In its 17-page decision, the board suggested that some way be found to remove fewer trees, to create more meandering paths and to coordinate efforts with the operators of Merriweather.

That's when McCall was "encouraged" to draft another design, said Phil Nelson, president of the Columbia Association. That set up a rivalry of sorts, as the approved design was crafted by former Rouse planner Cy Paumier and four other former Rouse employees.

Price of paradise

A park designer with decades of experience, Paumier, who also worked on one previous Symphony Woods plan, wonders if McCall's proposal makes sense, both in design and expense.

"I'm appalled that intelligent people who sit on the [Columbia Association] board are not able to see what they're buying into," said Paumier, who worked for Rouse planning Columbia's downtown area between 1969 and 1972. "The whole plan is really not very realistic."

In his view, the point was to establish an entrance from Little Patuxent Parkway, where most people are likely to walk into the park. The McCall design shows a small entrance at the northeast corner, leading to a large sculpture plaza, but the main entrance is on the east side, at the garage.

Paumier said engineers he has talked with estimate that the McCall proposal would cost between $45 million and $50 million for the garage, pedestrian walkway and the elevated tree walk alone.

In his experience, he says that would be all public money, as private funds are not usually devoted to such purposes.

Nelson said the association hasn't yet estimated the cost of the project. He said the CA wants to establish a trust that could raise money, as the CA's tax status now does not allow it to pursue private grants.

The notion of the trust worries CA board member Alex Hekimian, who represents the Village of Oakland Mills.

"There was never any discussion about a trust," said Hekimian. "That's a big deal. That has major implications because then a lot of the decisions would be out of the public eye."

He said that while the proposal has created "excitement in the community," he's also heard from a lot of people who are concerned that decisions are being made too quickly.

The McCall plan was first presented to the public in January and now may come to a vote in February.

"I'm sensitive to that," Hekimian said. "I do think there are a lot of questions. … The plan is way more ambitious than anything that has been presented before."

Columbia resident Alan Klein said he feels the board is moving too quickly to approve a plan he considers too expensive, as it involves so much construction. He favors the Paumier group proposal, adding that he wants to see a project that "benefits the community as much or more than it benefits the developer."

Association Vice Chairman Andrew Stack of Owen Brown calls the McCall proposal "a very exciting plan," and is not concerned about things moving too quickly. If the Planning Board agrees to pick up approval of the northern portion where things left off, that still leaves Steps 9 to 16, and the rest would start at Step 1.

"I have a hard time believing that's rushed," he said.

Board Chairwoman Shari Zaret of Kings Contrivance said she wants to make sure the public has enough time to understand the plan. But she said she likes it. The name Inner Arbor, she said, "carries the message this is about preserving the beauty, but also making it a park that's a destination and an amenity for Columbia residents."

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