Misinformation leads to false impression of Symphony Woods proposal [Commentary]

Although most of the responses to the proposed plan for Symphony Woods are constructive, there has been a fair amount of misinformation that needs to be clarified. I write this from my perspective on the CA Board of Directors for nearly four years.

First, some are under the impression that the past plan (the "Paumier Plan") for Symphony Woods, which proposed that portions of the forest be cleared in order to install rigidly-straight walkways, a fountain and parking, was ready to be implemented. It was not. In July 2011, the county's Design Advisory Panel reviewed the plan and noted the lack of a theme or vision for the park. In July 2012 the Planning Board concluded that the plan needed to be changed to preserve as many mature trees as possible, and to create "a shared vision and design for Merriweather-Symphony Woods as a unique cultural and community amenity."

With the direction from the Planning Board, as well as concerns voiced by many residents, CA smartly reconsidered the plan and went back to the drawing board. CA has now put forward a plan that not only preserves the forest canopy, but also incorporates the arts into the park with a vision that the original plan lacked. Not only will Symphony Woods be Columbia's "Central Park," it will draw visitors year round and connect to the surrounding downtown.

Second, some favor the former plan because it was more modest. In truth, the former plan was very limited, essentially turning the front part of Symphony Woods into an ordinary park that would serve primarily as an entrance to Merriweather Post Pavilion on concert days. The new plan, while accommodating Merriweather, aspires to create a unique set of park and arts venues for residents to enjoy year round.

Third, some believe that the current plan will result in the loss of mature trees to construct plazas and buildings that will house theaters, a new CA headquarters and a meeting space. This is untrue. The buildings are concentrated in what is now a clearing and parking lot. The overarching philosophy of the plan is to honor the forest. All amenities, whether pathways, sculptures, the arts village, parking or buildings, will be undertaken so as to move around and within the trees.

One particularly pernicious rumor is that the new plan calls for office buildings and parking lots in Symphony Woods along Little Patuxent Parkway. The plan calls for no such thing, and the CA Board has been adamant that Symphony Woods between LPP and Merriweather will be preserved as parkland.

Fourth, some are saying that the plan will leave Columbia residents on the hook for tens of millions of dollars. This is also untrue. A charitable entity ("the Trust") will implement the plan with funding from a broad coalition of resources — the county, the state, CA, performing arts foundations, private corporations and citizens. This has worked well for large-scale projects in other cities. CA will contribute land (without giving up ownership) and a fraction of the total cost, but certainly will not be obligated to pay the total cost of the project. Also, CA will not subsidize or operate any of the theaters or other arts venues.

Finally, there are some who believe there is insufficient opportunity for public input. Far from it. CA has already held multiple public presentations for residents to voice their views. Residents and citizen groups have sent their praise and concerns directly to CA. We have also heard the public through the media and social media. As the plan moves forward, the county process has multiple points for future public input.

Gregg M. Schwind is a member of the Columbia Association Board of Directors from Hickory Ridge.

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