A dozen years ago, Columbia’s Merriweather Post Pavilion was practically left for (figuratively) dead. The once-proud venue suffered from aging grounds and facilities, lackadaisical promotion and a decided lack of vitality.
A large hole in the chain link fence by the old barn — which provided much easier entry than jumping the fence for the more daring concertgoers — seemed indicative of its issues.
Then came the financial and emotional investment of a new promoter, I.M.P.’s Seth Hurwitz, a swell of community support and the eventual agreement of the Howard Hughes Corp. (HHC) to make Merriweather a cornerstone of Downtown Columbia’s much, much discussed master plan.
Today, Downtown is happening. The pedestrian plaza and stores at The Mall in Columbia, Whole Foods, the Haven on the Lake and the Metropolitan are early signs of the rebirth, and the first dig toward making adjacent Symphony Woods part of the show is coming next month.
And while it took several years (and eventually, some coercion) from former County Executive Ken Ulman for HHC to move forward with the pavilion upgrades, the west grounds project represents just the first phase.
After the recent Sweetlife Festival, it’s definitely not time to raise the volume at Merriweather — which recently breezed in at No. 3 on the USA Today/10 Best list of outdoor music venues — but it’s getting toward time to raise the roof.
After Phase One
The $6.5 million first phase of the renovation to Merriweather encompasses a box office, merchandise/retail and a small concession stand that are up and operating, with the large snack bar and rest rooms slated for completion later this summer.
This upcoming off-season is when HHC and the venue’s staff are hoping to start the second phase of the total five-year, $30 million project with the renovation of the stage house, backstage, the dressing rooms and other amenities during the upcoming offseason.
Scheduled for fall 2016 is the game changer: The hydraulic raising of the roof by 20 feet, which will allow Hurwitz to book shows that have bypassed Merriweather, plus a new seating bowl with cross aisles that will move from side to side, unlike the current top-to-bottom setup. Also, parts of the small concrete walls that separate the loges from the center of the pavilion will be removed.
“We’re hoping to maintain the same number of seats in the bowl, which is about 5,000,” said Brad Canfield, the pavilion’s director of operations.
Next, the whole property would be upgraded to meet Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines to the point that fans with physical challenges can move in a circle all the way around the pavilion and the lawn. An elevator would be added to the south plaza, as well.
Upgrades to the ticket offices and rest rooms on the east side of the venue are also slated for the end of the project.
Canfield added that Merriweather is also preparing to unveil “a massive, long-term parking plan” by the end of the year.
Noise That Annoyed
The physical upgrades at Merriweather aren’t the only news. There were numerous complaints from neighborhoods as far away as Ellicott City during the Sweetlife Festival, which was held the last weekend in May, about noise that went above the normal level for the pavilion — reaching a reported 74 decibels at a downtown apartment building.
Lisa de Hernandez, public information officer for the Howard County Health Department, said that the management of Merriweather “was cited for two violations and paid $500 for each.”
“We think the level at the Sweetlife Festival was an anomaly,” de Hernandez said. “The weather can be a contributor, and there was low cloud cover and some wind that weekend.”
She added that, for this season, the decibel level can remain at 72.5 up to one-quarter-mile off the pavilion property until 11 p.m. Performers can also play past 11 p.m. if they drop the decibel level to 55.
The Capital Jazz Festival was held the weekend of June 5, and the Vans Warped Tour, a rock show with multiple stages, was held at Merriweather on July 18, and, “Oddly enough,” de Hernandez said, “there were no complaints either time.”
Canfield, noting that the pavilion has already installed new line array speakers that are “incredibly focused,” said the noise issue can be further addressed when the roof is raised. “Now, the sound is being shot straight out at the back of the lawn, which is the same height as the back of the roof. But after we raise the roof, we’ll be able to angle the speakers down, so the sound won’t travel nearly as far.”
This problem is not unusual, said Nick Colleran, vice president of Acoustics First, in Richmond, Va. “The soundwaves that the rap groups use are in the range of 64 feet long, which means longer distances per cycle; whereas voice mid-range is in the range of 13 inches per cycle, and can vary with the weather.
“You can’t block a bass wave with anything shorter than its wavelength. So, in other words, you have to turn it down to filter it out,” Colleran said. “At an outdoor venue, it’s hard to control the bass. The direction of the speakers doesn’t matter.”
Canfield says that pavilion staff is working with several other firms to help mitigate the sound propagation from the property.
Another solution Colleran suggested was establishing a cutoff point (or a filter) on the public address system. “As long as the artist can feel the bass, the audience doesn’t have to hear it so much. The audience will think they hear it, though.”
At any rate, Hurwitz said that he and the pavilion’s staff will work with “whomever necessary” to improve the sound levels outside of the amphitheater, “even though they are within the legal limits.”
He’s excited about the future and booking shows that Merriweather can’t accommodate now, but will in the coming years. “There are productions out there right now that just don’t fit today, and we’re gonna solve that problem. We’ve missed some big shows for that reason only,” he said. “We have lots of plans for backstage, too.”
Hurwitz said that, overall, he’s “very happy with this season and the shows that we’re presenting,” adding, “People would be surprised to find out what events we’ve turned down. I think local music fans expect us to curate, to a degree.”
On the other side of the pavilion’s fence, Michael McCall, president and CEO of the Inner Arbor Trust, said that the groundbreaking for the first phase of the $6.4 million Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods project, the Chrysalis, “will take place in September. It’s slated to open next summer, about where the purple stage is set up” during Wine in the Woods.
Of late, a model of the Chrysalis has been in wind tunnel testing in London. Next, a metal fabricator will interpret the ensuing information to construct its canopy after a local company builds the foundation.
“Our agreements with I.M.A. (It’s My Amphitheatre, a division of I.M.P.) in March and the Howard Hughes Corp in May crystallized the agreements we had to build the park,” said McCall, adding that the project will include new rest rooms that Merriweather will build on the Symphony Woods side of the property line. They will be used during events at the pavilion and available otherwise to the public.
An Exciting Time
McCall knows that considerable tasks lie ahead, but compared to the long negotiations and delays it took to garner the agreements to facilitate the move toward the future, they don’t seem as tough.
“We have a lot of work to do, but we’re doing it,” said McCall, who added that the Inner Arbor Trust has signed a reciprocal easement agreement with HHC to share parking on both sides of the pavilion, “since we share a major perimeter.
“What I feel really good about, way beyond the park,” he said, “is that Columbia is hitting on all cylinders with everything that Howard Hughes, Merriweather, Columbia Association, Howard County, et al., are doing.
“We’re on the move,” McCall said. “I think 2015 will be remembered as an inflection point in the history of Columbia.”