Columbia Association board endorses plans for Symphony Woods

The Columbia Association Board of Directors took a stance on a set of controversial plans for an arts park in downtown Columbia Thursday night with a vote to endorse the project. 

The board voted 6-to-4 in favor of supporting the current iteration of the Symphony Woods project, which seeks to bring an amphitheater and sculptural amenities to the undeveloped site next to Merriweather Post Pavilion. Plans for the project also envision an art gallery built of mirrors and glass and "the caterpillar," a plant-covered tube that would serve as a barrier between Merriweather and the park. 

Some CA board members and Columbia residents are unhappy with the proposal, which they feel is too intense. Proponents say the designs represent the imaginative spirit the city needs to propel itself forward. Thursday night, a nearly even ratio of supporters and detractors showed up to testify on the plans, with 10 in favor and nine against. 

A main point of contention was whether the plans had changed substantially enough to allow the CA board to back out of an agreement permitting the Inner Arbor Trust -- the group charged with developing plans for the Symphony Woods project -- to use the site, which is owned by the Columbia Association. 

Wilde Lake resident Mary Pivar, who testified against the current Inner Arbor plans, said she found designs such as a turfboard picnic table, the caterpillar and flashing lights "odd" and considered them "afterthought, material changes" that "should be removed and permanently rejected from the plan." 

"We are supporters of a simple park with a variety of opportunities, textures and atmospheres, not an amusement park with endless distracting cacophony," Pivar said.

Supporters said they wanted the arguing to stop and plans to move forward. 

Oakland Mills resident Julia McCready, on the other hand, held up a sign with the words "THANK YOU" emblazoned in bold black letters to express her support for current Inner Arbor plans to the board.

"I support it, my family supports it, my friends support it and the majority of Columbia supports it," she said. "It’s safe to say that your lasting legacy to Columbia will be this wonderful park. We can’t wait to see it get started."

Board members Reg Avery, Alan Klein, Russ Swatek and Jeanne Ketley questioned Inner Arbor Trust President Michael McCall on what they said was a lack of transparency in the trust's operations. 

Ketley, who represents Columbia's town center, where Symphony Woods is located, said the lack of a public process was "really unfortunate, and I think we should remedy that if we still can, because you need to have support for [the project], otherwise it's going to dwindle away.

"I don’t buy the thought that we have to rush ahead," she added. "This is millions of dollars of our people’s money – you’re going to really roll along without giving it good consideration? My God, you’ve got to let them have a voice."

McCall said he couldn't promise open meetings of the Inner Arbor Trust going forward, and he noted that many organizations receiving financial assistance from the county did not hold board meetings that are open to the public. 

He said the trust has gathered public feedback in other ways: through CA board meetings and conducting its own research. McCall said the group had talked to 600 people at the Wine in the Woods event this May, and "all but four" were in favor of the park as currently conceived. 

He said the trust was finalizing a report on a 1,000-person survey about park plans and "I can tell you that, statistically, this plan is very well embraced. 

"I never came to these meetings until the last couple years," he added, "and I recognize the same people – there’s a class of people who come to this, it’s an intellectual class, it’s a dedicated class, they’re loving of their community… [but] there’s a whole audience of thousands of people who are not being heard tonight."

Columbia Association President Milton Matthews said he thought unhappiness with the plan was more a matter of taste than a "material change" to the initial project concept. 

"I honestly think that among the board members and possibly among others, we’ve forgotten what a concept is," he said. Now that more concrete plans have been submitted, he said, disagreements over the content are "almost like two people looking at a piece of art and disagreeing about what I like versus what someone else likes."  

Ketley, Swatek, Avery and Klein ultimately voted against endorsing the current park plans. Swatek also suggested the group vote to pronounce that the current plans include "material changes" -- the standard for rescinding the land-use agreement -- board chair Andy Stack denied Swatek's request, saying it wasn't germane to the initial proposal to endorse the Symphony Woods plans. 

Stack, Nancy McCord, Brian Dunn, Tom O'Connor, Michael Cornell and Gregg Schwind voted in favor of endorsing the Inner Arbor plans. 


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