tl;dr: On the occasion of Michael McCall’s death I reflect on his signature achievements in Columbia, Maryland.
Two weeks ago I was distressed to learn of the death of Michael McCall. Although Michael was a long-time resident of Columbia, he was actively involved in Columbia and Howard County affairs for less than six years, from the fall of 2011 to the spring of 2017.
During that time he put forth a new vision for a park in Symphony Woods in downtown Columbia, reigniting excitement about the future of one of the signature places in the county. In his pursuit of that vision Michael left behind two tangible legacies, one architectural and one institutional: the striking green Chrysalis amphitheater that forms the centerpiece of the park, and the Inner Arbor Trust created to oversee the park’s future development.
Beginning in late 2013 I took a personal interest in Michael’s vision for Symphony Woods, and since then have written over a hundred thousand words on his “Inner Arbor” plan, and in particular on the design and construction of the Chrysalis. During those years I also had extensive correspondence with Michael, as he generously shared photos, plans, and other material relating to the Chrysalis and the park for use in my writing.
It was not unusual for me to publish an Inner Arbor- or Chryalis-related post and then shortly thereafter get a call from Michael offering additional information, or providing his own thoughts on how things were going. He also shared with me a fair amount of insider gossip about the various people and organizations involved with the Chrysalis and Inner Arbor plan to one degree or another. (Needless to say I left that material out of my writing, except in those cases where I could independently confirm it from public sources.)
Thus although I can’t provide a full account of Michael’s life and work, I feel more able than most to assess his legacy when it comes to Columbia.
Michael McCall, developer
In the title of this post I very deliberately referred to Michael as the “developer” of the Chrysalis, not as the “creator” or a similar term. In Howard County these days the word “developer” has become for many a slur, as they attribute most if not all of the county’s problems, ranging from school overcrowding to traffic congestion to flooding in Ellicott City, to “greedy developers” and their alleged quest to pave over the county in pursuit of profit.
But I think it’s appropriate to call Michael a developer, and I think he would have accepted the designation gladly. He was not responsible for the visual appearance of the Chrysalis, for the design of its structural steel backbone, for the creation of its green aluminum skin, or for the detailed architectural work needed to make it work for its users and visitors. Those responsibilities fell in turn to the New York-based designer Marc Fornes of THEVERYMANY, the international engineering consulting firm Arup, the A. Zahner Company of Kansas City, Missouri, and the Baltimore firm Living Design Lab, the architects of record.
What Michael did was everything else: creating an overall vision and strategy for Symphony Woods, selecting designers and architects for the various components of the Inner Arbor plan, working with and securing funding from various sources, including Howard County and the Columbia Association, taking the project through the Howard County design approval and planning process, overseeing and managing all of the various firms involved in design and construction, and in general working to see these activities through to the successful completion of the Chrysalis and its opening to the general public.
These are exactly the things that developers do. Michael himself started his career working with one of the most well-known and revered American developers, Jim Rouse, who was responsible for the creation and development of Columbia and then later founded the nonprofit Enterprise Foundation (now Enterprise Community Partners) to support the development of affordable housing across the country.
In 1982 Michael left his home state of Minnesota and moved to Columbia to join the Enterprise Development Company, the for-profit subsidiary of the Enterprise Foundation. He worked there for ten years before leaving in 1992 to found his own development consulting firm, Strategic Leisure. In that capacity he worked on a number of development projects across the US and elsewhere in the world—but never in Maryland, Howard County, or Columbia.
The Inner Arbor plan and the creation of the Chrysalis
Amost twenty years later Michael came to be involved with Symphony Woods, as the Columbia Association was encountering problems with county design and planning authorities in its attempt to develop a park—an attempt that came after decades of what can best be described as benign neglect of the woods on the part of CA and others.
Michael first appeared in the public record for Columbia with comments during the “Resident Speak Out” period at a Columbia Association board meeting on September 22, 2011. He agreed with the concerns about CA’s Symphony Woods plan expressed by the county’s Design Advisory Panel, and questioned the lack of an overall unifying strategy for developing the park.
Michael’s comments did not go unnoticed. Introduced by his mentor, George Barker, his former manager at the Enterprise Development Company, beginning in 2011 and continuing through 2012 he entered into a series of conversations with various people and entities involved in downtown Columbia development, including Howard County, the Howard Hughes Corporation, I.M.A. (operators of Merriweather Post Pavilion), and the Columbia Association itself.
The result of those conversations was a concept plan for what McCall called the “Inner Arbor” project (punning on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor festival marketplace, one of Jim Rouse’s most famous projects), intended to fulfill the vision expressed in the Howard County General Plan that Symphony Woods become “a new kind of cultural park, where the landscape becomes a setting for arts, cultural and civic uses”. That concept plan was adopted by the Columbia Association Board of Directors on January 24, 2013, as the board abandoned its previous plan for Symphony Woods in response to further hiccups in the Howard County planning process.
Soon afterward the Columbia Association board also decided to establish a separate organization, the Inner Arbor Trust, to implement the previously-adopted concept plan for Symphony Woods, under a perpetual easement from CA. On May 10 the Inner Arbor Trust officially came into existence, with Michael as its first President and CEO.
Things moved fairly quickly after that, at least in comparison to previous Symphony Woods plans. Michael spent the summer selecting a design team for the project, and in November presented the full design team, including designer Marc Fornes, in a public meeting held soon after the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Columbia. The end of the year saw the public presentation of plans for various park structures, including the Fornes-designed Chrysalis amphitheater.
The year 2014 saw the Inner Arbor Trust receive official 501(c) tax-exempt status (January), the Inner Arbor plan approved by the Howard County Design Advisory Panel (February), submittal to Howard County of a Site Development Plan, including final plans for the Chrysalis (May), and approval of that SDP by the Howard County Planning Board (November)—just ahead of a November 30 deadline set by the Columbia Association board.
After completing the easement agreement with the Columbia Association in December 2014, the first part of 2015 was taken up in securing further funding for the Chrysalis and negotiating additional legal agreements with various entities, including Howard Hughes Corporation and I.M.A. Actual construction activities for the Chrysalis began in earnest late in the year, after selection of Whiting-Turner as general contractor and A. Zahner Company as “design-build” contractor for the Chrysalis shell, and the official groundbreaking ceremony on September 22.
2016 saw the bulk of Chrysalis construction, including completion of the concrete “subfloor” (April and May), erection of the steel “skeleton” (completed in August), installation of the ZEPPS panels intended to support the aluminum “skin” (completed in October), and installation of the green skin panels themselves (completed in late 2016 or early 2017).
On April 22, 2017, the Chrysalis amphitheater, was officially dedicated and opened to the general public, and on May 1 Michael officially stepped down as President and CEO of the Inner Arbor Trust. (He was succeeded by Nina Basu, former general counsel of the Trust.) Michael went on to work on other development projects elsewhere, but his work in Columbia was done.
The institutional legacy
As noted above, Michael’s tangible legacy in Columbia can be divided into two parts: the Inner Arbor Trust and the Chrysalis amphitheater.
The creation of the Inner Arbor Trust resolved a long-standing problem, namely the relative inaction and inertia of the Columbia Association when it came to downtown Columbia in general and Symphony Woods in particular. Despite multiple attempts beginning in the 1990s to interest it in enhancing Symphony Woods as a community park for downtown, the CA board declined to take any action.
After the Columbia Association board did get around to proposing a plan for a Symphony Woods park, only to run into trouble with Howard County planning authorities, Michael provided them with both an alternative plan and an alternative way of getting that plan implemented, namely putting Symphony Woods development under the effective control of an independent nonprofit organization.
The success of that approach speaks for itself: in addition to successfully completing construction of the Chrysalis, under the continuing leadership of Nina Basu the Inner Arbor Trust has maintained and enhanced the park’s natural setting and has worked to attract visitors to the park, both through programming at the Chrysalis and such seemingly simple (but apparently never previously considered) steps as putting picnic tables in Symphony Woods.
The Trust has also continually evolved its plans for Symphony Woods to reflect budget and other realities (including in particular creating a revised concept plan), and in general has worked in conjunction with other stakeholders to enhance the overall appeal of the Merriweather-Symphony Woods neighborhood (as Howard County planning documents refer to it).
The architectural legacy
The Chrysalis is a beautiful and striking structure, to my mind the most distinctive piece of architecture in Howard County, surpassing Merriweather Post Pavilion and the former Rouse Company headquarters turned Whole Foods Market (both I think overrated in retrospect because of their association with Frank Gehry).
It’s also becoming a very useful one. I once had a local politician express concern to me that the Chrysalis might end up as a “green elephant”, but I think it’s safe to say that that will not be the case. That’s in large part due to the work of the Inner Arbor Trust in encouraging and hosting a wide variety of local programming, from yoga classes and kid’s activities to celebrations of the cultures of Howard County’s diverse population.
Although Merriweather Post Pavilion has traditionally been thought of as Columbia’s main cultural venue, its size makes it much more suited for nationally-known touring acts and other events drawing audiences from across the entire Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area. For events targeted at a more local or more niche audience the Chrysalis is a much more suitable venue, more intimate and approachable.
As a result the Chrysalis is well on its way to becoming a beloved local landmark, a gathering place for the entire community, and a symbol of the evolving downtown of Columbia.
The intangible legacy
Like Jim Rouse, Michael’s reach exceeded his grasp. Jim Rouse sought to create a “new American city”, a “garden for the growing of people”, but a poor US economy in the 1970s and overall trends in society left Columbia as just a somewhat more diverse example of a typical American suburban bedroom community.
Similarly Michael had a vision of an arts and culture park in Symphony Woods worthy of comparison with Millennium Park in Chicago or Tivoli Gardens in Denmark, featuring the work of a host of world-class architects, designers, and artists—a park that could attract visitors from across the metropolitan area and even from elsewhere on the Eastern seaboard.
That dream was not and likely will not be fulfilled. Howard County is one of the wealthiest counties in the United States. However it has neither the concentrated private wealth that has funded signature parks elsewhere in the US (for example, the new Barry Diller-funded Little Island park in New York City) nor the governmental budget capacity to make up for the lack of private funding—especially given more pressing problems like the COVID-19 pandemic and flooding in Ellicott City.
Mindful of such realities and preferring things as they are, many residents of Columbia and Howard County, and more than a few community activists and local politicians, have been content to honor Columbia’s past while accepting a diminished future for it, simply tending the embers of a dying legacy.
In his desire to “make no little plans” Michael refused to believe that the best days of Columbia were behind it. He promoted a vision for Symphony Woods that could inspire a new generation, and in the Inner Arbor Trust and the Chrysalis gave us the first fruits of that vision. We can best honor his memory by keeping that vision in mind, and carrying on the work of creating a new park for Symphony Woods that he so determinedly began.
For further exploration
This article is based on material from my “Creating the Chrysalis” series, including in particular the post on Michael’s vision and strategy for Symphony Woods park development, and the post containing a complete timeline of events relating to the Chrysalis and Symphony Woods.
For more of my opinions on and explanations of various aspects of the Chrysalis and the development of Symphony Woods, see the Inner Arbor-related posts in the series “The Inner Arbor plan takes shape” and elsewhere on this blog. Note that some of these posts contain outdated information relating to park features that were later dropped or revised; for the very latest plans for the park see the article “A new plan for Symphony Woods”.
For more on Michael’s life and work see the Strategic Leisure web site. The Chrysalis and Merriweather Park page in particular has a lot of interesting material on how Michael himself saw his work in Symphony Woods.