Planners reach no decision on project

Residents criticize proposal to build near Merriweather

Board to take up issue again in Nov.

Columbia

October 06, 2004|By William Wan | William Wan,SUN STAFF

After hearing three hours of testimony from Rouse Co. representatives and questions from an aggressive crowd, the Howard County Planning Board ended its meeting late last night without a decision on the company's proposal to construct commercial buildings around Merriweather Post Pavilion.

For more than a year, controversy has brewed over the crescent of land that surrounds the open-air concert venue. And the debate will continue, the board announced last night, as it scheduled another meeting on the issue for Nov. 4.

Rouse, which owns the 51.7-acre property around Merriweather, wants to build retail stores and business offices. But many residents bitterly oppose that and previous proposals because the land is used for parking during concerts at Merriweather. Taking those parking spaces away, they say, would be a virtual death sentence for the amphitheater.

"You can't do business without a parking lot," said Columbia resident John Lin.

Rouse officials, however, argued that their project would enhance the area.

Some in attendance said that whatever decision is made for the site could determine the future of downtown Columbia.

"This is the most important development project left in Columbia," said Ian Kennedy, a co-founder of the group Save Merriweather.

If developers build on the land now used for parking, Kennedy said, Merriweather would no longer be able to book big-name bands. And that, he said, would force Merriweather to be downscaled from an open-air amphitheater into the smaller, enclosed theater that Rouse has pushed for -- and which many residents oppose.

Much of the criticism from opponents of the Rouse proposal had focused on the possibility of big-box stores being built on the site. Especially alarming to opponents was a preliminary study that included as examples of possible businesses a home-improvement superstore and a 150,000-square-foot free-standing discount store.

Opponents interpreted that to mean that their worst fears were coming true: Home Depot and Wal-Mart moving into downtown Columbia.

But last night, Rouse officials promised the Planning Board they would not build big-box stores there.

There will be no retail building larger than 65,000 square feet, said Dennis Miller, a Rouse Co. vice president. "That would allow for a Barnes & Noble or department store," but not a superstore, he said.

At this stage, Rouse does not have to give detailed plans about what it would build on the property.

The company is in the process of being sold to Chicago-based General Growth Properties, which has not discussed the interests in Columbia it would inherit as part of the deal.

The amphitheater was built in 1967.

Merriweather supporters have fought to preserve the concert venue with fliers, letter-writing campaigns and impassioned testimony at public meetings. Last year, they fought off a different proposal by Rouse to build residential homes on the same land now under discussion.

But opponents of the Rouse project faced an uphill battle last night. According to the county Planning Department, the property around the pavilion was approved for commercial development when Rouse began building Columbia nearly four decades ago.

Many residents showed up ready to plead for the preservation of the pavilion, but Planning Board Chairman Gary Kaufman kept discussion focused on the crescent-shaped plot around the concert site. That prompted many in the audience to leave minutes into the meeting.

"This is definitely going to affect Merriweather," said Columbia resident Kelly Kirwan, 21, who was among those departing early. "But how can we fight for it if we can't even talk about it?"

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