Maryland group proposes a methamorphosis for its downtown Columbia public park


This rendering is of the Chrysalis, a public pavilion the group wants to construct in a revitalized downtown Columbia, Md., park next to Merriweather Post Pavilion. (Courtesy Inner Arbor Trust)

As development returns to ­urban centers, some suburban dwellers are beginning to feel a bit envious. Keeping up with the Jones­es once meant looking next door; now it might be watching what is going on in Clarendon, Bethesda or downtown D.C.

That’s no more true than in one of the region’s original outer-suburban town centers, the once groundbreaking Maryland town of Columbia.

For more than 40 years, the Howard County community between Baltimore and Washington has stubbornly clung to the master plan of curvy streets and cul-de-sacs laid out by the late pioneering developer James W. Rouse. But in recent years, local leaders have hatched a new vision for Columbia’s downtown, including apartment buildings and street-level retail stores, and the first bulldozers and construction cranes have arrived to turn that blueprint into reality.

Now comes the latest element of that transformation: a revitalized public park centered on the outdoor concert venue Merriweather Post Pavilion. The nonprofit group entrusted with overseeing the park’s development plans to present its ideas Monday for turning the 36-acre Symphony Woods into a multimillion-dollar arts and cultural center.

To start, the group proposes tearing down the metal fence around Merriweather and replacing it with a 14-foot-high landscaped steel tube dubbed the “Caterpillar.” An upscale snack bar would have a “butterfly”-shaped observation deck overlooking the amphitheater. Nearby, the group would erect an outdoor park pavilion, called the “Chrysalis” for the free-flowing lightness of its shape. There are also plans for a maze, gardens and wooden walkways.

The group is even proposing a new name for its metamorphosis: Merriweather Park.

“We’re not close to Metro, like some of these other communities, so the park, in strategic terms, seemed to be the place where we could make the biggest difference to create a regional destination,” said Michael McCall, president and chief executive of the nonprofit group.

McCall is no stranger to the development of such public spaces. He previously worked for Rouse at the Enterprise Development Corp., whose clients included Walt Disney Co.

In proposing the park, the group calling itself the Inner Arbor Trust is following a familiar playbook. Its name is a play on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, which Rouse helped revitalize in the late 1970s.

“Calling this the Inner Arbor plan is to connote the potential,” said McCall, who assembled a high-profile team of architects, engineers and landscape designers from London, Brooklyn and elsewhere to draft the plans.

The park serves more than a recreational purpose. The developers of new urban centers often talk about the importance of establishing live-work-play communities. Public amenities make the property surrounding them more valuable. Consider the added value of fronting a lake, or living across the street from New York’s Central Park.

Funding for a Columbia park will likely depend on securing state or local grants (Maryland and Montgomery County each kicked in $48 million to develop the $100 million Strathmore concert hall and arts center in north Bethesda, for example). Howard County has earmarked $3.5 million for the park’s pavilion, and the Columbia Association, the town’s large homeowners association, has kicked in $1.6 million and turned over control of the property to the trust. The trust also plans to solicit private contributions for park improvements, which could cost more than $30 million. McCall declined to give a specific number, saying details had not been finalized.

To succeed, the Inner Arbor’s plans will need to be coordinated with stakeholders such as the Howard Hughes Corp., the real estate firm that owns Merriweather, and proponents must navigate the county’s development process. Approval by local planning officials is uncertain given the concerns by some about the motives of the business community. Many have been clamoring for more transparency.

But Howard County Executive Ken Ulman (D), a candidate for lieutenant governor, said he likes what he sees.

“I couldn’t be more enthusiastic,” he said in a statement that said he would support additional public funding. “Howard County should continue to be a significant partner in the future of Downtown Columbia.”

Also uncertain is whether a suburban town center that is not easily accessible to mass transit can compete with places such as Merrifield’s Mosaic District or the project underway near the White Flint Metro station.

That just raises the stakes, McCall said.

“When I moved here in 1982, Columbia was a very special place. But over the years, I’ve seen Columbia go sideways, its development arrested as the rest of the world caught up,” McCall said. “My own son moved from Columbia to Silver Spring. Ten years ago, who would have thought Silver Spring would be this real cool place?”

Dan Beyers is the founding editor of Capital Business, The Washington Post’s go-to source for news about the region’s business community.

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