Noticeable change and large-scale development projects have occurred during the six years that have passed since the adoption of a 30-year master plan to redevelop Downtown Columbia.

The process of constructing office and retail space, new housing and pathway connectivity has been relatively straightforward, but one of the less clearly-defined aspects of the overall plan has been that of making the arts a more vibrant and significant part of the community. After all, the spectrum of options is vast and inclusive.

A new concept package centered in Downtown Columbia’s Crescent Neighborhood now aims to provide a live/work entertainment environment that provides affordable housing for artists who want to be close to the action.

Proposed by Orchard Development Corp., of Ellicott City, which has been working on the details together with the Howard County Housing Commission and the owners of Toby’s Dinner Theatre, the concept packs a lot of possibility into 2.8 acres.

The plans feature a new home for Toby’s Dinner Theatre, the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts (CCTA), the Howard County Arts Council and the Columbia Festival of the Arts. Amenities include two black box theaters, classrooms and studios, and a plaza for outdoor events.

“It’s going to be a whole cultural center for a whole county,” said Toby Orenstein, co-owner and artistic director of Toby’s Dinner Theatre. “We’re one of the few counties that [doesn’t] have a cultural center, and this will address that absence.”

Quick Change Artistry

As proposed by Orchard Development, construction would proceed in three phases. The first provides a new theater for Toby’s, which would continue operations in its existing space until Phase 1 construction is complete, as well as additional performing arts facilities.

The second phase would see the construction of a 705-space parking garage, and the final phase would provide a Visual Arts Center and 209 one- and two-bedroom apartments above the Cultural Arts Center.

“We envision that 100 of those units will offer a range of affordable housing options,” said Orchard Development’s Chairman and CEO Earl Armiger.

Orchard Development has already begun the 16-step approval process with a required pre-submission meeting, he said.

Pending approval, the project could break ground by next August, in time to tie in with Columbia’s 50th anniversary celebration.

“The total timeframe for all three phases of construction would take up to four years,” Armiger said. “It’s our desire to have the Howard County Arts Council located in the [Phase 3] building.”

The first phase could be complete within a year and open sometime in 2018.

In total, the Cultural Arts Center would provide approximately 123,000 square feet of space occupied by Toby’s, the Performing Arts Center and the Visual Arts Center.

Run by Orenstein and her board of directors, the nonprofit CCTA will occupy space in the Performing Arts Center. Its mission includes teaching theatrical arts to children in Howard County and the City of Baltimore; scholarships for children who want to attend a performing arts school; and the accommodation of special needs children in the arts.

“CCTA reaches somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 kids each year with their programs,” Armiger said. “They’ve never had their own facilities and have been renting space from schools, churches and Howard Community College. They’ve existed longer than Toby’s Dinner Theatre; this is the first time CCTA will actually have a home of their own.”

Affordable Component

According to Howard County Housing Commission Director Tom Carbo, it was Orenstein’s idea to incorporate a housing component including affordable artist flats.

“We’re also committed to her vision of providing the ability for artists and other people to be able to live in the midst of a downtown cultural center,” Carbo said. “It’s really going to be the gem of Downtown Columbia.”

Following project completion plans call for the Housing Commission to take ownership of the entire property and grant a long-term lease to the county and other tenants to operate the cultural facilities.

“Housing Commission ownership is a model we’ve used successfully in other parts of the county, such as our developments at Monarch Mills and Burgess Mill Station,” Carbo said. “We’re very excited that Orchard Development approached us with their commitment to include such a large affordable housing component, which is something they’re known for in this area.”

Creativity isn’t limited to just the arts focus of the concept package, but also enters into the financing aspects of the project.

“We’re studying various financing plans, including lease revenue bonds issued by the Housing Commission that would be offset by revenues generated by operations and backed by the county,” said Orchard Development Corp. President Scott Armiger.

The arts community will be pursuing grants of its own to assist with financing, he said.

“We’re also hopeful that a major capital campaign can raise between $20–$30 million within the community, to help make it a true community project,” Scott Armiger said.

Icon of the Arts

Now in its 35th season, Toby’s Dinner Theatre has been nominated more than 70 times for theatrical Helen Hayes awards (and won a handful as well).

“I’ve had dreams of renovating to provide our patrons with a showcase theater, but for one reason or another, they haven’t come to fruition,” Orenstein said. “Now it’s going to happen, and we’re going to have up-to-date technology, new bathrooms and more room in the actual theater. After 42 years [in the business], it’s going to be nice to have a proper home.”

Howard County is among the best counties in the country at addressing community needs, Earl Armiger said, delivering a first-class school system, a first-class library system and an enviable quality of life.

“What we don’t have is a first-class arts center, and we had to ask ourselves why,” he said.

“Our answer is an iconic building on a major entryway into Downtown Columbia from southbound Route 29 and across from the Inner Arbor; one that’s going to fit perfectly as far as exposure,” Earl Armiger said. “Howard County really needs a first-class Cultural Arts Center if it’s intent on continuing its presence in the performing arts and visual arts. We think it’s going to complement downtown redevelopment very well.”