Residents get chance to react to Columbia Association plan for Symphony Woods

Residents of Columbia and Howard County will get their first opportunity to comment on the newly proposed concept plan for Symphony Woods Park at the Columbia Association board meeting Thursday, Jan. 24, at 7 p.m. 

The plan, known as the Inner Arbor Plan, was released to the public at 5 p.m on Friday, Jan. 18, along with the rest of the agenda for the meeting.

The most notable changes from previous plans for the downtown landmark include the construction of a CA headquarters, the relocation of Toby’s Dinner Theatre and the creation of an “arts village.”

The plan also calls for a children’s theater, three restaurants, an outdoor forested amphitheater, a 1,750-space garage, a ballroom-style meeting house and an “iconic interactive sculpture.”

Alan Klein, spokesman for Coalition for Columbia’s Downtown, already has expressed opposition to the plan and its scheduled approval process. The CA board could approve the plan as early as Feb. 14.

Klein contends the new plan was “hatched in secrecy” and the approval process is being rushed.

“It undoes the work we all promoted in creating a Symphony Woods Park and replaces it with a return to the plan which the community successfully rebuffed,” Klein wrote in an email. “It adds major buildings and other structures to the Woods, destroying the serene, park-like environment which we all supported.”

CA board member Tom Coale, who writes the local political blog “HoCo Rising,” responded to Klein's claims in his blog Jan. 22 by pointing out that the board discussed a plan similar to the new plan at a board work session in October.

Coale also wrote that the new plan “preserves the vast majority of the natural setting, while integrating a limited number of buildings (parts of which are projected to be built underground) into what may make up less than 5 percent of the entire Park.”

Coale, like Klein, is encouraging members of the public to attend Thursday’s meeting, when the board plans to discuss the plan for at least 90 minutes.

If approved by the CA board, the plan would go to the Howard County Planning Board to begin the site development plan phase, the second half of the 16-step downtown development approval process required by the Downtown Columbia 30-year Master Plan.

CA President Phil Nelson did not say how much the project would cost, stating the organization would wait until the plan is approved by the CA Board of Directors before seeking estimates from architects and engineers.

“The plan is conceptual and prices aren't attached to concepts,” Nelson said. “Costs of the projects could be financed through many different sources, including philanthropic organizations, government grants, individual donations/contributions, CA or anyone else who might want to contribute to building a regional park and entertainment venue.”

The focus of the new development centers on property east of Merriweather Post Pavilion and west of the current Toby’s Dinner Theatre location. A new road would be constructed between the development and the parking garage, which will be built on the current site of Toby’s. A footbridge will connect the garage to the development.

Other features of the redevelopment plan include the construction of 10 treehouses connected by an elevated canopy walk.

Coale said this feature, along with the preservation of trees in the park’s northern section and the enhancement of the park’s southern botanical gardens, will “preserve and showcase the park’s natural habitat.”

Coale said the plan calls for the removal of less trees than the original plan.

To manage and control the new development, CA plans on developing a trust made up of CA board members and members of the community, according to Coale.

Legally, the trust, which will be set up as a 501(c)(3), will operate as an affiliate to the board, and will allow CA to pursue grant opportunities it otherwise would not qualify for.

The trust, which will be funded by CA, also will allow for more partnership and sponsorship opportunities, Coale said.

“The trust will provide more agility and flexibility,” Coale said. “In the simplest terms, it’s so the CA board is not designing park benches.”

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