Reconsidering Columbia's Town Center

Future of pavilion, woods the subject of speculation

March 23, 2003|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

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.

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 and Jimmy Buffett.

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

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.

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 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.

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