A plan to bring play to Columbia, Md.


A view of the development at the Lake Kittamaqundi in Columbia, Md. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Jeffrey MacMillan)
December 8, 2013

Columbia, Md., attracted much notice in the late 1960s and 1970s for its pioneering attempt to create a new city, a Next America, in the suburbs, a place where people of mixed social and economic circumstances could live, work, shop and play.

The project was a success, in no small part because many families were interested in migrating away from the cities, eager for an alternative.

Over time, though, the tide shifted, as young professionals, empty-nester baby boomers and others began to gravitate back to urban centers, propelling a surge of development in areas served by mass transit.

Columbia wasn’t exactly abandoned. Even today, its shopping mall thrives where others have faltered. Big retail centers have popped up, Wegman’s arrived and Whole Foods is not too far behind. Property owners have begun building more apartments and high-end housing, and new companies still relocate to the planned community.

But for some, something is still missing: The “play.”

Community leaders are now scheming to make up for the omission, rolling out concepts for what might be the first phase of creating a real central park.

It is often an overlooked element of successful development, what gives a community its spark. Would Chinatown and Penn Quarter have taken off without Verizon Center?

In the booming neighborhoods of the District, arts organizations arrived before the swanky restaurants, high-rise apartment buildings and gourmet grocers that are rushing in now. On H Street Northeast, the Atlas Performing Arts Center provided a home for theater, music and dance long before Whole Foods decided to sign leases there. The Black Cat, the Studio Theater and Gala Hispanic Theatre made neighborhoods along the 14th Street NW corridor a destination in advance of thousands of new residential units.

The value of strong recreational and arts institutions to placemaking is so recognized now among developers that many of them try to brand their projects with parks or the arts before they even begin building. Business Improvement Districts, funded by commercial property owners, stage temporary parks, outdoor movie screenings and pop-up art shows in emerging neighborhoods throughout D.C. and suburbs like Crystal City, Ballston and Rockville.

The month-long Artomatic festival, which began as an event mainly by and for artists, has grown so large that it fills empty office buildings as large as 500,000 square feet. Developers court the concept to their buildings to add buzz, and Artomatic has begun creating ancillary festivals in communities such as Frederick and Jefferson County, W.Va.

For projects in areas that weren’t previously on the radar screen for shoppers and apartment renters, adding a fun or buzzy attraction is even more essential. In White Flint, developer Federal Realty Investment Trust lined up a 250-seat music and events venue by the Strathmore Hall Foundation. In the northeast neighborhood of Brookland, developer Jim Abdo designed the $200 million mixed-use project Monroe Street Market to have a pedestrian promenade lined with artist studios. Developers of both CityCenter DC and the Wharf (in Southwest) inked deals with entrepreneur Mark Ein to have the Washington Kastles tennis team play their matches in temporary stadiums on their development sites.

Even Tysons Corner these days is fixated on the idea of making the ultimate car-centered suburban edge town a walkable place with outdoor spaces and public art.

Changing the address

Imposing a sense of play on a community is not easy. Columbia has a wealth of recreational resources and a picturesque lake downtown. The county has approved plans for a new crescent of apartment and retail construction. But the center of attention for many has long been the Mall in Columbia, the sprawling, mostly indoor shopping center ringed by surface parking lots and garages. Nearby Merriweather Post Pavilion draws hundreds of thousands each summer for its concerts, but that is only for a few dozen events a year. It is not even clear where one should park to enjoy the woods surrounding Merriweather. Barriers often block the entrances to what is now known as Symphony Woods.

“There is a lot of good things happening downtown. But to me much of the new development is the analog of adding a new room to your house,” said Michael McCall, president of the Inner Arbor Trust, a group working to refashion Symphony Woods into something more. “It can make your life more comfortable, but it doesn’t change your address. You still live where you live. We think knitting everything together around a public park can make people sit up and take notice. It can change Columbia’s address as a regional destination.”

McCall once worked with the late James W. Rouse, Columbia’s trailblazing developer, on projects such as helping the Walt Disney Co. reposition its Pleasure Island attraction. He said there are good economic development reasons for creating vibrant public spaces.

“Employers follow employees and employees follow lifestyle,” McCall said. “We have excellent schools and one of the country’s leading library systems, but we need to broaden upon that to satisfy the needs of the 30-year-old professional who is in high demand.”

The Inner Arbor Trust has proposed an attention-getting plan, with new public spaces, wooden walkways and other amenities. It wants the park to complement a redeveloped concert pavilion that adds an arts village with rehearsal and theater space, a restaurant and galleries.

Success will mean forging an alliance with stakeholders such as the Howard Hughes Corp., a development firm that currently owns the Merriweather Post Pavilion and much of the nearby land slated for new housing and retail development.

Other stakeholders

Howard Hughes has been largely silent so far on what role it might play; it has agreed to eventually turn over control of Merriweather to a cultural organization but the timing is uncertain.

“We think it’s great that they are showing this proactive initiative,” said John E. DeWolf, a senior vice president for Howard Hughes, of the Inner Arbor plan.

DeWolf said Howard Hughes has engaged its own consultant to begin planning for work on its side of the fence at Merriweather, saying he thought there might be lessons from the experience of the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in The Woodlands, a planned community in Houston where the company also has holdings. The amphitheater there is one of the busiest in the nation, rivaling Wolf Trap’s Filene Center in Vienna.

Success will also mean winning over the community, and one vocal contingent questions why Columbia’s large homeowner’s association, the Columbia Association, should hand Inner Arbor the easement to the woodlands.

Such public support is important if the park is to secure the tens of millions required to pay for the park improvements and construct the arts village. McCall said the group plans to seek state and local grants as well as private donations.

Some in the community are clamoring for a more phased approach, asking their leaders to fund a far more modest park plan as conversation continues over Inner Arbor’s vision. But to proponents of the Inner Arbor plan, that is thinking too small and possibly conflicts with county mandates.

“We don’t have the Metro,” to appeal to young professionals, McCall said. “So it seems to me the area that has the greatest potential is the heart of the woods itself and the sense of immersion you can sense there.”

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