Symphony Woods in downtown Columbia is a patch of nondescript land used mainly as a pathway for the tens of thousands of people who attend concerts at Merriweather Post Pavilion each year.
But a new development plan calls for a dramatic makeover designed to bring more activity to the 36-acre property. Among the architectural features is the Butterfly building, a sweeping structure of mirrors and glass that would include an art gallery and large decks. An outdoor amphitheater known as the Chrysalis would have a tent-like covering of a lightweight metal.
And then there is the Caterpillar, described by landscape designer Martha Schwartz as "a great big worm kind-of tube" stretching east-west across the park as a boundary between Merriweather and Symphony Woods. The tube, which would be wired for irrigation and electricity, would be covered in live plants.
The plan, scheduled to be unveiled at community meeting Monday evening, was developed by the Inner Arbor Trust, a corporation created in February to develop and fund the park. It assembled a six-member international design team to transform the site. Ultimately, the plan would have to be approved by the Howard County Planning Board.
"Merriweather is only used 13 percent of the year," said Michael McCall, president of the trust. "This idea makes Merriweather more than just a concert venue, but a cultural development."
The announcement coincides with a resurgence of downtown growth in Columbia, a planned community that opened in 1967, the same year as Merriweather. An apartment community is being built next to the Columbia mall, a Whole Foods and fitness center will occupy the former Rouse Co. building on the lakefront and the mall is adding an outdoor wing with retailers and restaurants.
But the comprehensive changes proposed for Symphony Woods — and later Merriweather — may be the most ambitious of them all.
Included in the first phase of the plan for 16.5 acres bordered by Little Patuxent Parkway and South Entrance Road is the amphitheater, an approximately 200-foot long "picnic table" sitting area, a maze, pathways and a boardwalk.
"Merriweather and Symphony Woods can be for Columbia what Central Park is for Manhattan and Grant Park for Chicago — an international destination and a source of energy and pride," County Executive Ken Ulman said in a statement. "We need to think big about Merriweather and Symphony Woods. That's what is happening. We need to move forward, and continue the momentum."
Ulman, a Columbia native and 2014 Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, has already pledged $5 million in county funds for the project.
McCall declined to put a price tag on the project, but estimated it could cost approximately $30 million using public and private funds.
McCall said he hopes the site development plan will be approved by county agencies next summer, and that construction would begin on the amphitheater in the fall.
The Trust's master plan, which it is calling Merriweather Park, also includes an arts village on the eastern side of Symphony Woods and a cultural arts center called the Black Barn, which would be built on Merriweather land and include a ballroom-type venue, two theaters, a restaurant, art gallery and new park entrance.
The Black Barn concept, which McCall said might not be built for a decade, would be constructed parallel to the Merriweather stage and built into the berm behind the lawn.
McCall said the Trust has taken the county's mandate to create a comprehensive neighborhood seriously, which is why the proposed redevelopment includes the renowned concert venue, which is owned by Howard Hughes Corp.
Howard Hughes, which is mandated by the county to redevelop the concert venue before turning ownership over to a downtown arts commission, is a spinoff corporation created by Mall owner General Growth Properties and the top land owner in downtown Columbia.
John DeWolf, senior vice president of Howard Hughes, said the Trust's plans are "interesting" and that he "applauds their effort."
Said McCall: "We hope to influence where Merriweather is going and hope to work out an agreement to develop this."
DeWolf said Howard Hughes has not yet explored redevelopment for Merriweather.
"We do have to spend some money, which we are prepared to do, but it's a ways off," DeWolf said.
He added: "They are going to have to give us some due deference on Merriweather. Right now, we don't feel as compelled to think about it as one neighborhood."
The Inner Arbor Trust, which is in the process of applying for 501(c)3 status, has $500,000 in funding left over from $1.6 million in seed money provided by the Columbia Association. The first $700,000 has been used during the site design phase, according to McCall.
Of the $5 million pledged by Ulman, $3.5 has been allocated to the Trust, which will be used to build the amphitheater. The amphitheater is the only project financially accounted for.
The Trust hopes to fund the majority of the project through grants and donations, but will first need to receive the nonprofit designation from the IRS, a process that could take anywhere from six to 14 months, McCall said.
McCall said the Trust hopes to build cultural venues, like theaters, in the next five years, with the major development, like the arts village, 10 years or more down the road.
For phase one, the team is tasked with "maintaining, keeping and preserving the beauty of Symphony Woods," while "generating a public park that establishes the area," according to Schwartz.
"How do we make something that is beautiful, exciting and doesn't detract from the feeling of the park?" she said.
One such amenity, the Caterpillar, would stretch from the west-side of the park to its east-side and serve as a boundary between Merriweather and Symphony Woods. Schwartz, who created the concept, said it will be interactive and house live plant life. Portions of it can also be removed to allow access to Merriweather.
Another idea, dubbed "the picnic table,' would be between 150-feet and 200-feet long and sit between three feet and 18 inches off the ground. The table, which will act more like an elevated sitting area, will be covered in AstroTurf and form fitted around existing trees. Schwartz said it will be "a great gathering place."
A maze is also planned as an interactive play feature for children and adults. The material for the maze is undetermined, but it must be transparent because of public safety concerns. Schwartz is also behind the parks signage, which will be individual letters made out of multi-colored dichroic glass. The letters will spell out messages and can even serve as art itself, Schwartz said.
The outdoor amphitheater has been designed by architect Marc Fornes of theverymany architecture firm in New York. The amphitheater, known as the Chrysalis, will have two stages and be built into the natural grade of the hill, with the slope of the hill serving as natural stadium seating. Fornes said the challenge of the amphitheater is four-pronged with the most challenging aspect making it stand on it's own.
"Somewhere between 85 percent of the time the equipment will be empty and free of programming," he said. "It should be a large public pavilion, but very sculptural and seen more as an attraction."
Fornes added that the amphitheater, which will be colored green, white and blue in a "Cheshire cat" striped pattern, will also "kick start the development."
The guest services pavilion, known as the Butterfly building, is an X-shaped 6,000 square-foot building that will house two food vendors, an art gallery, a 2,700 square-foot teared-deck area and a 3,000 square foot rooftop deck. The pavilion, which will look onto the outdoor amphitheater, will be glass on two sides and mirrored on the other two and accessible from both Merriweather and Symphony Woods.
"Our approach is immersing the visitor into the forest," said Gabrielle Marcoux, from nARCHITECTS, the architecture firm that designed the building.
Baltimore-based landscape architecture firm Mahan and Rykiel Associates is working with Schwartz on landscaping the park. The pathways, which will be approximately six-feet wide, will be worked around existing trees. A boardwalk for a swale, which is on the eastern side of the park, also is planned.