Advocates: $51M parking garage key as Merriweather eyes new ownership

"If you want to save Merriweather, you have to park it."

Nearly 13 years ago, two Columbia kids and bandmates launched a campaign to "save" Merriweather Post Pavilion, a popular outdoor amphitheater in Columbia, from encroaching development by General Growth Properties.

Now in their 40s, Justin Carlson and Ian Kennedy thought saving the struggling pavilion from GGP was "an impossible David and Goliath moment." But after a community push and weeklong charrettes, the developer abandoned its plans and instead struck a 30-year master plan for downtown, which solidified the pavilion's place.

As Merriweather undergoes a $19 million renovation and cements its place as a defining arts venue, Carlson and Kennedy are still pushing to keep the music playing. Their campaign, Save Merriweather, has taken on a new mission: Park Merriweather.

Parking lots that once threatened to swallow Merriweather more than a decade ago are key to the outdoor amphitheater's continued survival, advocates said.

A new $51 million county-owned garage — part of a proposed $90 million tax increment financing deal to support Howard Hughes' downtown development plan — provides "a permanent parking solution" for Merriweather, advocates said.

If the council passes the deal in September, Howard Hughes, Columbia's master developer, could transfer ownership of the pavilion to the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission as early as this year, much earlier than originally planned in 2019.

Howard Hughes has donated blue "Park Merriweather" T-shirts to encourage support of the TIF, which pays for the garage. The company has requested the county finance $190 million overall for public infrastructure improvements that the county says are necessary to develop downtown; and the Kittleman administration is seeking up to $170 million over the next several years.

'Park it to save it'

The 2,545-space garage — financed in anticipation of future property tax revenue increases county officials say will come because of future development — isn't enough to "Park Merriweather." In total, Howard Hughes plans to provide around 5,000 spaces that will be enough for 85 percent of Merriweather's shows, said Brad Canfield, Merriweather's vice president of operations.

Parking would still overflow into other nearby areas like the mall and the community college, but is enough for a "permanent solution," said Canfield.

Securing parking for Merriweather, which uses grass and gravel lots that sit in the Crescent neighborhood, has been a longstanding concern, as in other parts of downtown.

In 2014, Howard Hughes and the commission signed an agreement to renovate the pavilion that required creating a permanent parking solution before the ownership change. But it left the solution open-ended.

"We didn't know what the solution was. The big question around Merriweather's future has always been about parking," said Greg Fitchitt, vice president of development at Howard Hughes. "We now have a solution that works for everyone."

Currently, Howard Hughes' provides 4,000 spaces in places like shared private parking across the street and the Crescent's fields – an arrangement enough for 40 percent of Merriweather's shows. Management has overflow parking in nearby spots like the mall parking lot, office buildings in Symphony Woods and Century Plaza.

Merriweather also plans on rolling out a new app to manage traffic by 2018. The system would assign ticket buyers a parking space based on where they are driving from. The venue also plans on installing LED boards to manage traffic flow and alert the public of upcoming shows.

"When people talk about the Crescent development, they might as well say Merriweather's parking lots," Carlson said. "If you want to save it, you have to park it."

'Preserving a gem'

Outside public criticism about the tax increment financing — opponents question whether it is necessary and appropriate — Carlson and Kennedy said their focus has always been preserving Merriweather.

Parking just happens to be the next step in a journey they didn't envision would come this far, they said.

"You don't want to have one or two developers own all of the parking. Having the county have a controlling interest is key," Carlson said.

"Public spaces are the only spaces specifically for the public good," Kennedy said.

Kennedy unintentionally made a career out of Save Merriweather. He now heads the arts commission that would own the venue.

A zoning change he noticed while interning for then-Councilman Guy Guzzone, now a state senator, coalesced into a newfound career at the commission.

Once Merriweather's ownership is transfered, Kennedy hopes to expand Merriweather's mission to provide more low-cost, varied, cultural and community-focused programs.

"We want to open this place up and make up more opportunities for free or low-cost programming. We want to make this a real true cultural destination that's in line with the community," Kennedy said.

Carlson recalls naively walking up to Merriweather's central office to introduce himself as a 20-something ready to save Merriweather. He hopes his children can walk across its stage for high school graduation.

"There have been so many battles and so many fights over the years. The politicians have come and gone. We're now into yet another developer. But we're still here. That says something about the legitimacy of our brand," Carlson said. We're not curing cancer or calling for world peace, but to have Merriweather stay open means a lot to us."

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