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CA Dramatically Alters Plans for Symphony Woods

"Inner Arbor Plan" plan features a space for Columbia Association’s headquarters, a canopy walkway, a public event space, an amphitheater, new plazas and an enhanced botanical garden.


Columbia Association announced this week they have scrapped their old plan to redevelop Symphony Woods and created a new one that features new buildings and walkways that officials say will create an “iconic” city park in Downtown Columbia.

“We think this will satisfy three key areas,” said CA president Phil Nelson, “protect the environment, provide entertainment and showcase the arts.”

“We’re excited about new apartments and the mall expansion, but this is something the community can be passionate about,” said CA board member Tom Coale, who represents Dorsey’s Search.

Nelson and Coale said the impetus for the redesign came from criticism at community meetings that they weren't thinking big enough on the original plan and that it wasn't as environmentally friendly as it could be.

The new plan for the 36-acre park features an Arts Village, an approximately 100,000 square-foot group of buildings. Inside the Arts Village would be a new headquarters for CA, a new building for Toby’s Dinner Theatre, a public event space, a restaurant, a café, an express food area and a large plaza with a central fountain, according to Michael McCall, president of Strategic Leisure, the design firm developing the plan.

Nelson said CA was in preliminary discussions with Toby's about moving their location. If they move, the Toby's parking lot could be used for parking for the Arts Village, said McCall.

The Arts Village would be built at the current location of the VIP parking lot on the east side of the park, near the Toby’s parking lot. That space is one of the most open already, said McCall, allowing CA to limit the number of trees removed for construction. Also, McCall said the natural slope of the land would protect the buildings from Merriweather’s noise.

McCall said that although plans for the buildings are being discussed, they may change in the future, as this plan remains largely conceptual.

Nearby the Arts Village, an outdoor amphitheater would be constructed. The amphitheater, which was included in the original plan, would leave existing trees inside the viewing area to create an effect similar to the “Dance Forest," according to McCall.

The Dance Forest was a stage built during Virgin Mobile FreeFest in which attendees mingled and danced among trees.

McCall described the new plan for the park as “a veil of trees around activity centers” where “you can escape to another place, a natural place.”

To further implement this oneness with nature, an elevated walkway with tree houses is planned that would connect a new “iconic” art sculpture with the Arts Village, explained McCall.

The sculpture would be placed near the Howard County Central Library and the elevated walk would extend southward through the tree canopy to the Arts Village, winding its way through the woods, according to a rendering of the plan.

McCall said the inspiration for the walkway came from New York City’s High Line park, a raised pathway built on the former location of raised railroad.

“By giving people a different physical view, you give them a different conceptual view,” said McCall.

Lastly, the botanical garden on the south side of Merriweather, which was installed when the park was built, would be spruced up and possibly include new artwork, according to McCall.

Nelson said with the new plan, dubbed the “Inner Arbor Plan," would take care to design around existing trees. In the original plan, 64 trees would be removed in the worst-case scenario.

“We want people to experience the trees walking among the canopy, rather than tearing them down,” said Nelson.

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, a Columbia native who promoted the idea of developing Symphony Woods into an iconic park as a County Council member, congratulated Columbia Association on the plan.

“I have long viewed the property that is now Symphony Woods as a centerpiece and linchpin for Downtown Columbia,” said Ulman, in a statement. “Among the many pieces needed to make a true world-class community is a large open space dedicated to people, the arts and culture. New York City has its Central Park. Chicago has its Millenium Park. And Columbia deserves and must have the same landmark status.”

Cost and Implementation

Nelson said CA does not have an idea on the exact cost of the updates to the park at this point. CA officials said the previous plan, which included new pathways, a fountain and an amphitheater would cost $2.7 million. He said the first step is to have CA’s board approve the plan, which they may do as early as February, then it would need to be approved by the county.

Coale said CA would set up an affiliate trust that would manage and oversee implementation of the new Symphony Woods plan.

The trust would be set up as a 501c3 and would be able to accept grants and corporate sponsorship that CA, as a 501c4, wouldn’t be able to accept, according to Coale.

By setting it up this way, it gives donors to the park the opportunity to deduct a contribution from their taxes, said Coale.

Coale expects a variety of sources to help finance the park, such as community members who can pay to sponsor a tree or a park bench, corporate sponsors, government grants, philanthropic organizations and individual donations to supplement CA’s investment.

“We’ll have a buy-in for this plan that wasn’t otherwise available,” said Coale. “The plan is not intended to put additional financial burdens on CA.”

“The plan is conceptual, and prices aren’t attached to concepts,” said Phil Nelson, in an email. “Once the Trust has determined which phase of the plan will be the next priority, staff will determine costs based on engineer’s or architect’s estimates.”

Nelson said when the new plan was discussed at an October 2012 CA board meeting, the board unanimously approved pursuing forming the trust, moving CA’s headquarters to Symphony Woods and adopting the McCall design.

Coale said the trust will manage day-to-day operations and decisions of the park, rather than have CA’s board, which meets twice a month, make decisions.

For example, Symphony Woods could be opened to concertgoers during Jazzfest, but closed during a Phish concert, said Coale. It would be up to the Trust to make that decision.

“[The Trust] gives us the agility and flexibility to work with our partners,” said Coale. “The Trust would allow quick and deliberative decisions.” 

County Council member Mary Kay Sigaty, who represents Downtown Columbia, said she encouraged CA to go big with their plans for Symphony Woods.

“Once you have a concept, it can be developed,” said Sigaty. She said that while she hasn’t yet seen the new plans, she’s excited to see how they will fit into the larger picture of Columbia’s Downtown development.

Coale said the people who he has told about the plan have been receptive to it.

"Everyone who has seen this Inner Arbor Plan, something comes over them where they become a passionate advocate," said Coale.

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Editor's Note: The original version of this article stated a number of trees that would be cut down with the Inner Arbor Plan, however, that number is not exactly known, according to McCall. The sentence has been changed to reflect that efforts are being made to design around the trees.

Life By Design January 19, 2013 at 03:11 PM
NYC's Highline is probably not the best design precedent for an elevated tree walk. The "Tree Adventure" in Morris Arboretum, however, would seem to match the vernacular of Symphony Woods while also demonstrating how naturalistic art and sculpture can be incorporated to create a truly iconic structure.
Harry Schwarz January 19, 2013 at 03:51 PM
I'm surprised there have been no comments yet - this is a far more dynamic plan than previously presented. I was concerned that the old plan didn't really engage with the rest of Columbia; a fountain and hot dog stand is hardly enough to draw people into the park. But incorporating the Library, Toby's, CA headquarters, and expanded arts venues into Symphony Woods is a masterful stroke. I like it. What's the story with the rerouted roads, though? Is that realistic?
Julia McCready January 20, 2013 at 12:51 PM
This is brilliant! A wonderful use of the existing space which will add to our community.
Michaelwritescode January 21, 2013 at 05:46 PM
This plan looks actually worth implementing. A stark contrast to the snoozefest previous plan.
stephanie smith June 17, 2013 at 11:28 AM
I concur but Wheel chair accessable i hope. WHO is the PERSON I can talk to ref conceptos & design

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