Reconsidering Town Center


As the Rouse Co. considers applying for permission to develop hundreds of additional residential units in Columbia, speculation is circulating about the future of the Town Center area near the mall, where most of the development likely would occur.

Will Merriweather Post Pavilion be torn down? Will Symphony Woods be developed? Will the Rouse Co. again try to build apartments around the amphitheater?

"Those are merely rumors," said Dennis Miller, the Rouse Co.'s vice president and general manager of Columbia. "Merriweather is going to open. ... Symphony Woods will never go away."

Miller said the Rouse Co. does not have any plans to develop the outdoor amphitheater and surrounding land. But residents and community leaders are brainstorming ideas for the area: constructing a restaurant in place of Merriweather Post Pavilion, turning the seasonal amphitheater into a year-round facility, or planting a rose garden in Symphony Woods.

At the crux of the conjecture is Merriweather, which is no longer a state-of-the-art entertainment facility. Built in 1967 as one of Columbia's first amenities, the amphitheater was originally designed for classical music performances. Now, it is host to pop and rock acts and is a prime spot for county high school graduations.

Robert Tennenbaum, one of Columbia's original planners, said the amphitheater is not compatible with today's needs.

"I always thought that what it transitioned into today is very inappropriate," Tennenbaum said. "The pavilion was not designed for what it presents today."

The 15,000-capacity Merriweather faces stiff competition from another amphitheater, the 25,000-capacity Nissan Pavilion in Bristow, Va. Both are managed by SFX Entertainment Inc. Other competing venues include FedEx Field in Landover and the MCI Center in Washington.

Through the years, Merriweather has attracted popular acts, including Britney Spears, Elton John, Jimmy Buffett and Aretha Franklin. But the amphitheater's ability to draw big-name acts has been questioned recently, especially since the Nissan Pavilion opened in 1995.

In 1997, eight shows at Merriweather were canceled because of poor ticket sales or scheduling conflicts. In 2001, Buffett did not make his usual annual performance at Merriweather and scheduled a show at Nissan Pavilion, causing an uproar among local fans.

Buffett is to make his first appearance in two years at Merriweather in June. His concert is one of only five events scheduled at the pavilion through August, although more could be added. The Nissan Pavilion has twice as many shows scheduled in the same period.

While Buffett is Merriweather's biggest name this season, Nissan will be host for a succession of major acts, including the Dave Matthews Band, James Taylor, Pearl Jam and Peter Gabriel.

Competition and Merriweather's age could be contributing to the drop in Howard County's admission and amusement tax revenue from live shows and concerts.

The revenue from concerts and theater performances has been declining in the past few years. In fiscal 2002, the county received $393,852 in tax revenue from those events, compared with $473,089 the previous year.

"Whereas it used to be the single largest piece of our admission/amusement tax revenue, it no longer is," Raymond S. Wacks, Howard County's budget director, said of Merriweather.

Year-round venue

Columbia Councilwoman Donna L. Rice of Town Center said the community does not get much use out of Merriweather because it can be used only during the summer. She said she would like to see the pavilion turned into a year-round venue that would accommodate theatrical performances, concerts, visual arts exhibits and a cultural arts facility.

"The Merriweather Post has served us well here in Columbia for all these years, but it's a venue that only allows limited use," she said.

The Rouse Co.'s consideration of developing more residential units in Columbia was spurred by a developer's proposal to build a senior apartment building in Oakland Mills Village Center. That project would require action by the county government to allow more residential units because only about 900 of Rouse's allotted units remain, and those have been committed to other projects.

Miller has been talking to Columbia's 10 village boards to see if the villages are interested in permitting additional housing. He hopes to make a decision by the end of this month or early next month on whether Rouse should petition the county for the additional density.

The company is allowed to develop Columbia with a density of 2.35 residential units an acre, which creates about 33,539 residential units throughout Columbia's 14,272 acres.

Increasing Columbia's density to the maximum 2.5 residential units an acre allowed under Howard County's New Town ordinance would permit construction of an additional 2,141 residential units.

Tennenbaum suggests that in exchange for the additional residential units, Rouse would be subjected to having all new development projects approved by a professional design review board.

'Three design disasters'

Such a board would have prevented what Tennenbaum called "three design disasters": the Howard County General Hospital expansion, the Governor's Grant townhouses near The Mall in Columbia and the EzStorage self-storage facility on an outparcel near Owen Brown.

"Those three things happened because there was no design review of any kind," said Tennenbaum, who is director of real estate development for the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

Tennenbaum thinks most of the additional residential units, if acquired, should be used in Town Center, redeveloping Lakefront North and also the 11-acre parcel along Broken Land Parkway and the boundary of Symphony Woods.

"In that strip of land [by Symphony Woods] ... is a wonderful opportunity to develop high-quality residential [housing], either condos or rentals, or a combination, facing into the park," he said.

Because the noise from Merriweather would not mesh with residential housing, the amphitheater would have to be closed, Tennenbaum said. At that time, the area could be turned into something like New York's Tavern on the Green, a restaurant with meeting facilities, he said.

If the day comes when Merriweather is torn down, said Alton J. Scavo, Rouse's executive vice president of development, he does not think the site would be appropriate for residential housing, but he added, "That's not to say that land around it wouldn't be residential some day."

The company has tried in the past to develop that area. Twice in the early 1990s, the Howard County Zoning Board turned down Rouse's proposal to build apartments on the land between Broken Land Parkway and Symphony Woods.

Resident concerns

Mary Pivar, a resident of Wilde Lake and a lover of the 40-acre Symphony Woods, points to those past proposals and worries that any future residential development near the pavilion would find its way into the woods, despite Miller's assurance that the area will remain open space.

"[Symphony Woods] is the last really graceful part of Columbia," Pivar said.

Pivar and her husband, Al, have had many picnics under the trees in Symphony Woods in their 30 years of living in Columbia. She thinks the area could be better used, beyond the annual Wine in the Woods and Symphony of Lights events.

A rose garden, nature trails, indigenous plantings or a permanent ice rink could be developed to draw more people, she said.

"There's so many things that could be done there," Pivar said.

If Rouse wanted to residentially develop Symphony Woods, the company would have to petition the county for the open space to be rezoned for residential use while also maintaining the minimum 36 percent of land that is required to be designated open space in Columbia, said Cindy Hamilton, who oversees land development for the county Department of Planning and Zoning.

"Like any zoning throughout the county, people can petition and ask for it to be changed," she said. "How likely it is to be changed, that's the question."

Rice is confident that while Symphony Woods and Merriweather Post Pavilion would benefit from improvements, they will remain in Columbia.

"They're too entrenched in this community -- the citizens would rise up and have a fit" if there were plans to develop the parkland or demolish the amphitheater, Rice said.

"I just think we have to make a better use of what we have here. We have just ignored it."

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