Parking and the future of Merriweather Post Pavilion

The future of Symphony Woods and the Inner Arbor plan is tied up with the future of Merriweather Post Pavilion. So what of Merriweather’s future? The past weeks have seen a brewing battle over Merriweather between the Howard County government (more specifically, County Executive Ken Ulman) and the Howard Hughes Corporation. For the complete rundown see Luke Lavoie’s ongoing coverage in the Baltimore Sun, as Ulman first verbally admonished Howard Hughes over the pace of renovations to Merriweather, then proposed legislation expediting transfer of Merriweather to the nonprofit Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission (a move that was envisioned in the original Downtown Columbia plan [PDF]). In response, according to an article by Kevin Litten in the Baltimore Business Journal, John DeWolf of Howard Hughes claimed Ulman had “blindsided” them, and floated the idea of Howard Hughes pulling out of Columbia entirely.

I have no inside knowledge of this whole affair, but I presume that private discussions between the county and Howard Hughes didn’t bear fruit, so that negotiations are now being conducted via press release and lawsuit. I also have no firm opinion as to which side has the better case, so I’ll refrain from commenting on the merits of their respective positions, leaving that to Bill Woodcock and others.

Merriweather Post Pavilion and surroundings. The two circles show areas within a quarter mile and half mile of the pavilion. Click for high-resolution version.

Merriweather Post Pavilion and surroundings. The two circles show areas within a quarter-mile and half-mile of the pavilion. Click for high-resolution version.

My concern in this post is much more mundane, namely the future of parking at Merriweather Post Pavilion. If you check out people’s opinions about Merriweather Post Pavilion on Yelp there are three things that stand out. First, they like the wooded setting. Not surprising, that’s why all the future plans proposed for the Merriweather area have envisioned preserving the natural character of Symphony Woods. Second, a lot of people don’t like the bathrooms. Again, not surprising; I guess that’s one reason why both the county and Howard Hughes agree on the need for renovating Merriweather (even as they disagree on the estimated cost).

Finally, people like the ease of access to Merriweather Post Pavilion and the ease of parking. As one person noted, “[Merriweather] is easy to get to off Rt. 29, and the parking is simple, free and relatively good in terms of easy in, easy out.” Another person expanded on this:

There is also parking right on site in a big lot out back, and though we waited to leave until after the performance was fully over, we still got out of there in a completely reasonable amount of time. To be honest, we were impressed with how efficiently the parking lot exodus was that night.

You can see that “big lot out back” in the above aerial view of Merriweather Post Pavilion and the surrounding area; it’s the open area immediately to the south of Symphony Woods Road, to the south of the pavilion and the southern portion of Symphony Woods. Note that it’s less than a quarter-mile from that lot to the stage of the pavilion, say a five-minute walk or so.

But let’s suppose that Merriweather gets renovated and secures a renewed lease on life. Let’s also suppose that development of the Crescent area surrounding Merriweather on the west and south proceeds along the lines proposed by the Howard Hughes Corporation. The “big lot out back” currently used for Merriweather parking is not part of Symphony Woods itself, nor is it part of the Merriweather property that is proposed to be turned over to the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission. Rather it’s part of the so-called Crescent Area 3 proposed to be developed by Howard Hughes, and per the downtown Columbia plan could eventually be the site of buildings up to 15 to 20 stories tall. At the point when construction starts in earnest in Area 3 (which could be as early as 2015 or 2016) Merriweather is going to experience a severe parking crunch assuming nothing else is done.

What to do about parking at Merriweather? This is by no means a new concern. Almost ten years ago (during the Jim Robey administration) the Citizens Advisory Panel on Merriweather Post Pavilion (established to look at a possible county purchase of Merriweather) had this to say in the executive summary of their final report [PDF]1:

A major concern of the Panel is the expected loss of approximately 4,600 on-site parking spaces when [General Growth Properties, the predecessor to Howard Hughes] develops the adjacent “Crescent” property on which most of that parking is located. The panel recommends that the County replace those spaces by formalizing the use of existing spaces at the GGP office buildings along the north side of Little Patuxent Parkway and the southern portion of the Mall parking near Merriweather; by constructing a parking garage on nearby property owned by the Columbia Association; or by constructing a parking garage jointly with GGP at the Columbia Mall. Another possible solution could be presented if the Crescent parcel is developed as a mixed-use project such that up to 2,000 vehicles could be accommodated for evening events as part of the eventual build-out of the property.

The panel went on to say:

Failure to formalize the available parking agreement with GGP would jeopardize the County’s ability to lease out Merriweather to an operator and would severely limit the long-term viability. Without solving the parking capacity issue, the County should not proceed with the purchase of Merriweather.

How much parking is needed? The panel report estimated that at least 3,700 parking spaces would be needed for a typical 10,000 person show at Merriweather (assuming 2.7 people per space), while the largest Merriweather events at 19,000 people would require at least 7,000 spaces.

Where will this parking come from? It’s worth noting that the panel report was somewhat pessimistic about gaining access to parking spaces at The Mall in Columbia (and in any case, note that most of those spaces are more than a quarter mile from Merriweather). They believed that approximately 3,700 spaces could be cobbled together using parking easements at various existing GGP office properties around Symphony Woods and at the Columbia lakefront (e.g., at the American City Building). They also recommended construction of an up-to-2,500-car parking garage on CA property in Symphony Woods. Finally they looked to the Crescent development to provide even more parking, as noted in the quote above.

How does this match up with current plans for the Crescent area and Symphony Woods? According to the recent Baltimore Sun article on the Crescent Area plans, the entire Crescent development (including Areas 1, 2, and 3) might contain up to 4,360 spaces. On the face of it this seems like enough spaces to replace those lost to development.

However there are a couple of potential problems: First, using the per-area breakdown listed in the Baltimore Sun article (500 spaces for Area 1, 600 spaces for Area 2, and 1,200-1,900 spaces for Area 3) the total parking provided in the first phase of development will be only 2,300-3,000 spaces, well short of the 4,360 figure claimed for the full development and not nearly enough to replace the current spaces that will be lost as soon as construction in the Cresecent area begins. Finally, it’s not clear how many of these spaces, whether in the first phase or later, might be made available for use by Merriweather patrons, or under what terms.

What about other sources of parking? Recall that the original Merriweather advisory panel suggested constructing a parking garage in Symphony Woods on Columbia Association property. That idea reappeared in the original CA Inner Arbor concept presentation, though scaled down somewhat to a 1,750-car facility (in conjunction with a transit center). If constructed this garage would likely be sufficient to handle visitors to Inner Arbor facilities such as the Chrysalis amphitheatre, as well as to any future cultural facilities proposed for Symphony Woods itself, such as a replacement for the current Toby’s Dinner Theatre. However it comes nowhere close to satisfying all of Merriweather’s parking requirements. The associated transit center could help reduce the parking requirements, for example via a shuttle bus system that could allow people to park at more remote locations. However that would require further agreements with other organizations like Howard Community College, and it’s not clear at this time how popular and effective such a service might actually be.

It’s also possible that future parking easements could be secured for the various office buildings around the mall and along Little Patuxent Parkway (as also recommended by the Merriweather advisory panel). However note that the task of gaining easements is more complicated than previously because ownership of those buildings is now split between Howard Hughes (which owns 70 Corporate Center and the American City Building, among others) and GGP (which retained ownership of 10 Corporate Center through 60 Corporate Center).

Where does that leave us? The short answer is that regardless of whether and when ownership of Merriweather Post Pavilion itself is transferred to the Downtown Arts and Culture Commission, the pavilion has no future unless the parking problem is addressed. In turn the Merriweather parking problem can be completely addressed only with the cooperation of Howard Hughes Corporation, regardless of whether or not Howard Hughes actually ends up developing the Crescent property. Parking thus serves as a potential bargaining chip for Howard Hughes in its dispute with Howard County, just as issuance of building permits is a bargaining chip for the county.

In the end realizing people’s dreams for a vital and vibrant downtown Columbia depends on the cooperation of many different players, including not only Howard County and Howard Hughes, but also the Columbia Association, the Inner Arbor Trust, GGP and other property owners, and those private organizations and individuals who can help provide the financing to turn paper plans into attractive built and natural environments. As I wrote above, I have no idea who is “right” in the dispute between Howard County and the Howard Hughes Corporation, and in some sense the idea of either side being “right” or not is beside the point. I simply hope the county and Howard Hughes can find a mutually acceptable resolution to their differences, and that as downtown Columbia evolves both residents and visitors alike can enjoy visits to Merriweather Post Pavilion and Symphony Woods without having major problems just trying to park.


1. The whole report is worth reading; it contains a wealth of information relating to Merriweather Post Pavilion, much of which is still relevant and likely to be echoed in the Merriweather studies currently being commissioned by Howard County and Howard Hughes respectively.