Creating the Chrysalis: Politics and process

43 minute read

Participants in the groundbreaking for the Chrysalis

Participants in the Chrysalis groundbreaking ceremony, representing the various entities involved in Merriweather-Symphony Woods development. From left to right: It's My Amphitheater President Brad Canfield and General Manager Jean Parker (operators of Merriweather Post Pavilion), the Downtown Arts and Culture Commission Acting Executive Director Ian Kennedy, Maryland State Delegate Clarence Lam, Inner Arbor Trust Chair Martin Knott, Howard Hughes Vice President of Development Greg Fitchitt, Howard County Council Member Greg Fox, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, Inner Arbor Trust President and CEO Michael McCall, Howard County Council Chair Mary Kay Sigaty, Columbia Festival of the Arts Executive Director Todd Olson, Columbia Association President and CEO Milton Matthews, Howard County Council Member Jon Weinstein, and Howard County Council Member Dr. Calvin Ball. Click for a higher-resolution version. Image © 2015 Inner Arbor Trust; used with permission.

tl;dr: I discuss the various institutional activities related to implementation of the Inner Arbor plan, with a focus on the Columbia Association, the Inner Arbor Trust, and the Howard County government, including its planning process.

This article is one in a series exploring in depth the creation of the Chrysalis amphitheater in Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods in Columbia, Maryland. For the complete list of articles please see the introduction to the series.

The previous article in this series described the vision and strategy for creating a new park in Symphony Woods according to the Inner Arbor plan. This article picks up where the first article in the series left off, describing the process that led to the Columbia Association’s adopting the Inner Arbor plan and creating the Inner Arbor Trust as an independent organization to implement it, along with the history of the Inner Arbor Trust and related events up to the present.

Organizations and their roles

As in the previous events relating to downtown Columbia development in general and Symphony Woods in particular, multiple organizations played a role in this history in addition to the Inner Arbor Trust itself:

  • The Columbia Association was at the center of the story, at least initially, due to its ownership of the Symphony Woods, its plan in progress for developing a park on that property, and its creation of and ongoing relationship with the Inner Arbor Trust.
  • The Howard County government served variously as a promoter of downtown Columbia development (both formally through the Downtown Columbia Plan and informally in various ways), the regulator of such development (through the Department of Planning and Zoning, the Planning Board, and the Design Advisory Panel), a funder of Symphony Woods development (through the County Executive and County Council), and a future user of park features (through the Department of Parks and Recreation and its sponsorship of the Wine in the Woods festival).
  • The Howard Hughes Corporation had by this time assumed the role previously filled by General Growth Properties (and before GGP the Rouse Company) as the owner of Merriweather Post Pavilion, situated within and surrounded by Symphony Woods. Howard Hughes and It’s My Amphitheater, Inc. (the operators of the pavilion) played key roles in promoting integration of Symphony Woods development with redevelopment of Merriweather Post Pavilion. They were joined by the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, the county-created nonprofit organization slated to take over ownership of the pavilion property from Howard Hughes.
  • Other players included the state of Maryland (which had previously provided a grant to CA for Symphony Woods development) and the Columbia Festival of the Arts (a future user of park features).

2012: Rethinking

As of the fall of 2012 the Columbia Association was faced with a decision on what to do about Symphony Woods development. Although the Howard County Planning Board1 had nominally approved the CA-created Final Development Plan for Symphony Woods Park (FDP-DC-MSW-1, based on the so-called “Paumier plan”), the Planning Board had attached recommendations to that approval that in practice required a major rethink of the original plan.

At that point after two years of work the Columbia Association had a diagram for a pathway system and a concept design for a fountain, but no detailed designs for other park features. CA was in the position of having to make significant changes to its existing design prior to taking them to the next stage of the county planning process (i.e., in the form of a Site Development Plan), as well as having to flesh out those parts of the design yet unfinished. Besides the impact on CA staff, the financial stakes were also high since the costs of preparing and implementing an SDP would be considerably greater than those incurred for the FDP.

The Columbia Association had been urged for some time to coordinate its plans with those being created by the Howard Hughes Corporation. The previous April Howard Hughes had recommended that CA look at a new concept plan being created by Michael McCall for the Merriweather-Symphony Woods neighborhood. This advice was apparently being echoed by others.2

The CA board considers alternatives

On October 5, 2012, Columbia Association President and CEO Phil Nelson recommended that the CA board devote time in its first October meeting to discussing various questions relating to Symphony Woods development, including the possibility of partnering on Symphony Woods development with another organization, and of revising the Symphony Woods plan to take into account planned redevelopment of Merriweather Post Pavilion.

On October 11 the Columbia Association Board of Directors held a work session at which Phil Nelson discussed options for Symphony Woods development and the CA board took a number of straw polls on how to move forward. Those board members present (all except Cynthia Coyle) expressed unanimous support for the idea of forming a separate organization to develop Symphony Woods. Although the work session was public, no one spoke during the Resident Speak Out portion of the meeting—in fact no one from the general public attended the board meeting at all (according to a later recollection by board member Andy Stack).

Thus the possibility that the Columbia Association might change its strategy for Symphony Woods development, as well as the behind-the-scenes work to create a new concept plan, went unnoticed and unremarked for the most part, as the CA board devoted its meetings to other topics the rest of the year.

2013: Creating

That period of relative quiet ended in late January 2013 with the public unveiling of the Inner Arbor concept plan created by Michael McCall of Strategic Leisure. (See the previous article in this series for an in-depth discussion of this concept plan.)

Implementing the Inner Arbor plan via a separate organization

After the Columbia Association released information on the concept plan on January 18, at the January 24 CA board meeting CA President Phil Nelson presented several recommendations to the board:

  • That the Columbia Association adopt the Inner Arbor concept plan as the overall framework to guide future development of Symphony Woods as a whole.
  • That CA adopt Symphony Woods as the preferred location for a new CA headquarters. This proposal had been discussed back in 2005, and was included in the Inner Arbor concept plan as a suggestion for the eastern part of Symphony Woods.
  • That the CA board instruct CA management to establish a separate “Trust” to carry out development of Symphony Woods on behalf of CA.3
  • That CA enter into a perpetual easement agreement providing the trust organization the necessary rights to carry out development according to the Inner Arbor concept plan.
  • That CA transfer to the trust organization funds that CA had allocated for Symphony Woods development in its current and future budgets.

Nelson also noted that, per the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning, development of the northern section of Symphony Woods could proceed according to the already-approved Final Development Plan. (As previously discussed, the northern section of Symphony Woods encompassed the “public park” envisioned in the Inner Arbor concept plan, as distinguished from the “performance park” and “curated park” in the eastern and southern sections. The approved FDP incorporated not only a pathway system but also various proposed park elements in addition to a fountain, including an amphitheater, café, play area, and public art.)

On January 31 Michael McCall presented the Inner Arbor concept plan at a public meeting sponsored by the Columbia Association. On February 7 CA President Phil Nelson sent a memo to the CA board with an expanded and refined set of recommendations, proposing that CA

  • adopt the Inner Arbor concept plan;
  • create a separate nonprofit organization that could qualify for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status as the vehicle to carry out the plan;
  • negotiate a perpetual easement on the Symphony Woods property with the new organization; and
  • provide initial funding of $1.6 million to the new organization (representing CA’s already budgeted amount for Symphony Woods development).

Nelson subsequently sent a revised memo to the Columbia Association Board of Directors on February 13, formalizing the recommendations made in the February 7 memo in preparation for the board’s consideration of them.

On February 14 the Columbia Association Board of Directors voted 8-2 to accept Nelson’s recommendations and move forward with the creation of a separate “Symphony Woods Trust”. Voting in favor were Regina Clay, Ed Coleman, Tom Coale, Michael Cornell, Gregg Schwind, Andy Stack, Suzanne Waller, and Shari Zaret; voting against were Cynthia Coyle and Alex Hekimian.

Inner Arbor supporters and opponents

However this overwhelming approval by the Columbia Association Board of Directors did not end the dispute over CA’s change in direction regarding Symphony Woods development. The ensuing controversy in some ways mirrored the previous controversy in 2005 over General Growth Properties’s proposed master plan for downtown Columbia.

Several opponents of the previous GGP plan, including former CA board members Barbara Russell and Russ Swatek and community activist Alan Klein of the Coalition for Columbia’s Downtown, argued against the Inner Arbor concept plan for its proposal to put buildings in Symphony Woods, and also charged that the process of adopting the plan did not reflect adequate time for public input and discussion. They were joined in their opposition by Cy Paumier and some of his associates, who lobbied the CA board both privately and publicly for retention of the prior plan for Symphony Woods Park that they had created.

Beyond the Columbia Association Board of Directors itself, strong Inner Arbor plan supporters first and foremost included county elected officials, with Howard County Executive Ken Ulman making a public statement in support of the concept plan when it was first unveiled. Howard County Council members Calvin Ball and Mary Kay Sigaty followed up with a public letter referring to it as a “bold vision” in line with the Downtown Columbia Plan’s vision of a “cultural park where the landscape becomes a setting for arts, cultural and civic uses”, and County Council member Jen Terrasa argued in another public letter that the plan “invites the community back and creates a heart for Columbia right in Symphony Woods”. Other expressions of support came from people and organizations previously promoting downtown Columbia development, including George Barker of Bring Back the Vision, Brian Dunn of Columbia 2.0, Phil Engelke of the New City Alliance, and Ian Kennedy of Awesome Columbia, as well as from various local bloggers, including Dennis Lane, Julia McCready, and Bill Woodcock, and (last but not least) from the editorial board of the Baltimore Sun.

The Columbia Association Board of Directors election on April 20, although marked by typical low turnout,4 was seen by some as a referendum on the Inner Arbor plan. Plan opponent Russ Swatek and the relatively neutral Nancy McCord defeated plan proponents Ed Coleman and Regina Clay. However although reduced the pro-Inner Arbor plan majority on the CA board remained intact, with at least six of ten board members counted as clear supporters.

(In June later that year Tom Coale, one of the highest-profile champions of the Inner Arbor plan, resigned from the Columbia Association Board of Directors in order to run for the Maryland House of Delegates seat in District 9B. He was replaced by Tom O’Connor, also a supporter of the Inner Arbor plan. Thus the relative balance between supporters and opponents on the CA board remained unchanged.)

Creating the Inner Arbor Trust and ensuring its independence

Meanwhile creation of the separate trust organization proceeded as previously approved by the Columbia Association Board of Directors back in February. On April 26 lawyers representing CA incorporated the new organization in Maryland as the Inner Arbor Trust, Inc., “to promote and support the revitalization of the Merriweather-Symphony Woods Neighborhood” in a manner compatible with IRS regulations relating to 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status. On May 10 the Inner Arbor Trust Board of Directors first met and adopted a set of bylaws.

As originally envisioned by the Columbia Association Board of Directors, and as specified in the articles of incorporation, the Inner Arbor Trust had a five-member board, with two members being elected from the CA board and the CA President being a third member. On March 28 the CA board elected Ed Coleman and Gregg Schwind to be its representatives on the Inner Arbor Trust board, with CA President Phil Nelson also taking a Trust board seat by virtue of his position as CA’s President and CEO. (The first at-large Trust board members were Deborah Ellinghaus and Kent Humphries.)

However one of the first actions of the Inner Arbor Trust Board of Directors, taken at its initial meeting, was to expand the board from five members to seven, including four independent directors not associated with the Columbia Association. According to CA General Counsel Sheri Faranoff this was motivated by a need to show that the Inner Arbor Trust board was independent of and not controlled by the CA board in order to make a case to the IRS for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status.5 At the May 10 meeting this change was approved unanimously by the Inner Arbor Trust board, including the CA-associated board members, and reflected in the bylaws as signed and dated May 13.

The Inner Arbor Trust Board of Directors then proceeded to elect two new members not associated with the Columbia Association, Gill Wylie and Beverly White-Seals. White-Seals, a former attorney for the Rouse Company, was also appointed Secretary for the Trust. Ed Coleman remained on the Trust board despite losing his CA board seat only a few weeks before, as the CA board did not appoint a new representative to take his place. Finally at its second meeting on May 30 the Trust selected as its Treasurer Rafia Siddiqui, the former Chief Financial Officer of the Columbia Association.

Once created the Inner Arbor Trust turned to the various tasks before it—negotiating an easement with the Columbia Association, applying for IRS 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, acquiring funding, and refining the Inner Arbor plan—under the direction of Michael McCall, who had been appointed President and CEO of the Inner Arbor Trust, and whose firm Strategic Leisure, Inc., had been retained by the Inner Arbor Trust to provide support for Trust activities.

Howard County funding of the Inner Arbor project

May 2013 also saw the Howard County Council—via an amendment by Council member Mary Kay Sigaty with the support of Howard County Executive Ken Ulman—unanimously appropriate up to $3.5 million in the FY14 budget for “planning, design, engineering, and construction costs for an amphitheater located in Symphony Woods”. This was on top of the previous commitment by CA to provide $1.6 million in initial funding for the Inner Arbor Trust. (An initial $450,000 of this commitment was paid by CA to the Trust prior to July 31.)

Designing the public park

During the summer of 2013 the Inner Arbor Trust began selection of design firms and architects for the various proposed park features. On September 20, as part of a presentation to Leadership Howard County, Michael McCall announced the selection of Martha Schwartz Partners as landscape designers and artists and Baltimore firm Mahan Rykiel Associates as the landscape architect of record, along with the Burtonsville firm Gutschick, Little & Weber as the civil engineers. (Mahan Rykiel and GLW had previously been involved with the work leading to the Final Development Plan.)

Two months later, on November 18, Michael McCall introduced the full design team (dubbed by him the “Designers of Delight”), adding THEVERYMANY (Marc Fornes), nArchitects (Mimi Hoang and Eric Bunge), and Arup (represented by Raj Patel) to Martha Schwartz Partners (represented by Martha Schwartz) and Mahan Rykiel Associates (represented by Scott Rykiel).

The Inner Arbor Trust closed 2013 with three important milestones:

First, on December 2 the Trust made its first public presentation of its plan for the northern “public park” portion of Symphony Woods, including the Chrysalis amphitheater, Butterfly guest services building, Caterpillar sculptural berm (embodying the “Art of Bounds” theme), and other park features. This presentation marked the “pre-submission meeting” stage of the Howard County planning process prior to submittal of a formal Site Development Plan. The meeting featured presentations from all members of the design team, as well as a presentation by Biohabitats, the firm hired by the Inner Arbor Trust to assist with environmental issues, including stream restoration.

The easement agreement between CA and the Inner Arbor Trust

Second, on December 11, 2013, the Inner Arbor Trust reached an agreement with the Columbia Association for a perpetual easement for the 37 acres of Symphony Woods, as well as for an additional 15 acres of open space in the Crescent property to be donated to CA in future by the Howard Hughes Corporation. The easement grant was split into multiple phases:

Phase 1 included the “public park” portion of Symphony Woods outlined in the concept plan, along with additional acreage adjacent to Merriweather Post Pavilion to the east, south, and west. (The inclusion of this additional land would prove critical in later dealings of the Inner Arbor Trust with the Howard Hughes Corporation.) Phase 2 roughly corresponded to the “performance park” portion of the concept plan, phase 3 to the “curated park” portion, and phase 4 to the future Crescent acreage from Howard Hughes. (The easement agreement was subsequently revised on March 14, 2014, to include a thin strip of land along Little Patuxent Parkway—part of so-called “Lot 9B”—that had been inadvertently left off the original agreement.)

The easement agreement granted the Inner Arbor Trust an extensive set of rights, including rights to construct park features (including taking proposed features through the county planning process), to operate park features and hold park events (and realize revenue from such), and to enter into a broad range of legal agreements with third parties, including agreements supporting integration of the park with Merriweather Post Pavilion.

The Inner Arbor Trust did not immediately acquire that full set of rights for all four easement areas. The Columbia Association granted the full set of specified rights for the Phase 1 easement area upon the signing of the agreement. However granting of full rights outlined in the agreement for the other three easement areas—including in particular the rights to construct and operate new park features—was made contingent on the Trust completing construction of the Chrysalis amphitheater (which the agreement referenced under the name “Treehouse Stage” used in the concept plan) or another designated park feature in the Phase 1 easement area, as well as on other events unique to each phase.

Granting of full rights specified in the agreement for the Phase 2 easement area was also made contingent on “substantial completion” of the pathway system in the Phase 1 easement area, as well as on progression through step 9 of the county planning process (including approval of a Final Development Plan) for a structure in the Phase 2 easement area, as part of the “performance park” portion of the concept plan.

For Phase 3 granting of full rights under the agreement was also made contingent on the Inner Arbor Trust having sufficient funding to create and submit a Final Development Plan for a sculpture garden or botanical garden in the Phase 3 easement area as part of the “curated park” portion of the concept plan. Finally, granting of full rights for the Phase 4 easement area was also made contingent on the actual transfer of the Phase 4 acreage from Howard Hughes to the Columbia Association.

Although the phases were numbered sequentially, Phases 2 through 4 were in fact made independent of each other: Once the Inner Arbor Trust had completed the Chrysalis or other designated park feature in the Phase 1 easement area, granting the Trust the full rights specified in the agreement in any other easement area was dependent only on the requirement(s) for that particular area. (Thus, for example, the Trust could acquire full rights under the easement agreement for the open space transferred to the Columbia Association by the Howard Hughes Corporation prior to any work being done on the “performance park” or “curated park” portions of the concept plan.)

Permitted uses under the easement agreement were specified as those for “arts, cultural and civic purposes as broadly illustrated by the Concept Plan”, including performances, arts and cultural attractions, sculpture and art installations, gardens, various park features (including picnic areas and fountains), construction and operation of buildings to support the permitted uses, food and beverage sales, and temporary retail operations (e.g., for festivals).

The first Howard County grant agreement

Finally, on December 18 the Inner Arbor Trust entered into a grant agreement with Howard County under which the county agreed to provide funding in support of the design and construction of the Chrysalis amphitheater, as previously approved by the County Council in May. The first grant under this agreement was in the sum of $300,000, and supplemented the $1.6 million of committed CA funding. (In fulfillment of this commitment CA made a second payment of $450,000 prior to January 31, 2014.)

2014: Planning

The main theme of 2014 was the steady progression of the Inner Arbor plan through the Howard County planning process over organized opposition, including from some Columbia Association board members. For the Inner Arbor Trust this was in fact a race against time to meet key deadlines in the perpetual easement agreement signed with CA the previous December.

Deadlines for the Inner Arbor Trust

The first deadline met was actually the one that was furthest in the future, namely the achievement of 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status. The easement agreement required this to be done by June 30, 2015, but it was actually accomplished on January 31, 2014, just over a month after the signing of the agreement. This was the first step in enabling the Inner Arbor Trust to more actively raise funds from donors for whom the tax deductibility of donations was important. (Under Maryland law the Trust could not actively solicit donations until it was certified by the state. This did not occur until October 22 later that year.)

However the easement agreement with the Columbia Association also required the Inner Arbor Trust to submit a Site Development Plan for the “Phase 1 easement area” (the northern section of Symphony Woods) by April 30, 2014, and to obtain county approval for that plan by November 30 of the same year. If it failed to meet one of these deadlines then the Trust would have to go back to CA to obtain an extension. If it could not obtain an extension then the Trust would risk being deemed in violation of the easement agreement.

Review by the Design Advisory Panel

The Inner Arbor Trust started the formal planning process on February 4, 2014 when it submitted a complete Inner Arbor design to the county for consideration by the Howard County Design Advisory Panel.6 This design formalized the park design presented the previous December and addressed the recommendations made by the Planning Board in its approval of the Final Development Plan previously submitted by the Columbia Association (FDP-DC-MSW-1).

The design as submitted contained two relatively minor revisions to the plan presented in December. The first was the addition of the Merriground, a play area for children. Such a play area was originally envisioned in the Final Development Plan, and in the first Inner Arbor plan was in the form of a “play maze” located across Little Patuxent Parkway relatively close to the entrance drive to The Mall in Columbia. The Merriground replaced this concept with a more “sculptural” set of features located further to the east of the northern section of Symphony Woods, in the location of the “iconic sculpture” originally envisioned by the Inner Arbor concept plan.

The other new feature was the Merriweather Horns, a set of sound sculptures designed by local artist William Cochran for the four proposed park entrances and along the park’s pathways. The Merriweather Horns replaced the Word Art and Letter Garden features in the plan presented in December, and were proposed as the public art component of the park as envisioned in the Final Developmemt Plan.

On February 26 Michael McCall of the Inner Arbor Trust and various members of the design team took the Howard County Design Advisory Panel through a 236-slide presentation covering all aspects of the park and the proposed park features. The presentation went very well: The Design Advisory Panel voted unanimously in favor of the plan, raising only a relatively minor concern about the width of some of the pathways, and individual panel members were enthusiastic in their praise of the plan.

Opposition on the CA board

Meanwhile, as the Inner Arbor Trust prepared for the next step in the planning process opponents of the Inner Arbor plan stepped up their activities. During the previous year the changed composition of the Columbia Association Board of Directors had had relatively little effect on its relations with the Inner Arbor Trust. (The CA board had limited itself mainly to consideration of the easement negotiated with the Inner Arbor Trust, and a revision of the CA conflict of interest policy to clarify that it did not preclude CA board members from serving on the board of the Inner Arbor Trust.)

That period of relative quiet ended in the spring of 2014. The first issue to gain traction related to the name of the park: In its submissions to the county planning process the Inner Arbor Trust used the new name “Merriweather Park” (instead of the previous “Symphony Woods Park”) to emphasize the integration with Merriweather Post Pavilion and leverage public recognition of the “Merriweather̦” name.

Various members of the Columbia Association Board of Directors objected to the Inner Arbor Trust dropping the use of “Symphony Woods”, and on March 13 the CA board voted unanimously to formally request of the Inner Arbor Trust that the name “Symphony Woods” be retained. Later that spring the Inner Arbor Trust attempted to address this controversy by renaming the project “Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods” (similar to the strategy the Baltimore Orioles followed in naming their new stadium “Orioles Park at Camden Yards”).

More serious in its implications for the Inner Arbor project was the April 26 election of the Columbia Association Board of Directors. As they were in 2013, opponents of the Inner Arbor plan were successful in electing new CA board members in another relatively low turnout election.7 Plan opponents Jeanne Ketley and Alan Klein won in contested elections against incumbent board member Suzanne Waller and new candidate Bob Fontaine (both plan supporters). Plan opponent Alex Hekimian announced his intent not to run just prior to the filing deadline and was replaced by Reg Avery, who was allegedly recruited by Hekimian and ran unopposed.

Although he was a supporter of the Inner Arbor plan, re-elected incumbent Gregg Schwind, one of the Columbia Association’s representatives on the Inner Arbor Trust Board of Directors, expressed concern about public reception of the plan and indicated his willingness to consider “reworking” it. Finally, just prior to the election the CA board finally replaced Ed Coleman (defeated the previous year in the CA board election) as one of the CA representatives on the Trust board, in a 6-3 vote selecting Nancy McCord (who was relatively neutral in her public statements on the Inner Arbor plan) over Inner Arbor supporter Michael Cornell.

Meeting the SDP deadline

In the midst of all this controversy the Inner Arbor Trust met a second key deadline, as it submitted a 83-sheet Site Development Plan (SDP-14-073) to the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning on April 28, only two days before the April 30 deadline set by the easement agreement with the Columbia Association.

More Howard County funding for the Inner Arbor project

In further good news for the Inner Arbor Trust, Howard County continued its financial support of the Inner Arbor project, with the County Council on May 21 appropriating an additional $1.5 million for Chrysalis construction and related activities in the county’s FY15 budget (Council Bill 24-2014), as requested by County Executive Ken Ulman. (The $1.5 million was in the form of a challenge grant requiring the Trust to provide matching funds, although at the time the Trust was not yet authorized to solicit donations.)

The CA board’s endorsement of the Inner Arbor plan

However opposition to the Inner Arbor project from some Columbia Association board members continued. The primary strategy by which Inner Arbor opponents pursued their goal was a claim that the Trust had violated the terms of the previously-negotiated easement agreement for Symphony Woods by making “material changes” to the Inner Arbor concept plan.8 After discussing the easement issue in public meetings on May 27 and 28, in its June 12 meeting the Columbia Association Board of Directors narrowly approved by a 5-4 vote a last-minute agenda change to formally consider whether an easement violation had occurred. However the actual motion to hold the Inner Arbor Trust in violation failed on a 3-7 vote, with only Reg Avery, Alan Klein, and Russ Swatek voting in favor.

One question raised in connection with the easement controversy was whether or not the Columbia Association needed to, or at least should, formally approve the Inner Arbor plan in its current form (i.e., beyond the concept plan referenced in the easement agreement). At the July 10 CA board meeting the board considered this question, with Michael McCall of the Inner Arbor Trust present to answer questions posed by the CA board. After discussion the CA board voted 6-4 to endorse the Inner Arbor plan as submitted in the Site Development Plan, with Nancy McCord joining previous Inner Arbor supporters Michael Cornell, Brian Dunn, Tom O’Connor, Andy Stack, and Gregg Schwind in the majority, and Reg Avery, Jeanne Ketley, Alan Klein, and Russ Swatek on the losing side of the vote.

Meanwhile the Columbia Association had completed its original commitment to fund the Inner Arbor Trust: CA paid the Trust an additional $510,000 in the spring of 2014, for a total of $1,410,000 up to that point. The final $190,000 came from what was left of the $250,000 grant that the state of Maryland had made to CA for the original Symphony Woods Park project. ($60,000 of that money had already spent on design work for that project.) On June 18 the state approved CA reassigning the remaining $190,000 to the Inner Arbor Trust.

After the July 10 endorsement of Inner Arbor project by the Columbia Association Board of Directors the CA board transitioned into a role of providing oversight of the Inner Arbor Trust, for example through joint board meetings with the Trust on October 8 and subsequent dates. CA did not commit any further funding to the Inner Arbor Trust once the original $1.6 million commitment was satisfied.9

Review by the Planning Board

Instead the focus shifted again to the Howard County planning process, as the Inner Arbor Trust went before the Planning Board10 in November 2014 to request approval of SDP-14-073, the Site Development Plan for Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods, with the clock ticking toward the November 30 deadline specified in the easement agreement with the Columbia Association.

The Planning Board first held a meeting to consider the Site Development Plan on November 6 but held off making a decision that night. Partly this was to allow more time for the many people who wanted to testify for and against the plan. In the end over forty people spoke about the plan, with opponents outnumbered 2-1 by supporters, who included new Columbia Association President and CEO Milton Matthews (who had replaced Phil Nelson in June) and Howard County Council Chair Mary Kay Sigaty (who referred to the plan as “an exceptional design” and urged the Planning Board to “vote it with enthusiasm”). Many others submitted written testimony, with County Council members Calvin Ball, Greg Fox, and Jen Terrasa writing in support of the plan along with Council member-elect Jon Weinstein.

The Planning Board also held up its deliberations to address concerns raised by the Howard County Citizens Association about allowing adequate time after publication of the Department of Planning and Zoning Technical Staff Report on SDP-14-073. Final consideration was postponed to two weeks later, for the last meeting of the Planning Board in November.

At the November 20 meeting, only ten days before the easement agreement’s deadline, the Planning Board rendered its decision, voting unanimously to approve the Site Development Plan. As requested by the Inner Arbor Trust the Planning Board’s decision encompassed not only the first two phases of park development, namely constructing the Chrysalis amphitheater and a pathway system, but the remaining five phases as well, including all other park features proposed in the revised Inner Arbor plan for the northern part of Symphony Woods. Phases 1 and 2 were approved without further conditions, while phases 3-7 were approved subject to further review and approval of final design details by the Department of Planning and Zoning and the Planning Board prior to beginning construction.

Speaking about his own decision, Planning Board Chair Josh Tzuker thanked Inner Arbor opponents Cy Paumier, Barbara Russell, and others for their roles in the creation of the community of Columbia—“probably the second most influential thing in my life [after my parents]”—but noted that “We’re on a precipice. … It’s time for something new and fresh.” In comparing Columbia to other Washington-Baltimore suburban communities “competing to create a cosmopolitan cultural center”, Tzuker noted that “We have Merriweather—that’s what sets us apart. … Merriweather is going to be this cultural touchstone that I think will bring people to Columbia.” He concluded by stating that the Site Development Plan submitted by the Inner Arbor Trust met the Planning Board’s criteria for Merriweather-Symphony Woods development, and that the board set the criteria the way it did because it wanted to promote a “holistic” vision of downtown Columbia—“the vision we all wanted to see”.

The county’s approval of the Site Development Plan meant that the Inner Arbor Trust had met all three of the key deadlines in the easement agreement with the Columbia Association. The Trust thus ended 2014 free to move forward with the project of developing Symphony Woods according to the Inner Arbor plan.

2015: Building

With the Howard County Planning Board having approved the Site Development Plan for Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods, in 2015 the Inner Arbor Trust began the work of realizing that plan, both in terms of building the actual foundation for the Chrysalis amphitheater and also in terms of strengthening the organizational foundation for the Trust moving forward. A great deal of that work involved solidifying the Inner Arbor Trust’s relationships with the other entities involved in Merriweather-Symphony Woods development, in pursuit of tighter integration between the Symphony Woods and Merriweather Post Pavilion properties.

The I.M.A. agreement

On March 6, 2015, the Inner Arbor Trust entered into a long-term agreement with It’s My Amphitheater, Inc., the operators of Merriweather Post Pavilion. This agreement provided for an ongoing stream of payments from I.M.A. to the Trust for the use of Symphony Woods for Merriweather Post Pavilion events, amounting to a total of $1.7 million in Trust revenue for the first ten years of the agreement. (This $1.7 million was counted by Howard County as satisfying the matching requirement associated with the $1.5 million grant in 2014.) The agreement also provided for the use of public areas of the Merriweather Post Pavilion by park visitors during times when no events were being held there, in line with the theme of “operational elasticity” promoted by Michael McCall in his original Inner Arbor presentations.

On April 15 the Inner Arbor Trust Board of Directors assumed its present form as Dave Sciamarelli was elected to replace Paul Monteiro, who had in turn succeeded original board member Beverly White-Seals. The next-newest board member, Karen Newell, had previously been elected on August 7, 2014, to replace Deborah Ellinghaus. This left Gregg Schwind and Gill Wylie as the longest-serving Inner Arbor Trust board members, both having been on the board since the first board meeting on May 10, 2013.

Meanwhile on April 25 the Columbia Association again held an election for its Board of Directors. While still present, the controversies over the Inner Arbor plan were more muted in this election than in prior ones. Inner Arbor opponent Dick Boulton replaced supporter Tom O’Connor, Inner Arbor supporter Ed Coleman (running for an open seat) was defeated by Janet Evans, and Dr. Chao Wu replaced Inner Arbor supporter Michael Cornell, who did not run again. On May 14 the CA board selected Dick Boulton to replace Nancy McCord as one of CA’s representatives on the Inner Arbor Trust, with Gregg Schwind again selected for that role as well.

Continuation of Howard County funding

In May Howard County continued its financial support of the Inner Arbor Trust, as County Executive Alan Kittleman proposed, and the Howard County Council approved, $1.395 million of additional funding for the Trust as part of the FY16 budget. (The relevant legislation, Council Bill 23-2015, was introduced May 4, approved May 22, and signed into law June 1.) With this additional funding the county increased its support of Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods and the Chrysalis amphitheater to a total of $6.395 million, almost four times the funding contributed by the Columbia Association. (The relevant grant agreement was signed later that year on September 18, the third consecutive agreement between Howard County and the Inner Arbor Trust.)

The Howard Hughes agreements

On May 27, 2015, the Inner Arbor Trust continued its activities relating to integration with Merriweather Post Pavilion by entering into a reciprocal easement agreement with Howard Hughes Corporation subsidiaries Merriweather Post Business Trust and Howard Research and Development. This agreement provided for the Trust and Howard Hughes to coordinate activities relating to development of land and facilities intended for joint use between Merriweather Post Pavilion and Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods, as envisioned by the downtown Columbia plan and the design guidelines for the Merriweather-Symphony Woods neighborhood.

(This agreement was made possible only because the Trust already had an easement from the Columbia Association for the land adjacent to Merriweather Post Pavilion on which the joint uses would occur. That adjacent acreage had been included in the Phase 1 easement area in the Trust’s previous easement agreement with CA.)

The next day, May 28, the Inner Arbor Trust appointed Nina Basu as its first General Counsel—a reflection of the increasing number of legal agreements the Trust was entering into and the increased amount of legal activity associated with the upcoming park construction and related activities. The Trust also appointed a new Treasurer, Kirsten Coombs. (Coombs replaced previous Treasurer Noreen Qureshi, who in turn had replaced Rafia Siddiqui, the Trust’s original Treasurer.)

On September 1 the Inner Arbor Trust entered into a trademark license agreement with Howard Hughes Corporation subsidiary Merriweather Post Business Trust. This agreement allowed the Trust the perpetual royalty-free use of the word mark “Merriweather” in connection with the naming and marketing of Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods. The Trust could thus leverage not only the existing broad public recognition of the Merriweather name, but also future marketing efforts by Howard Hughes in support of its own development activities in what it had taken to calling the “Merriweather District”.

Further integration with Merriweather Post Pavilion

On September 3, 2015, the Howard County Planning Board unanimously approved a new Final Development Plan, FDP-DC-MSW-1A, a revision of the Final Development Plan FDP-DC-MSW-1 originally submitted by the Columbia Association for Symphony Woods Park. While FDP-DC-MSW-1 covered only a 16-acre portion of Symphony Woods (the “public park” envisioned in the Inner Arbor concept plan), FDP-DC-MSW-1A covered a total of 35 acres including the entire Merriweather Post Pavilion property as well as additional portions of Symphony Woods comprising the “performance park” of the Inner Arbor concept plan. (The concept plan’s “curated park” in southern Symphony Woods—the proposed location for a sculpture garden—was not addressed by FDP-DC-MSW-1A.)

Specific changes in FDP-DC-MSW-1A included an increase in the height limit for the Merriweather Post Pavilion stagehouse, provision of ADA-compliant parking spaces, and a shared-use restroom in Symphony Woods. However FDP-DC-MSW-1A was equally significant for marking a new level of formal coordination in Merriweather-Symphony Woods planning among the various parties responsible for the properties, and even tighter integration between Merriweather Post Pavilion renovation projects and the development of Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods. (FDP-DC-MSW-1A was followed up in December by SDP-16-018, a Site Development Plan for renovations to both properties.) Finally, FDP-DC-MSW-1A replaced the original CA-submitted Final Development Plan (FDP-DC-MSW-1) and eliminated any lingering consistencies between that plan and the subsequent Site Development Plan SDP-14-073 approved by the Planning Board.

Together these and other relationships among the various organizations involved in downtown Columbia development formed the basis for a new identity for downtown, with Merriweather Post Pavilion at the center, Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods surrounding it, and both within a newly-named Merriweather District combining the Merriweather-Symphony Woods and Crescent neighborhoods—all within the context of the broader Columbia planned community.

Breaking ground on the Chrysalis

This heightened level of cooperation was celebrated on September 12, 2015, at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Chrysalis amphitheater, which featured representation from all the major players involved in the creation of Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods, including the Inner Arbor Trust, the Columbia Association, Howard County Executive Alan Kittleman and members of the Howard County Council, the Howard Hughes Corporation, I.M.A., the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, and the state of Maryland.

Also represented was the Columbia Festival of the Arts, whose executive director Todd Olson publicly announced the festival’s intent to host future performances at the Chrysalis amphitheater when completed—moving from the previous venue at the lakefront, Columbia’s traditional downtown, to the heart of Columbia’s future downtown. Finally, the ceremony featured participation by the Howard County Public School System, in the form of a student team from Oakland Mills High School that used the Minecraft world-building software to create a virtual model of the Chrysalis amphitheater and other planned features in Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods.

The beginning of Chrysalis construction

The months after the groundbreaking saw the plans for Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods started to be realized, as Whiting-Turner (the construction contractor selected by the Inner Arbor Trust) began the work of preparing the Chrysalis site. Appropriately enough, given the past controversies over tree preservation in Symphony Woods, Whiting-Turner’s first task was to carefully prune tree roots in areas to be excavated and place mats to protect critical root zones. Subsequent weeks saw the laying of water lines, construction of an underground cistern to control storm water runoff, and the beginnings of the foundation for the Chrysalis amphitheater.

As 2015 ended the visible evidence of the Chrysalis amphitheater’s presence was still below ground. 2016 will see the Chrysalis rise above the surface of Symphony Woods. Future articles in this series will describe the people and organizations bringing the Chrysalis to life and how their work will contribute to the final structure and the park surrounding it.

Organizational relationships in Merriweather development

Diagram of the legal agreements and other relationships among the various organizations involved in development of Merriweather Post Pavilion, Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods, and the overall Merriweather District (combining the Merriweather-Symphony Woods and Crescent neighborhoods). Items in red were not finalized as of the end of 2015; in particular the Inner Arbor Trust had received building permits for grading the Chrysalis site and for constructing its foundation, but had not yet received a third permit for the Chrysalis structure itself. Click for a higher-resolution version. Image © 2015 Inner Arbor Trust; used with permission.

For further exploration

This article is based on material from a variety of online sources, including the following:

For more of my opinions on and explanations of various aspects of the Chrysalis and Merriweather Park at 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.)


  1. The Howard County Planning Board was established to “make recommendations to the County Council and the Zoning Board on all matters relating to: The Planning and Zoning of the County, the adoption and amendment of regulations regarding the Planning and Zoning of the County, and amendments to the zoning map or zoning regulations.” (See Sec. 16.900 of the Howard County Code of Ordinances.) As of September 2012 the members of the Planning Board were Jacqueline Easley, Dave Grabowski, Bill Santos, Josh Tzuker, and Paul Yelder.

  2. For example, an August 17, 2012, memo from Columbia Association staff member Jan Clark to the CA board noted of the plan proposed by Howard Hughes that “This concept (a.k.a., the ‘McCall Plan’) has the support of most community leaders …”

  3. The term “Trust” referenced in Nelson’s recommendations, and later in the name “Inner Arbor Trust”, was used in the same sense as with respect to organizations like the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, the Hudson River Park Trust, and the Trust for the National Mall: to denote a nonprofit organization with 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status chartered to develop, enhance, and/or maintain properties held by others.

  4. For various reasons only a subset of Columbia residents are eligible to vote in CA elections, and only a small subset of those bother to do so. For example, in the 2013 elections Nancy McCord defeated Regina Clay by a margin of 12 votes with a total turnout of 362 people.

  5. The Columbia Association adopted a similar strategy in setting up an independent nonprofit organization, Columbia 50th Birthday Celebration, Inc., to coordinate activities relating to the 50th anniversary of the founding of Columbia.

  6. The Design Advisory Panel was created by Howard County in 2008 to (among other things) “Provide expert advice for Downtown Columbia Revitalization to … the Planning Board regarding the consistency of the site development plans submitted for approval in the Downtown Columbia Revitalization process to the neighborhood design guidelines.” (See Sec. 16.1500 of the Howard County Code of Ordinances.) Its members are required to be “professional[s] in architecture, civil engineering, landscape architecture, urban planning, or a related field.” As of February 2014 the members of the Design Advisory Panel were Hank Alinger, Phyllis Cook, Mohammad Saleem, Phil Engelke, Rob Hollis, Don Taylor, and Peggy White. Of these all but Engelke and Saleem were present at the meeting at which the Merriweather Park SDP was reviewed and unanimously endorsed.

  7. In the closest of the 2014 elections (in which Alan Klein defeated Bob Fontaine) the outcome was decided by a margin of 17 votes with a total turnout of 375 people.

  8. To be more specific, the claim that “material changes” were made rested primarily on the distinction between the original Inner Arbor concept plan, included as an attachment to the easement agreement, and the Site Development Plan submitted to Howard County, which reflected the elaboration of the concept plan in accordance with the Final Development Plan previously submitted by CA.

  9. The Columbia Association’s decision to no longer fund the Inner Arbor project also resulted in CA having a decreased ability to oversee the project or impose its own conditions on the project tied to CA funding. For example, the original grant agreement between CA and the Trust required the Trust to provide quarterly financial reports to CA; that obligation went away once the grant agreement ended.

  10. As of November 2014 the members of the Planning Board were Jacqueline Easley, Phil Engelke, Erica Roberts, Bill Santos, and Josh Tzuker.