The Howard County Planning Board Thursday unanimously approved the Columbia Association's final development plan for the first phase of redeveloping Symphony Woods into a more publicly used park.
"Hopefully it introduces the beauty of the park to a lot more people … and it becomes this jewel in downtown," board member Jacqueline Easley said.
CA's plan for the first phase of construction is to create a pedestrian entryway off Little Patuxent Parkway — directly across from Mall Access Road — with a wide stairway leading down to a path connecting to a central fountain. The plan also includes a smaller network of pathways that connect with the fountain, which is to serve as the central gathering space in the park.
When the water is turned off, the fountain would function as a performance space for small concerts and theater performances. CA is also planning to use the park for a variety of activities, such as outdoor group fitness classes, art classes, temporary art exhibits and festivals.
In a statement issued Friday, CA President Phil Nelson said CA was pleased with the board's approval.
"We understand that this is the first phase of development, and we will continue our close working partnership with the Howard Hughes Corporation to make this park and Merriweather Post Pavilion the focal point for downtown development," he said.
In passing the plan, the board included recommendations for things they would like to see in the site development plan phase, the second half of the 16-step development process all downtown Columbia projects must go through before construction can begin.
One of the board's recommendations was that the site development plan include meandering pathways, which could save some of the trees that may otherwise need to be cut down.
The sketches in the final development plan CA presented at the board's July 12 hearing on the plan showed straight pathways. At the meeting, CA representatives said the maximum amount of trees that would be removed is 64.
"(With) the meandering (paths), you could work around the trees," board chairman David Grabowski said. "I think we ought to recommend that they continue to work and save as many trees (as possible)."
Other board members agreed.
"Obviously CA is not intending at all to clear cut," board member Josh Tzuker said. "They're harvesting a very, very minimum of trees. And some of them would be coming down anyway because they're sicker."
Saving the trees has been a concern of many opponents to the plan — a concern they have aired time and time again throughout the process.
A few of those opponents who were present for the board's deliberations Thursday said they were encouraged by the board's comments.
"Everyone seemed to agree that these huge trees are a tremendous asset to our heritage here and they need to be protected," said Joyce Potemkin, an Oakland Mills resident and founder of a group called Preserve the People's Trees.
Potemkin said she has collected more than 600 signatures from people who support her cause.
"I'm not against art work in there," she said. "I'm not against tot lots. I'm not against events ... All I'm against is removing trees unnecessarily."
CA noted in its plan that it intends to plant at least two new trees for every tree it removes. However, opponents feel new trees, because they take so long to grow, do not make up for the loss of mature trees.
"Replacing an adult tree, a huge tree with a baby tree is like replacing an adult person with a baby; they're not equivalent," Oakland Mills resident Nan Lyon said.
At the June 12 hearing, members of Preserve the People's Trees presented the board with an alternative plan that would remove only 12 trees.
Long Reach resident Rex Carpenter, however, took a harder stance, saying Thursday he would prefer no trees be removed.
"I thought that the Planning Board gave very good consideration to the individuals who expressed concerns about the loss of the trees in Symphony Woods," he said. "As a resident of Columbia for over 30 years, I have quite a memory of walking through that park. ... I would like to see it almost preserved intact."
Both Potemkin and Carpenter were supportive of the idea of meandering paths.
Carpenter said he would like to see "something that doesn't give that linear look that you see in so many parks."
Potemkin, however, said she doesn't feel like the board emphasized that point enough and she worries CA will ignore it.
CA does not know when it will have its site development plan ready to present to the public, CA spokesman David Greisman said Thursday.
"We'll have an idea of our timing after we receive the (board's) decision and order," he said.
Future phases of Symphony Woods, CA representatives said at last week's hearing, could include a woodland garden, amphitheater, children's activity area and picnic area. There are also ideas for a cafe and other structures that could be shared with Howard Hughes Corp., owner of Merriweather Post Pavilion.