The long-awaited concept plan for Symphony Woods was created by its owner, the Columbia Association (CA) last July, then submitted to Howard County planners. Then it was tweaked and submitted again last winter.
Today, with a few more refinements following input from The Howard Hughes Corp. (HHC), owner of the adjacent Merriweather Post Pavilion, the plan is being reviewed by county planners after a third submission.
Now, it’s hoped by the CA that, with the planner’s approval, the redesign will finally be passed on to the county’s planning board for final review and approval, and work on the section of the woods between Merriweather and The Mall in Columbia will begin next spring.
With CA is in a holding pattern while waiting for a response that is due by late April, reactions around The Town That Rouse Built are ranging from tempered enthusiasm to indifference and even frustration.
Jan Clark, landscape architect/project manager for the CA, is among the optimists concerning the approval of the plan for the 16.7-acre swath of the heavily wooded 40-acre property.
“That’s because the county’s planners were kind enough to meet with us several times when we were addressing their [several dozen] comments — and very importantly, since their prior review in December 2011. Later that month, we received the master plan from The Howard Hughes Corp. (HHC), which includes the concept of how Merriweather Post Pavilion might evolve.”
That was the information that planning and zoning desired, as it provided keener understanding of how Symphony Woods would integrate into long-discussed upgrades at the pavilion.
“Afterwards, we incorporated that information into our neighborhood concept plan. That is one item in the submittal to the county, along with the final development plan for the first phase of Symphony Woods, the neighborhood design guidelines and the neighborhood implementation document.
“We think we have the money for the first phase, which is estimated to cost $2.7 million,” she said, noting the CA board has approved capital funds for the project.
“All told, it’s a relatively simple plan,” said Clark. “Most people using it will be going to Merriweather. This first phase is intended to make Symphony Woods more inviting by providing walkways and giving it an ‘open park’ character, complete with an entrance plaza on Little Patuxent Parkway that includes about 35 additional parking spaces.”
All for One
“I’m very interested in hearing what people think would draw people to the park,” Clark said. “We see it, in part, as being for a neighborhood that is not yet built.
“People wonder who will go there,” she said, “but when development becomes denser in downtown, and HHC [the corporation’s vice president and director of engineering, Bob Jenkins, did not respond to requests for a quote] builds a multi-use path from Howard County General Hospital to Blandair Park, Symphony Woods will have more convenient access for pedestrians.”
Cy Paumier is also upbeat about the updated plan. “The main thing is that, until a month or so ago, there was no paper on the table about what HHC and Merriweather wanted to do,” said the ex-Rouse Co. employee, current CA consultant and long-time local land planner. “So, CA had no idea of how to participate in a collaborative effort.”
But now, CA has a plan that will be workable with whatever comes down from HHC, unlike the original plan from last July. “Merriweather and Symphony Woods need to complement each other and the plan needed to be unified,” Paumier said. “Now, it is.”
In addition to the CA plan update, Paumier also noted the separate plan for Merriweather, which further addresses the need for more parking and could also include a shared-use small outdoor amphitheater on CA land, in this case on the north end of Symphony Woods.
“This plan was suggested by I.M.P., the promoter for Merriweather, and HHC made the proposal,” he said. “It would be great for special events like the Capital Jazz Festival and Wine in the Woods.”
Michael Cornell, CA board chair, also sees the plan as an impressive step toward Columbia’s future.
“We’re presenting designs that will take what has been an underutilized asset and making it more of a year-round destination, more of a people’s park,” he said. “Long term, we know that there will be more commercial and residential construction going on around Symphony Woods.”
Other observers, however, are rather non-plussed about the endeavor, such as Mike Davis, senior partner with Davis, Agnor, Rapaport & Skalny and a member of the New City Alliance.
“I think there has been some progress, but to what end?” said Davis. “If Symphony Woods is to be the gateway to, or lobby for, Merriweather, as suggested on the CA web site and by Jan Clark, will that work? Remember, much of the current parking area is located on The Crescent, which is basically on the other side of the pavilion. Perhaps someday all the parking for Merriweather will be at the mall, but that’s someday … maybe.
“More to the point, should the role of Symphony Woods be to serve as the outdoor lobby for a for-profit organization like Merriweather? Maybe,” he said, “but this hardly matches the ideal of a Central Park for Columbia.”
In any case, Davis said, the proposed design is “just a whisper” of what it could be for a revamped Symphony Woods and for Columbia, Town Center. “As Jim Rouse might have said, it sure isn’t Tivoli Gardens like he envisioned. It’s just a park, a lobby for Merriweather.
“And, if it is built” as dictated by the new plan, he said, “people still won’t come, except on concert day.”
Not Quite Yet
Similar thoughts about the plan were offered by Davis’s colleague with the New City Alliance, Phil Engelke, who has spent 30 years designing various projects all over the world, notably for the architecture and design firm RTKL Associates.
Engelke didn’t think the plan was necessary at this point.
“I don’t think it’s time for it yet, because ‘there’s no ‘there’ there’ in Symphony Woods, to steal a quote from [author] Gertrude Stein,” he said. “I’ve been watching the plan unfold, and I feel that, until the plans for Merriweather and the Town Center are closer to being realized, the idea of creating a vibrant park is premature.”
He spoke of the importance of Merriweather providing the “real impetus” for the changes to Symphony Woods.
“That’s key,” he said. “What else in Columbia has a national reputation and draws 15,000 people to town? That’s your clue, and that’s even where the name ‘Symphony Woods’ came from,” noting that the venue was initially constructed with the National Symphony in mind.
“For a park to be great, you need people,” Engelke said. “People like to see other people.”
But for the moment, he spoke of another group of people, those who are discussing just what should happen in Symphony Woods.
“You have people here who want to save a tree, while others want to create an urban park,” he said. “I’m from Philadelphia and saw a great example of an urban park in Rittenhouse Square. I’ve been here for 30 years and I’ve haven’t seen one here yet; but my point is, the planners for Rittenhouse had a starting point and knew where they wanted to go.”
While he thinks the planning at Symphony Woods should continue, “I don’t understand the hurry,” Engelke said. “I can’t tell you what they want here in an urban park. All great parks are the result of a having a vision, as [Columbia’s developer] Jim Rouse had.
“But,” he said, “if you don’t have that vision at the moment, plant some more trees and wait.”