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‘Disrupting the myth of the sleepy suburbs’: Columbia aims to become a regional cultural center. Can it?

Brick by brick, nail by nail and dream by dream, a new regional arts district is taking shape.

Local officials and developers hope that the new Merriweather District will become the nation’s third cultural center (after Washington and Baltimore) and put to rest the misconception that engaging, provocative art is only found in large cities.

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“Not only will the new Merriweather improve the lives of Columbia residents, we think it will be a major tourist attraction for the entire region,” Howard County Executive Calvin Ball III said.

The development has been in the works for six years, and is one of three new and reconfigured neighborhoods adopted as part of Columbia’s master plan.

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Community members make chalk art along Mango Tree Road as part of 2020 MD AIR programming in September 2020.
Community members make chalk art along Mango Tree Road as part of 2020 MD AIR programming in September 2020. (Lancer Photography)

The Merriweather District is envisioned as the heart of downtown, and is centered around arts, culture, technology and innovation. The cutting-edge cybersecurity firm, Tenable Inc., was scheduled to move into Merriweather over the summer, the first of the district’s five new tech tenants. The Lakefront District will have a health, fitness and wellness emphasis. The focus of the Central District is still being developed.

Though ground was broken on some buildings in the Merriweather District two years ago, COVID-19 slowed construction. But it is already possible to see the outlines emerging of the 93-acre redevelopment, which will include 60 acres of open space.

Eventually, there will be at least four venues in addition to the nearby Merriweather Post Pavilion outdoor concert hall where cultural activities will be held.

Juniper, a mixed-use residential building, is the centerpiece of The Merriweather District.
Juniper, a mixed-use residential building, is the centerpiece of The Merriweather District. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

Chrysalis is the futuristic-looking, bright green outdoor amphitheater in Symphony Woods with lawn seating that was built in 2016. Color Burst Park is a brand new, flexible outdoor rectangle off Mango Tree Road that can pivot from serving as a skating rink in winter to a splash fountain in the summer (with jets of colored water at night) to a venue for small, intimate spoken word performances. When the $137 million New Cultural Center opens in 2024 in Symphony Woods, it will include three theaters, dance studios and rehearsal spaces, supplementing the existing theaters and galleries at Howard Community College.

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“People have been talking about the need for a cultural center in Columbia for the past 10 years,” Ball said.

Even the two apartment buildings being built in the Merriweather District (the 382-unit Juniper and 472-unit Marlow) will have an arts theme: During a recent tour of the Juniper, the sound of a piano in the complex’s music room filled the hallways. There’s a makers’ studio with spaces for creating works on paper or in clay. A lobby gallery will showcase the works of local artists.

“There’s a perception that there isn’t much arts and culture outside of big cities,” said Vanessa Rodriguez, vice president of marketing for the Howard Hughes Corp.’s Columbia region, the developer implementing the master plan.

“But today, people are redefining what success looks like. In the past, there was a migration to the cities. Today, there’s a migration toward a better quality of life.”

Children play on the Color Burst Splash Pad featuring colored lights.
Children play on the Color Burst Splash Pad featuring colored lights. (Lancer Photography)

Kevin Winkles, 39, of Woodstock grew up in Columbia, and his parents still live here. During a recent visit to the splash fountain in Color Burst Park with his wife and their 18-month-old son, Coleman, he marveled at the changes.

“I remember being down here when there was nothing going on, nothing at all,” he said. “It’s nice to see the area revitalized. This is good growth.”

The couple is excited that favorite area restaurants — The Charmery and The Food Market from Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood, and Washington’s Busboys and Poets — either had already opened new locations in the Merriweather District or will start serving customers this summer. They are eager to explore the district’s other new restaurant, Dok Khao Thai Eatery.

More restaurants are being planned for 2022.

Busboys and Poets, a freestanding building, is under construction just off Color Burst Park. The restaurant and bookstore will open during the summer.
Busboys and Poets, a freestanding building, is under construction just off Color Burst Park. The restaurant and bookstore will open during the summer. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

Busboys and Poets founder Andy Shallal decided to open his ninth and largest restaurant in the Merriweather District because, he said, Columbia’s progressive vibe and commitment to the arts resonates with his customers.

The new Busboys will occupy two stories, with a 400-seat restaurant, a terrace for outdoor seating and, of course, a bookstore. A mural winding around the store depicts cultural icons who have visited Busboys, from former U.S. President and first lady Barack and Michelle Obama to the activist Angela Davis to the poet Nikki Giovanni. The Open Mike nights for which Busboys and Poets is known will take place in Color Burst Park.

During a “Poetry on Ice” event Feb. 3, families skated on the ice rink as African American poet Langston Hughes’ verse boomed over the loudspeakers.

Busboys and Poets founder Andy Shallal, decided to open his ninth and largest restaurant in the Merriweather District because he said Columbia’s progressive vibe and commitment to the arts resonates with his customers.
Busboys and Poets founder Andy Shallal, decided to open his ninth and largest restaurant in the Merriweather District because he said Columbia’s progressive vibe and commitment to the arts resonates with his customers. (Stephen Cherry)

“This is an excellent community for our new venture,” Shallal said. “Columbia is very diverse and highly educated. There are a lot of socially conscious people here. It is a great fit.”

Also under construction are walking trails that will connect different locations in the new arts district with Merriweather Post Pavilion, the 54-year-old amphitheater that first put Columbia on the map as an arts destination. The avant-garde OPUS Merriweather concert (which melds art, music and technology), and the Books in Bloom festival began attracting crowds when they debuted in 2017.

Columbia arts programmers plan to expand both festivals, Rodriguez said, while adding more than 100 smaller and less formal events into the mix each year.

“Columbia is no longer just the summer concert season at Merriweather Post,” Rodriguez said. “We’re trying to layer in different levels of programming, from a new cultural passport for kids to concerts that bring in hundreds of people, instead of thousands.”

Azlon, the 35 foot, 3 ton kinetic art sculpture, Anthony Howe's largest in North America, and Juniper, a mixed-use residential building. The Merriweather District, an area developed by Howard Hughes Corporation, is taking shape.
Azlon, the 35 foot, 3 ton kinetic art sculpture, Anthony Howe's largest in North America, and Juniper, a mixed-use residential building. The Merriweather District, an area developed by Howard Hughes Corporation, is taking shape. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

Since 2019, the 35-foot tall stainless sculpture named “Azlon” (after Aslan the lion in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia books) has been towering above 6100 Merriweather Drive and is a hit with Columbia residents. The sculpture has curved spokes resembling a lion’s mane that sway and twirl in the wind. It was created by the sculptor Anthony Howe, who designed the cauldron for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Other art installations are in the works for the Merriweather District, Rodriguez said, as well as two or three large outdoor murals.

“We’re disrupting the myth of the sleepy suburbs,” she said.

But before any arts center can flourish, it needs artists. That’s why the New Cultural Center also will feature a new 147-unit apartment building. Half the rentals are classified as affordable housing and will be marketed to artists.

In addition, Columbia’s Artists in Residence Program, now in its fourth year, provides between three and five artists from across the U.S. with a $10,000 stipend plus housing and studio space for six to eight weeks. In return, the artist either creates an art installation or mounts free public performances.

Priya and the Lost Girls cover by former art resident and graphic artist Ram Devineni.
Priya and the Lost Girls cover by former art resident and graphic artist Ram Devineni. (Ram Devineni)

During his 2019 residency, graphic artist Ram Devineni of New York developed the augmented reality technology he would use in the third book of his Priya’s Shakti comic series.

Priya has been described as India’s first female superhero. She survived a brutal gang rape and battles evildoers who seek to oppress women. Readers who scan the book with an app on a mobile device see three-dimensional effects materialize before them, including the flying tiger that Priya rides.

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Devineni’s residency inspired him to create a second comic series about an enslaved African-American man in Civil War-era Maryland who gains the power of immortality when he’s struck by lightning. The first book in the series, “Jupiter Invincible,” had its world premiere in June as part of the immersive content in New York’s TriBeCa Festival.

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“When I was in Columbia, I would get in my car and drive all around Maryland,” Devineni said.

“I visited plantations and slave quarters and learned about Harriet Tubman. I conceived the idea for the story while I was here, and ‘Jupiter Invincible’ is set entirely in Maryland. That never would have happened without my residency in Columbia.”

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