CA board approves first phase of Symphony Woods Park

The transformation of Symphony Woods, from underused land downtown to a vibrant park amid a growing Columbia, will likely begin next summer.

After years of discussion about what to do with the largely wooded 40-acre property, the Columbia Association board gave its approval last week to the first phase of Symphony Woods Park.

Construction for the initial phase, slated for 16.7 acres on the north section of the land, could start in early July 2012 and be nearly complete by the end of the year, said Jan Clark, CA's project manager.

Among the amenities planned are walkways, an entry plaza from Little Patuxent Parkway, a small amount of additional parking and a central gathering area.

CA is in the process of receiving county government approvals for the project.

"It will ultimately be the kind of park that will be a respite from the density that's going to be downtown, but it's also going to be a place with amenities," said board member Shari Zaret, of Kings Contrivance. "People will want to come here to do things and meet other people. That's very much in keeping with the spirit of Columbia."

This first phase will provide the framework on which subsequent phases will be based. Additional ideas include adding a fountain, restrooms, a stage, a café and a pathway around the rest of Symphony Woods, which encircles the Merriweather Post Pavilion concert venue.

"It's talked about in terms of a Central Park-type retreat for the people of Columbia," board member Tom Coale, of Dorsey's Search, said. "As Columbia does build up and become more of the city it's anticipated to become, it will have our roots in nature and offer an opportunity for residents to use it for recreational purposes. I think it can also be a centerpiece for community events, as it already has been.

"That's our legacy for Symphony Woods that we need to maintain. We don't do enough with it as it is right now. We need to put this park in a position where it can be used an enjoyed by residents, rather than it being just a piece of land that has not been developed on," he said.

The board approved the park's first phase by a 7-2 vote. Michael Cornell, of River Hill, was not present at the meeting. Oakland Mills' Alex Hekimian and Hickory Ridge's Gregg Schwind voted against the plan.

Removing too many trees?

Hekimian said that while he likes the idea of the park, he objected to the number of trees that would be cut down, most of them healthy. Clark said 53 trees will be removed. She said there are "hundreds and hundreds" of trees in that section of the park, although she did not know the exact number.

"The trees are going down unnecessarily, in my opinion," Hekimian said. "There are ways to reduce the cutting down of so many healthy trees. There are ways to bring it down to around 12 trees."

Hekimian also objected to postponing the installation of a ramp at the entry plaza for people with disabilities and families with strollers.

"If we're going to have a grand entrance, then it ought to be accessible to all people," he said.

Schwind said his opposition came from the project being "a plan without a vision," from not knowing better how the park will interface with adjacent properties, and from the number of trees to be cut down on property whose natural state differentiates it from other parks in the county.

But Zaret noted that CA has a policy of planting two trees for every tree that it removes. The replacements could be located in another section of the park wrapping around Merriweather Post Pavilion. Toward the back, she said, will be "much more of a nature type of walk," which would be "a great place for us to be looking at replanting."

Zaret said the trees must be taken down to build a park.

"There is a difference between a woods and a park," Zaret said. "And I think it is going to be very significant, the shift from Symphony Woods, which is a green space that nobody really goes into, to Symphony Woods Park, which is going to be a place about the movement of people."

She said the park possibly could work as a link from Howard Community College down to Columbia's lakefront and even across Route 29 to Blandair Park.

"I think there really is a very fine vision," Zaret said. "And we're going to see it emerge over time."

Hekimian envisioned a more active setting on the northern end of the property near Little Patuxent Parkway, with a playground, a historic carousel that would relocate from Baltimore's Inner Harbor, an interactive fountain similar to those in the harbor and downtown Silver Spring. Other sections of Symphony Woods would be for contemplation, solitude, gardens and a trail, he said.

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