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Editorial: CA, planning board on right track with Symphony Woods changes

11:46 AM EDT, July 26, 2012

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These are exciting times for downtown Columbia.

Owner General Growth Properties this week unveiled plans for reinvigorating the Columbia mall with a 75,000-square-feet "lifestyle center," the first major project at the mall in about a decade.

Just west of the mall, on open land at Broken Land Parkway, owner Howard Hughes Corp. is moving ahead with a mixed-use development that would include some 800 residential units and more than 70,000 square feet of retail space.

And just south of the mall, the Columbia Association is honing its plans to transform Symphony Woods into something used by more people than those walking to and from Merriweather Post Pavilion or attending the annual Wine in the Woods celebration.

The Symphony Woods project is in some ways the most important, given the park's central location and its raw, undeveloped nature. It is something of a blank slate, and while some would like it to remain that way, CA believes, quite rightly, that something should be done to make it more appealing and better used — more of a real city park.

Their plan for the first phase of Symphony Woods development is fairly simple: Build a pedestrian entryway off Little Patuxent Parkway with a wide stairway leading down to a path, which in turn leads to an outdoor fountain. The fountain area would be the park's main gathering place, and it would be used (when the fountain is turned off) for small concerts and theater performances. A network of other paths would be built, and the park also would be used for other activities, such as fitness and art classes, and temporary exhibits and festivals.

The plan has received mostly favorable reviews, but critics have noted one defect: It would remove 64 trees, about two-thirds of them healthy, mature trees. CA leaders point out that Symphony Woods has nearly 3,000 trees and that they will plant at least two trees for every tree they remove. But why remove any mature, healthy trees from Columbia's last major stand of trees, unless absolutely necessary?

The county Planning Board, which last week approved the final development plan for the first phase, seemed to agree with those critics. (This was not the final approval needed.) They suggested CA take a look at using curved, meandering paths instead of the straight paths they have planned, the idea being fewer trees would have to be removed. It's a good idea, and CA should take it to heart as they tweak their plan.

Future phases of Symphony Woods development, still on the drawing board, include such possibilities as a picnic area, amphitheater and even a cafe, and they will require close scrutiny if Symphony Woods is to retain its status as the last major green space in downtown Columbia. But so far, both CA and the county are on the right track as they tackle the task of making this important piece of Jim Rouse's vision all that it could and should be.