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Debate Rages Around Inner Arbor Plan for Symphony Woods

The plan is being hailed by supporters as a major achievement, but blasted by critics for a lack of specifics.

The Inner Arbor Plan to develop Symphony Woods is being closely examined as Columbia Association's Board of Directors moves closer to voting on it, possibly as soon as their Feb. 14 meeting.

The new plan is being hailed by CA and county officials as a bold step that could make Symphony Woods an iconic city park.

But specifics about the plan, such as cost and detailed design plans, have not been discussed by CA, which notes the plan is still in a conceptual stage.

The conceptual plan inclues an Arts Village, which its designer, Michael McCall of Strategic Leisure, said would contain a new CA headquarters with underground theaters below it, a space for restaurants and fast food, a public meeting house, and a raised pathway connecting it to a proposed parking garage. In the northern section of the park, the designs call for a raised tree canopy walkway, an iconic sculpture and a wooded amphitheater.

The plan is already undergoing significant public scrutiny in letters to the editor on Explore Howard and in the comments sections on Columbia Patch articles about it.

"The project is grandiose and will be enjoyed by people all over the area," wrote Barry Blyveis in a comment on Patch. "Isn't this the kind of project that the country or state should be paying for?"

Cy Paumier, an urban planner who previously worked for the Rouse Company, wrote in a letter to Explore Howard that he suspected the plan would cost between $45 milliion and $50 million. 

"The parking garage, the 600-foot bridge between the garage and the hillside site and the elevated park walk are public investments that the county and the Columbia Association should commit to building before the Arts Village plan is approved," wrote Paumier.

When contacted by Patch for an explanation, Paumier, who helped design Town Center for the Rouse Company, said that number was based using his lowest estimates for the parking garage, elevated walkway and buildings.

CA has not stated how much the Inner Arbor Plan will cost, only that it plans to raise funds for it over time through a 501(c)(3) trust that will allow it to accept contributions from individuals and companies that CA isn't legally allowed to accept.

When asked if the $45 millon to $50 million price is accurate, CA's spokesperson David Greisman reiterated that CA does not know how much the plan will cost yet.

"For CA to possibly go ahead and approve a plan without having a cost estimate is absolutely foolish," said Paumier, who added he had designed dozens of parks in his career and "never got away without putting a cost estimate on something."

Paumier along with a team of designers and architects were responsibe for designing the original development plan for Symphony Woods which included a central fountain, a small cafe and a network of paths.

CA spent a total of $272,000 developing the original pathway plan, according to David Greisman, CA's spokesperson.

Tom Coale, a CA Board member who has been a public advocate for the plan, wrote on his blog that CA has severed ties with Paumier, who was working for the organization as a consultant and that his editorial was "filled with inaccuracies."

Greisman confirmed CA's contractual relationship with Paumier expired and that it's their policy to not comment on personnel matters.

Paumier said, "There's no sour grapes in our group" about not using their plan for the Woods, but he said he couldn't believe that CA president Phil Nelson or the CA's Board would support a plan so scarce on details.

He said he doubted people or businesses would be willing to contribute to a parking garage or an elevated walkway, but that he does believe the hillside slope near Toby's is a good place for some kind of arts facility.

In a letter to the editor to Explore Howard, Barbara L. Russell of Columbia wrote that the Inner Arbor Plan is basically a reincarnation of a plan pitched by General Growth Properties (GGP) back in 2009.

When that plan was pitched, the Columbia Flier described it as, "a 'cultural park' with attractions like a new 'experience' library, a museum, children's theater, and a new CA headquarters."

Back then, CA officials didn't embrace the plan, saying the buildings took too much space in the park, according to the Flier, which led them to pursue the Paumier plan.

Greisman said CA's new plan is in no way similar to the GGP plan which featured buildings all over the park as well as new roadways through it.

"This concept plan came as a result of listening to the county Planning Board," wrote Greisman in an email. "It would take out fewer trees, if any, and has more meandering pathways."

An informal poll on Patch found that 67 percent of those who voted supported the plan, while 26 percent did not.

A change.org petition asking CA's Board of Directors to approve the plan has received over 200 signatures as of Thursday.

Shortly after being released, Explore Howard's editorial board wrote "There's a lot to like about the plan," but added, "the plan at this point is long on concept and short on specifics."

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman and Downtown Columbia's County Council member Mary Kay Sigaty said they were excited about the plan when it was first announced.

DPZ to Recommend Symphony Woods Approval Process Start at Step Nine

The Department of Planning and Zoning will recommend that the Planning Board allow phase one of the new Symphony Woods plan to continue in the approval process where it left off, at step nine in the 16-step process.

Mark Thompson, the director of downtown development for the county, said DPZ has seen the new Inner Arbor Plan being promoted by Columbia Association and believes the first phase of the concept is in line with the previous plan that went through the first part of the approval process.

Some commenters on the plan have seen a problem with the way CA has handled the roll out of the Inner Arbor Plan.

"There is more than a bit of paternalism, arrogance and dismisal of the needs of residents in this whole process to date," wrote JD Smith in a comment on Patch. "Slow it down, gather more input and develop something really wonderful."

Phase one of the new plan would include a tree canopy walkway, a wooded amphitheater and a large sculpture in the northeast section of the park, according to CA's president Phil Nelson. The original plan featured a small cafe, a fountain and a path network.

Thompson stressed that a Final Development Plan (FDP), which was approved for the Paumier plan, is more of a preliminary plan that details land-use, property boundaries, relation to neighborhood design guidelines and a proposed plan for fulfilling community enhancement requirements.

"It would be a significant undertaking to start over from step one," said Thompson. "From our perspective you wouldn't have to submit a new FDP, because if you submit a [Site Development Plan] that is in compliance with an FDP, we would review that."

Thompson detailed how the Downtown Columbia approval process works in two eight-step procedures, with eight steps for the FDP and eight for the SDP. He said CA will have to provide more detailed drawings for the SDP process that show exactly where amenities will go, how the environment will be effected, and plans for landscaping features.

"There are multiple opportunities for feedback during the review of an SDP," said Thompson.

The decision to start at step nine is ultimately up to the Planning Board, said Thompson, although he said the Board rarely votes against staff recommendations.

CA's Board of Directors may vote on the plan as soon as its Feb. 14 meeting.

CA and DPZ officials both agreed phases two and three of the Inner Arbor Plan will have to go through all 16 steps of the downtown approval process. Those phases include the largest part of the project—building the arts village and a nearby parking garage.

Related Articles

  • CA Dramatically Alters Plans for Symphony Woods
  • New Symphony Woods Plan Headlines CA Board Agenda
  • DPZ: New Symphony Woods Plan Has Not Been Submitted
  • Poll: Should CA's Board Approve Symphony Woods Plan?

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