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Big Concerts May Reprise In Columbia

Merriweather Post's Owners Change Stance on Its Future

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 13, 2005; Page B01

Merriweather Post Pavilion's corporate owners, who have insisted for two years that the outdoor amphitheater is obsolete and should be converted to a smaller, indoor concert hall, reversed course yesterday and said they want to make it a centerpiece of a more vibrant downtown Columbia.

The decision to allow the 38-year-old facility to continue hosting large concerts and to coexist with a proposed development next door is a major breakthrough in an ongoing battle between Howard County and General Growth Properties over how to put the finishing touches on downtown Columbia.

A community panel convened by County Executive James N. Robey (D) concluded last month that Howard County should make a major effort to preserve the amphitheater, which developer James Rouse envisioned as a cultural focal point for his planned community. The pavilion remains available for purchase, a General Growth spokesman said, but the company also is willing to help resolve questions over where concertgoers might park if adjacent land were developed. The asking price for Merriweather is said to be $6 million. A consultant for the county estimated that the facility needs about $19 million in upgrades and repairs.

The debate over downtown Columbia is far from over. General Growth's lawsuit challenging the county's rejection of an expansive residential development next to Merriweather is awaiting a judge's decision, and a proposal for a commercial development on the same site is pending at the planning board. But the company's gesture to the community yesterday was widely viewed as a peace offering.

"That is great news," said Ian Kennedy, who grew up in Columbia going to concerts at Merriweather and who is a co-founder of SaveMerriweather, an advocacy group.

"We will reserve final judgment until we see something concrete, but right now we couldn't be more happy with that news," Kennedy said.

Politicians also praised the decision, which was announced in a series of phone calls to reporters and community leaders yesterday by General Growth's local vice president, Dennis W. Miller.

Miller made the calls a few hours before a scheduled meeting he had organized with about a dozen community leaders and lawmakers to discuss ways to devise a master plan for development in downtown Columbia. That idea also has been pushed separately by several officials, including County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone (D-Southeast County) and council member Ken Ulman (D-West Columbia), who is chairman of the zoning board.

The amphitheater, which can accommodate up to 19,000 people, has hosted such acts as the Grateful Dead, the Who, the Dave Matthews Band and Norah Jones. General Growth, a Chicago-based shopping mall conglomerate, acquired the property late last year when it bought the Rouse Co. for $7.2 billion.

Seth Hurwitz, chairman of I.M.P. Productions, the Bethesda-based company that last year took over operations at Merriweather, said he was excited about General Growth's decision.

Merriweather opens Saturday with a concert by Maroon 5.

"There are so many possible solutions here. All people had to do was to make an attempt," Hurwitz said. "I am glad they are finally doing that. Someday everyone will look back on this period and say that the best thing that could happen was this showdown."

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