As most patrons will tell you, the drawbacks to attending a concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion are few, but not insignificant.
These gripes aren't related to the actual concert-viewing experience itself – it's perennially ranked and widely regarded as one of the best outdoor concert venues in the country. They stem from logistical shortfalls: the lines for the restrooms are too long, the buildings are dilapidated, the concessions are lacking.
But those issues will soon be history as the venue is poised to undergo $8.4 million worth of renovations in the coming months, setting the stage for a new and improved Merriweather experience for the 2015 concert season.
Last week, construction on the renovations took one step closer toward beginning as the Howard County Planning Board approved changes to the site development plan for the nearly 50-year-old venue.
The approved plans are part of a larger five-year, $19 million renovation plan revealed in May by county officials. All the work on the three-phase project is planned to occur in the venue's offseason, and should not interrupt the concert schedule, according to the county plan.
According to Brian Spencer, project manager for the renovation, the initial phase will include the construction of five buildings, which will house two concession stands, restrooms, a box office, storage and a retail store, which will sell merchandise.
The new structures will be constructed in a U-shaped cluster on the west side of the pavilion — to the right side of the venue if facing the stage – with the open side of the "U" opening toward the amphitheater.
Included in the cluster will be the existing 9:32 club, an enclosed bar with video screens decorated with memorabilia from the venue's storied history. On the opposite side of the "U" will be a new entry gate to the pavilion.
The buildings will be constructed facing inward, creating a small courtyard with decking, pathways, lawn and existing trees.
Spencer said the restrooms are "much larger" than the existing restrooms, and are replacing restrooms that are currently condemned.
He said the new concession stands will replace existing concessions on the site, and that the new structures will have a full commercial kitchen, which the existing ones do not.
Jamie Pett, a principal with JP2 Architects, said a key to the project was preserving the "extraordinary park-like" setting. He said the firm conducted a tree survey to allow them to work around existing trees.
"We are going to try and save the most majestic trees there and really create this new court to the existing seating bowl in a way that has you walking in under the canopy of these terrific trees," he said.
He said the materials and layout of the project were chosen to be durable, but also have an "elegant quality."
Spencer said there are two more phases for the Merriweather redevelopment, and that they are divided geographically.The second phase will focus on the stage house, back offices and roofing for the venue. The third phase will focus on the east side, specifically on the restrooms and box office located there.
Following the unanimous 5-0 vote by the Planning Board Jan. 22, the only hurdle left for the project is acquiring a building permit, which Spencer expects to receive from the county's department of Planning and Zoning soon.
Spencer told the Planning Board he expects construction to last four months, although he is hoping to speed it up if possible.
The renovation is being led by the Howard Hughes Corp., current owner of the pavilion, but Spencer said the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, a nonprofit that will own the pavilion in the future, has been involved in the plans too.
The commission, a county-affiliated nonprofit, will be transferred ownership of the pavilion by Howard Hughes at a later date. The transfer is part of an agreement reached between the county and Howard Hughes allowing the developer to commence with redevelopment plans for Columbia's Town Center.
Ian Kennedy, vice chairman of the commission, testified at the meeting that the commission supports the changes.
Also testifying in support of the plans was Michael McCall, president of the Inner Arbor Trust. The Inner Arbor is the developer of Symphony Woods park, located adjacent to the pavilion. Plans there call for a curated arts park including a playground, sculptures, an outdoor venue and guest services building. Construction on that project could begin this year.
"The park and the amphitheater will knit together well," McCall said. "We look forward to starting this construction."