Simmering tensions between Columbia's developer and leaders of the town's homeowners association over renovations to Merriweather Post Pavilion flared into public view Wednesday night as a long County Council discussion of the downtown redevelopment plan ended.
The clash was between Philip Kirsch, who heads the Columbia Association's board, and Gregory F. Hamm, Columbia's general manager for General Growth Properties, the master developer of the proposed new downtown. Bickering over accusations by Kirsch that Hamm hasn't returned phone calls from CA president Phil Nelson underscored a major peril to renovation and expansion plans for GGP-owned Merriweather, which is surrounded by CA- owned Symphony Woods.
Invited by council members, Nelson had also attended the session, but left before the end. When the verbal fireworks erupted, only the three council members who represent Columbia remained.
"He refuses to return phone calls," Kirsch said to Councilwoman Jen Terrasa as the session broke up. "That's not true," Hamm shot back, noting that he has a meeting scheduled for Monday with Nelson to talk about Symphony Woods. He later said the meeting was set up more than a week earlier.
"That's a false statement," Hamm repeated. "There's a lack of responsiveness in this relationship, but not on our part," Hamm said, as Councilman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, suggested a public spat wasn't helpful. Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, was the third member present.
"They want our land," Kirsch said about GGP. Hamm countered that his firm could use easements or other "minor property line adjustments" to allow General Growth to use CA property to help remake Merriweather. Without cooperation from the CA, he told the council, the pavilion would not be able to expand into a full-time cultural draw and eventually become public property. Instead, it would continue its limited concert venue role under the developer's ownership.
"It's a valuable asset to us now," he told the council members. "We can't go giving things away."
The tension reflects old suspicions among association board members about General Growth's plan for downtown submitted to the county more than a year ago. That original concept included a proposed row of cultural buildings and a new roadway on a strip of Symphony Woods closest to Little Patuxent Parkway - all owned by CA. Months of contention followed as board members first refused to allow CA staff to privately talk to GGP officials about the issue, only to later relent. The association rejected GGP's plan for the woods and has created one that includes no new buildings or roadways. The new concept for pathways, a large fountain or water feature plaza and a cafe has won broad approval from residents, and Hamm has also accepted it. But the distrust does not seem to be gone.
Wednesday night, Hamm had just finished testifying before the council about General Growth's plans to draw people into the often-deserted town center area when the dispute with Kirsch erupted.
"If Merriweather becomes part of a cultural hub that feeds the community, it's much more valuable to us," Hamm said, and would eventually be converted to public property.
But he said that Symphony Woods tightly surrounds Merriweather, creating a "Berlin Wall ownership situation."
To enlarge Merriweather, his firm must work with the CA to raise the back of the pavilion and allow the facility to accept up to eight large trucks for unloading, make the facility handicapped accessible, and roof over more seats.
"Merriweather has to be alive more than 30 days a year," Ham told the council members. "We think it should not be isolated."
Sigaty agreed. "I, for one, would really like to see that happen. It's really essential," she said.
"This is a comprehensive, incredibly good-faith effort to help a community remake itself and it's a two-way street. It has to work both ways," Hamm said, expressing optimism that the problems would eventually be ironed out.
Following the meeting, council members said they were dismayed by the bickering between Kirsch and Hamm. "I couldn't believe I was hearing that," Sigaty said.
The council held three discussion meetings on the downtown plan last week and has two more scheduled for Monday and Tuesday. In addition, Sigaty said she's trying to schedule another, perhaps daylong discussion the week of Dec. 14.