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Inner Arbor plans to add trees to Symphony Woods

The Inner Arbor Trust has announced plans to add 169 trees to Symphony Woods as part of phase one of its redevelopment of the 35-acre downtown Columbia park — a move the developer hopes will curtail criticism that the plan is an environmental liability.

According to a report published by the Trust, the developer plans to remove 31 of the 473 existing trees in the park, but will replace those trees with 200 new ones. The report also claims that 14 acres of the 16-acre phase one design, approximately 78 percent, will be forest, streams and lawn, and that only 22 percent of the space will be developed.

The plan, which was lauded by the County's Design Advisory Panel earlier this year, calls for a guest services building made of glass and mirrors called the Butterfly, an outdoor, shell-like amphitheater built into a hill called the Chrysalis, a 300-foot-long floating picnic table, a 9,000-square-foot playscape inspired by circles called the Merriground, and the Caterpillar, an 800-foot-long, 15-foot-high tube dividing the park from neighboring Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Future phases of the design call for an arts village east of Merriweather that would turn the largely open space into an integrated arts and culture park with multiple theaters, an arts village, restaurants, art galleries, a possible CA headquarters and ballroom venues.

The plan also calls for the semi-dense forest south of the pavilion, which was built as stormwater management by the Rouse Company in Columbia's early years, to be used as a walkable park space.

According to Scott Rykiel, executive vice president with Mahan Rykiel, the landscape architecture firm hired for the project, the plan will improve the environmental health of the park, which he says is in poor condition.

"It's a stand of trees sitting in a lawn, which is not a natural environment. That doesn't exist in nature," Rykiel said. "The best thing we are doing is adding layers beneath the canopy to restore it to a natural eco-system. Adding dogwoods, American hollies, other trees you see in a natural forest. ... We will bring back flora and fauna that don't exist there."

Christopher Streb, an ecological engineer with Biohabitats in Baltimore hired by the Trust, said tree experts will be involved before and during construction to make sure trees are preserved.

"Everybody recognizes the trees are the main character, they are kind of the star of this park," he said. "Maintaining them and giving new life to baby trees has been a priority."

Streb added that an old, dried-up stream bed located on the eastern side of the park will be restored. He also said the development group is also focused on stormwater management for the park, and that 94 percent of the park will be pervious surfaces.

The Trust's report on the environmental impact comes amid speculation from an opposing group that the plan calls for a significant reduction in the number of trees.

The faction is led by longtime Columbia planner Cy Paumier, who was part of a team of architects that developed the original plan for Symphony Woods, which called for a fountain plaza to serve as a centerpiece for the park. The plan, which was met with mixed reviews from the County Planning Board and the Design Advisory Panel, was dropped in favor of the Inner Arbor Plan in 2013.

Paumier claims, using calculations based on a 2010 tree survey of the park, that phase one of the plan could result in the removal of 100 trees and damage more than 50 percent of the woodland landscape.

"There is just absolutely no way they can build that project and cut down 31 trees," Paumier said. "People need to understand what they are getting into."

Paumier and his group have planned a rally at the park for Saturday, April 19 at 11 a.m. in an effort to drum up support for his plan.

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