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Symphony Woods Park proposal again awaiting county government approval

The Columbia Association has for the third time submitted plans to the county government that would eventually allow it to begin turning Symphony Woods into a vibrant park, seeking approval for a project that still is expected to begin construction next year.

Among the ideas envisioned in this latest submission are an amphitheater, a pavilion and a cafe that potentially would be used by visitors to Symphony Woods and Merriweather Post Pavilion.

The submission — a concept plan for a neighborhood containing Symphony Woods and the Merriweather concert venue — needs the approval of county planners before moving on to the Planning Board.

Several more steps would remain before work on the park could start.

The county asked CA in December to revise its plan and respond to some 60 requests, suggestions and questions. The association had until the first week of this month to do so and submitted its final development plan on March 5.

County planners said they have 45 days to review the plan, though it might not take that long.

The final development plan provides an overall vision for a neighborhood and also includes design guidelines. New development in downtown Columbia goes through the site development process as well, which pertains to a specific project within a neighborhood and includes more details such as building footprints.

County staff had asked CA to enhance Symphony Woods' relationship to Merriweather Post Pavilion, which it encircles. CA did just that, coordinating with Howard Hughes Corp, which owns the pavilion, before submitting a neighborhood concept plan that showed what Merriweather could look like in the future and how it could interact with Symphony Woods Park.

"The function of both spaces can complement each other," said Jan Clark, CA's project manager. "What we're developing here is a great sort-of outdoor lobby for Merriweather."

No future plans for the concert venue have been finalized, nor have any been submitted to the county.

Nevertheless, CA's submission shows possibilities beyond the north section of the area, where the first phase of construction is slated to bring walkways, an entry plaza from Little Patuxent Parkway, parking and a central gathering area to 16.7 acres of the largely wooded 40-acre property.

Merriweather itself could have its pavilion roof raised and expanded, with new concession stands and restrooms, and a 300-seat theater that would be attached to the cafe. A fence would separate the concert venue and Symphony Woods.

"Merriweather is a regional attraction and a very significant place for our community. Symphony Woods is very important to enhancing that as an attraction," Clark said. "I personally hope that the two entities will really support each other, that on some days, depending on what goes on, it will almost be a seamless interface between the two."

Now, Symphony Woods is largely used by people on their way to or from Merriweather. Clark foresees the new park serving more of a purpose.

"We anticipate there'd be activities in the park, maybe things to do before a concert," she said. "Or when there's no concert, there are other reasons to go there that would be as simple as taking a nice walk, or programmed events."

Construction on the first phase of Symphony Woods was once expected to begin by July 2012 but was delayed while CA sought approval for the final development plan. County officials said it is not unusual for a development plan to go through more than one review with staff to ensure that it complies with regulations.

The first phase of construction is slated to begin in spring 2013, though there is no completion date, Clark said, out of consideration to events such as Wine in the Woods that take place at Symphony Woods.

Additional ideas for later phases include adding a fountain in the central gathering area and a pathway around the rest of Symphony Woods.

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