New cultural center on tap for Columbia

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Robert Friedman

Columbia’s proposed new Cultural Center, still in the planning stages, is shown in this artist’s rendering. The center would offer new and expanded space for Toby’s Dinner Theatre, the Columbia Festival of the Arts, the Howard County Arts Council, and the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts, which runs a theater education program for children.
Photo courtesy of Orchard Development

“Finally, we will have what just about every other county around us has,” said Toby Orenstein — owner, operator, producer and director of Toby’s Dinner Theatre.

What Columbia could soon have is a cultural center where the performing and visual arts would be showcased under one roof.

 The center is being proposed for the site where Toby’s Dinner Theatre is now located, on Symphony Woods Road in the Crescent area. The Crescent neighborhood is set for a massive redevelopment that will revitalize downtown Columbia.

The cultural center on 2.7 acres will be “sort of a crown jewel” for the redeveloped downtown Columbia, said Scott Armiger, president of Orchard Development Corp. which is proposing the project.

“This will be a one-of-a kind center,” said Orenstein, who noted that plans also call for 200 one- and two-bedroom apartments there, mostly for artists and people involved in the arts. Half will be offered as affordable housing, and half will rent at market rate. Orenstein is the one who proposed the affordable living spaces.

Project may take four years

Completion of the entire project could be four years off, but Orenstein said if all goes well, her new theater space should be ready in less than two years. Until then, her current theater will remain open. She owns the land where the projected arts center site would be located.

Besides Toby’s, several of the county’s leading art organizations — including the Columbia Festival of the Arts, the Howard County Arts Council, and the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts — would move into the proposed $130 million facility.

The center’s 123,000 square feet will house theater space, large and small, for performing and visual arts, studios for artists, and a cafĂ©, along with the apartments and a parking garage for more than 700 vehicles.

The project is scheduled to get underway in August 2017. In the first of several approval steps, the planners are awaiting a decision from the Howard County Housing Commission, which would own the property and offer long-term leases.

Howard County press secretary Andy Barth said a decision about the county’s involvement will be made soon.

“The administration is committed to encourage the growth and vitality of downtown Columbia with a vibrant and inclusive arts district,” Barth told the Beacon. “We look forward to joining with members of the arts community to support specific plans in the near future,” he said.

Theater school would relocate

For Orenstein — who recently won a Tony honorable mention for Excellence in Theater Education for the longtime children’s theater education program she runs through the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts (CCTA) — a major role for the center would be as a new home for the school, which teaches the theatrical arts to students and students with special needs.

Finding theater space for performances has always been a problem, Orenstein said. “I’ve been looking for many, many years for a children’s theater,” said Orenstein, who feels her major accomplishment has been as an educator of children.

“We have had to do performances in many places. I don’t know how many times we’ve gone to Wolf Trap in Virginia. Now we will have our own home. I’m very excited about that.”

Orenstein, who started CCTA in 1974 at the request of Columbia founder Jim Rouse, said that the visionary planner saw a school that taught the arts through theater as part of his ideal city.

Howard County Housing Commission Director Tom Carbo told Business Monthly that the proposed Commission ownership, if it comes to pass, “is a model we’ve used successfully in other parts of the county — such as our developments at Monarch Mills and Burgess Mill Station.

“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.”

Orchard President Armiger said various financial plans were being studied, “including lease revenue bonds issued by the Housing Commission that would be offset by revenues generated by operations and backed by the county.”

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 and $30 million within the community to help make it a true community project,” Armiger said.