Makeover for Merriweather

Major renovation proposed for concert venue

May 26, 2008|By June Arney | June Arney,Sun reporter

The place where Jimi played is the hole in a doughnut.

Merriweather Post Pavilion - the summertime stage for music from Hendrix to now, and one of Columbia's most visited tracts - is at the center of what could be the initial test in the planned community's first large-scale makeover.

If the concert venue is the hole, then the surrounding 37-acre ring of land, owned by the community association that essentially governs Columbia, is the doughnut.

But the Columbia Association has had a cool relationship with General Growth Properties - the developer that owns the concert venue and much of downtown Columbia, and has unveiled a $350 million plan to transform the place.

The two sides wrestled for months to find a time to hold a meeting, and CA has complained about being left out of the loop during planning.

"My fear that GGP would want to put amenities on our land - that's exactly what they were showing," Barbara Russell, outgoing CA chairwoman, said of renderings released by the developer.

The odd land configuration puts cooperation at a premium for the looming redevelopment project, which includes a remaking of Merriweather and the surrounding land.

The community is in one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, and nothing happens here without plenty of input from its well-educated, high-achiever population.

Some locals see the complexities of the land ownership in downtown Columbia as a particularly sticky issue.

CA-owned land also abuts GGP acreage along the edge of Lake Kittamaqundi, not far from where the iconic People Tree, the Hug statue and a fountain plaza sit near popular restaurants. This area is not affected in the initial GGP plan, but residents say they are on alert for any proposal that might affect them down the road.

The developer's first batch of renderings included a portrayal of cultural buildings on the Symphony Woods property, the CA-owned doughnut of land that surrounds Merriweather. Among the possibilities that have been discussed are a themed library, an international center for the study of small cities and a new location for Toby's Dinner Theater.

"They are at the same time calling Symphony Woods a Central Park while filling it up with things that are not conducive to a park," said Russell. "I do not think that developing Symphony Woods by gobbling up the land with buildings, parking areas and roads is a good idea."

GGP acknowledges the complexities but sounds a note of optimism about how the process will go.

"In order to really create the best environment and opportunity for Merriweather, we need CA's support and agreement," said Gregory F. Hamm, GGP's regional vice president and Columbia general manager. "It's a very unique ownership structure of the land. It creates challenges. It could also create opportunities. If you have to talk with your neighbors, people tend to make more regional decisions rather than parochial ones."

GGP envisions a makeover to Merriweather that transforms the venue into "the next Wolf Trap," Hamm has said, referring to the concert complex in Vienna, Va. The face-lift includes more covered seating, a raised roof, a new stage, and upgraded restrooms and concessions.

Merriweather, designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry, has attracted crowds to see artists ranging from Kanye West to Carlos Santana to the Killers. Hendrix played there in 1968.

Gehry, known for defying architectural conventions, set out to develop a design that would least disturb the natural topography of the site. The acoustics of the pavilion, which opened in 1967, were considered by many in the industry to be the best among outdoor venues.

The upgrade GGP seeks is part of the most extensive redevelopment in the 40-year-old planned community's history.

Centered in the commercial core around The Mall in Columbia, the first phase of the project would be construction of 300,000 square feet of retail space that could start in 2010. By about 2011, work could start on 200,000 square feet of office space. The hotel could break ground about that same time.

Since GGP began work on the plan, some longtime residents have expressed worry about what the redevelopment - expected to span three decades - bodes for the future of their town. They know it will mean more houses and traffic, as well as an end to the Columbia they know. Many moved here 40 years ago - when they were young and the town was brand-new - to raise their families in what was a fresh, daring experiment in living.

GGP insists it has the best interests of the community in mind.

"One rendering shows ideas on how to accommodate other cultural and public uses," said Hamm. "What we showed ... was a concept based on what we've learned to date. It by no means is what we intend to propose."

The developer plans to hold more than a dozen public meetings to gather citizen comment before GGP submits a plan to the county government.

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