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(Enlarge) Columbia Association board member Russ Swatek, of Long Reach, shows Thomas Dragovich, 5, of Dorsey's Search, around Symphony Woods Saturday morning. Columbia Association members and planners for the development of Symphony Woods into a park held a question-and-answer session and conducted a walking tour of the proposed plan. (Staff photo by Drew Anthony Smith)

Light, food and water are the key elements needed to draw residents to downtown Columbia's Symphony Woods, according to Columbia Association planners.

But according to the company pitching a broader redevelopment of Columbia's Town Center, some critical components are missing from CA's plan: connecting Symphony Woods to Merriweather Post Pavilion, the concert venue that sits at the woods' core, and making sure that the woods is not just a "fair-weather destination."

Under a plan unveiled by CA last week, the 38-acre, CA-owned woods would become a park with a fountain-type water display and a small café surrounded by paved pathways. The woods' dense canopy would be thinned in certain areas to provide for "pockets" of sunlight, according to planners.

In addition, the park would have a more visible entry plaza off Little Patuxent Parkway, a woodland garden with crushed stone pathways, a children's play area with sculptures, rest rooms and a 150-space parking lot, according to plans presented by designers Cy Paumier and John Slater at a community meeting Sept. 16.

"It's the magnet that brings the people," Slater said. "You've got the food; you've got the water; you've got the play equipment; you've got the art. This place comes alive and it will really be exciting.

"It really is a marketing tool for the town and it's a beautiful way to bring people in."

The success of both Symphony Woods and Merriweather is dependent on their owners -- the Columbia Association and General Growth Properties, respectively -- bringing down the figurative "Berlin Wall" that now separates the two properties, said Gregory Hamm, General Growth's vice president of master planned communities.

"In order to meet the objectives the community wants for Merriweather and a vibrant, active downtown, there's a requirement of cooperation between all the property owners," Hamm said.

CA and General Growth have met to discuss their plans over the past few months and both groups have pledged to continue discussions.

Focus on Symphony Woods

CA has been planning the park renovations for about a year. Focus on the future of Symphony Woods intensified in recent years as the future of Columbia's Town Center as a whole has been in the spotlight. General Growth, the majority landowner in downtown, has submitted a 30-year master plan to remake Town Center with additional housing, retail, and walkways and upgrades to Merriweather.

The GGP plan is under review by the county, which must approve it. The bulk of CA's plan for Symphony Woods does not need county approval.

General Growth has proposed additions to Symphony Woods, suggesting the woods and Merriweather should become a "cultural park" with attractions like a new "experience" library, a museum, children's theater, and a new CA headquarters. The company's plan for the Merriweather/Symphony Woods area would limit building heights to four stories and plant up to 15,000 new trees while removing invasive species.

However, GGP's notion of adding buildings to Symphony Woods along Little Patuxent Parkway has not been embraced by CA officials.

"We love the idea of cultural arts in Town Center, but it ended up taking 10-plus acres of Symphony Woods," Slater said of the General Growth plan.

Hamm said his company's proposals for Symphony Woods were intended as possibilities to further the master plan's goals of creating a vibrant, walkable downtown.

"We were never saying, 'It's this way or no way'," he said. "These are concepts intended to draw attention to the lack of connectivity and the need for environmental restoration at Symphony Woods."

Still, he argued that Symphony Woods and Merriweather would both be better off if the two were better linked.

"Somehow, we need to get that connection," he said.

Hamm added that he believes Symphony Woods should not solely be a "fair-weather destination."

"Symphony Woods should be a place that comes to life 365 days a year," he said. "It's not clear to me how (CA's) plan would achieve that."

Phase 1: Walkways, benches

The first phase of the project, which CA Board of Directors chairman Philip Kirsch said the board hopes to begin in the next year, would include the walkways, benches and park infrastructure.

Later phases, which officials hope to fund through partnerships, would bring in the fountain, café and other features.

The entire plan would likely take four to five years to complete, depending on the availability of funding, he said.

Columbia Association officials will host a walking tour outlining the park plans at Symphony Woods Sept. 26 from 10:30 a.m. to noon.

About 80 people attended the association's presentation last week and gave the plan mixed -- though mostly positive -- reviews.

Several people expressed concern about keeping the park from looking overly manicured, and not decimating the canopy. "It is called Symphony Woods, it should still look like a woods," one person commented.

Planners responded that CA has committed to replacing each tree taken down in the park with at least one tree elsewhere on CA open space.

Town Center resident Teri Garstecki, who moved to Columbia about a year ago, told planners the park needs to be more accessible to pedestrians and better connected to its surroundings in downtown.

After the meeting, Garstecki said that, as a new resident, she was unaware for months if Symphony Woods was private property or open to the public.

She said she liked the plan. "I think it's really beautiful. ... If you make it easy for the parents to pack up the stroller, they'll come."

Alan Klein, of the community group Coalition for Columbia's Downtown, called the plan "gorgeous."

"It's exactly what should be there," he said, adding that he thinks CA's plan is in sync with General Growth's goals for downtown. "Now there will be an obvious entryway (to Symphony Woods). It's going to make it more walkable, more vibrant, more livable."

However, another community activist, Jud Malone, of the group Columbia Tomorrow, said he thought CA's plan largely ignores the adjacent properties owned by General Growth, which he thinks hurts both.

"It doesn't even begin to incorporate Merriweather," Malone, a former CA board member, said of the CA plan. "It needs to be a joint plan, but I'm not seeing that yet."

user comments (2)

user commonsenseplease says...

The plan IS beautiful, but I still don't see anything that will make me want to go there. Where's all this vibrancy I keep hearing about?

user phyl says...

Whose woods these are, CA should know, They trim the trees and plow the snow. The residents have little say, As once again they spend our dough. Jim Rouse would shake his head today To see what goes on at CA Nobody seems to have the guts To question this big HOA. Their legal stand could drive you nuts, Filled with old rules - if, ands or buts. A high court could just set us straight, If CA’s rule just drives you nuts. I wonder if the Woods' real fate Will be CA’s Symphony-Gate, You know it never is too late To vote and then INCORPORATE.

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