Reconsidering Town Center

Columbia: Many speculate about Merriweather Post Pavilion and Symphony Woods as the Rouse Co. ponders asking permission to add residential units.

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.

Robert Tennenbaum, one of Columbia's original planners, said the amphitheater is not compatible with today's needs.

"I always thought that what it transitioned into today is very inappropriate," Tennenbaum said. "The pavilion was not designed for what it presents today."

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, Jimmy Buffett and Aretha Franklin. But the amphitheater's ability to draw big-name acts has been questioned recently, especially since the Nissan Pavilion opened in 1995.

In 1997, eight shows at Merriweather were canceled because of poor ticket sales or scheduling conflicts. In 2001, Buffett did not make his usual annual performance at Merriweather and scheduled a show at Nissan Pavilion, causing an uproar among local fans.

Buffett is to make his first appearance in two years at Merriweather in June. His concert is one of only five events scheduled at the pavilion through August, although more could be added. The Nissan Pavilion has twice as many shows scheduled in the same period.

While Buffett is Merriweather's biggest name this season, Nissan will be host for a succession of major acts, including the Dave Matthews Band, James Taylor, Pearl Jam and Peter Gabriel.

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

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.

"Whereas it used to be the single largest piece of our admission/amusement tax revenue, it no longer is," Raymond S. Wacks, Howard County's budget director, said of Merriweather.

Year-round venue

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 Merriweather Post has served us well here in Columbia for all these years, but it's a venue that only allows limited use," she said.

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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