Rouse leaves pavilion hanging

Company offered to sell Merriweather to county

Leaders worry over site's future

General Growth's plans for venue are unknown

August 22, 2004|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

The future of the Merriweather Post Pavilion, which has faced an uncertain fate in recent years, has once again become murky.

The Rouse Co. was moving toward selling Merriweather to Howard County and developing the land around it with offices and stores. But those plans have been cast into doubt with Friday's announcement that Rouse is being acquired by Chicago-based General Growth Properties Inc.

Seth Hurwitz, co-owner of I.M.P., which was hired last fall to manage the Columbia amphitheater, said Rouse has told him it's "business as usual." He said he plans to continue his current activities at the venue until he hears otherwise from the new owners.

"I am sure [General Growth] will have an opinion" on how it wants to run Merriweather, Hurwitz said. "But I have no idea what it is."

Rouse favors turning the amphitheater - which was built in 1967 as one of the planned community's original amenities - into an enclosed, year-round theater, claiming it's not a profitable seasonal venue because it no longer hosts 50 shows a year.

The pavilion once staged concerts by legendary rock groups such as Led Zeppelin, the Who and the Grateful Dead, but the number of shows has declined through the years, with 19 last year. However this year, with I.M.P. taking over the management from Clear Channel Entertainment Inc., the pavilion is scheduled to hold nearly 30 shows.

Rouse had offered to sell Merriweather to Howard County, which is preparing to study the feasibility of buying the amphitheater and preserving it as a performing arts venue. The county is aiming to have its study completed by the end of the year.

Howard County Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, is calling upon General Growth to make a commitment by the end of this month to keep the pavilion open for another season while the county contemplates its next move.

"To me, it would go a long way to demonstrate that their priorities are in line with Howard County and Columbia," he said.

Rouse was aiming to commercially develop the 51-acre, crescent-shaped property behind Symphony Woods, which surrounds the 9-acre Merriweather site and includes the pavilion's parking area.

But it remains unclear if the company's new owner will pursue those plans, which call for 800,000 square feet of office space and 400,000 square feet of retail space that could incorporate big-box stores.

Rouse had previously wanted to build about 1,600 residences on the site in an effort to create a more vibrant downtown Columbia, which has a population of 4,265. Earlier this year, the Howard County Zoning Board denied the company's petition, which was part of a larger plan to increase Columbia's residential density.

The proposal sparked protests by many community members, who feared the estimated 2,352 people the new units would bring to Town Center could generate more crime and too much traffic for the area, and put stress on the community's infrastructure.

Ulman, who chairs the Zoning Board, said he is now "even more gratified" about the board's decision. "I'm very grateful that the Zoning Board did not approve giving a blank check for 2,100-plus residential units, now knowing that it would be a new company developing those units," he said.

Columbia Council Chairman Joshua Feldmark said he feels residents were wise to be cautious about Rouse wanting to build homes around the pavilion and now wonders what General Growth has in mind.

"I was already worried about the future of Merriweather with someone who has a stake to be invested in Columbia," he said. "Now with somebody who doesn't have that claim, it's very possible for them to say, `How can we maximize revenue here?'"

Sun staff writer Sandy Alexander contributed to this article.

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