of Symphony Woods Park in downtown Columbia.

His Inner Arbor Plan, which is meant to invoke Rouse's Inner Harbor in Baltimore, would transform the serene, wooded landscape into a natural arts hub dispersed with buildings, restaurants and attractions.

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"Jim Rouse shaped 14,000 acres in Columbia and thousands across the world," McCall said. "To be able to help reshape those 50 acres, just that one little piece, to help set that a new for the next 50 years, is an awesome responsibility."

And, although McCall, 56, who owns a consulting company called Strategic Leisure, has spent his career conjuring up ideas for all types of developments, the Inner Arbor plan isn't business as usual.

"I asked Jim several times over the course of years what was he most proud of, and it was always Columbia," McCall said. "So when I raised my hand for this, I thought, I don't know what I can do here, but I owe it to Jim because he changed my life."

Like his career with Rouse, who died in 1996, the Inner Arbor Plan was also born out of a happenstance encounter with a piece of journalism, a July 21, 2011, edition of The Columbia Flier.

"My wife, Barbara, hands me the paper and says look at this," McCall said about a story on the Howard County Design Panel's critique that the previous plan for Symphony Woods Park lacked vision.

The critique stuck with him, but it wasn't until after a conversation with his former Enterprise boss, George Barker, that McCall decided he wanted to do something about it.

The following July, after the County Planning Board approved the final development plan for the park, McCall was given his shot by CA President Phil Nelson.

"Phil comes back to me and says, 'We need your help,' " McCall said."We reconfigured the plan into what you see today."

Nelson said the Inner Arbor Plan is a more comprehensive neighborhood plan, and is more in line with what the county is looking for within the neighborhood.

"We started thinking about how to build a park that takes six different generations of people into account," Nelson said in an email. "I think Michael's plan not only provides a nice walkable place, but it also gives people something to do, and it gives people, more than anything, something that they would want to come back to."

The plan, which critics malign for its conversion of the 50-acre park from serene retreat into curated arts hub, focused on creating an arts village on the eastern edge of the park between Merriweather Post Pavilion and South Entrance Road.

The arts village will include a new CA headquarters, a children's theater, the relocation of Toby's Dinner Theatre, three restaurants, a 1,750-space parking garage and a ballroom-style meeting house.

The portion of the park that fronts on to Little Patuxent Parkway will remain largely undisturbed, save for the northeast corner of the property, where an interactive sculpture, and possibly a county-owned library, is planned.

"We need to be aspirational for Howard County and for Maryland even," McCall said. "Everything we spend money on needs to be impactful. Everything needs to really contribute to the whole experience."

For Barker and the eight members of the CA board who voted in February in favor of the plan, it does just that.

"He is converting a passive place not greatly enjoyed into something that would be a real place for people," said Barker, who moved to Columbia in 1972, his first year at the Rouse company.