The Inner Arbor Trust hopes to begin construction early next year on the first of a seven-phase development plan to build a curated arts park in downtown Columbia's Symphony Woods.
The controversial plan, expected to cost approximately $30 million and take up to seven years to complete, proposes building a series of attractions connected by a network of pathways on 16.5 acres north of Merriweather Post Pavilion.
The seven-phase planning structure and construction timeline were two revelations to come out of a joint meeting earlier this month between the Inner Arbor Board of Directors and the Board of Directors of the Columbia Association, which owns Symphony Woods and commissioned the Trust to embark on the development.
The first phase of the development, which is funded by a county grant of $1.6 million, will build an outdoor amphitheater, called the Chrysalis, east of the concert venue. It is envisioned that the shell-shaped amphitheater, which will be made out of a lightweight fiberglass, will be used by both Merriweather operators and the Trust, according to Michael McCall, president of the group.
The second phase includes building a pathway and elevated boardwalk over a natural stream bed and swale from the corner of Little Patuxent Parkway and South Entrance Road to the Chrysalis. That phase requires extensive stream restoration, which costs approximately $500,000. McCall said the Trust plans to develop the first two phases in tandem.
Future phases, which could take between one to two years each to complete, include a glass and mirrored guest services building called the Butterfly; a children's playground inspired by circles, called the Merriground; a 300-foot-long floating seating area called the Picnic Table; and the Caterpillar, an 800-foot-long, 15-foot high tube – which will be landscaped with potted plants and green artificial turf – dividing the park and the concert venue. It also includes creating a new access point and parking for the park, which is phase seven and could be the last development.
"We are committing to those two phases in sequence," McCall said of the first two phases. "There are seven phases altogether. And the subsequent phases are not necessarily in the order of their numbers. We are keeping that flexibility because if we get a donor that says, 'I love this or that,' we obviously want to be responsive."
Each phase also contains pathways supporting the attractions, and McCall said that the future phases will be implemented based on available funding for the project, which is expected to come through grants and various donations.
The unorthodox design of the plan has polarized the community. Some, including elected officials like County Executive Ken Ulman and County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, whose district the site is in, laud the Trust for its innovative design.
Meanwhile others, including a group of local architects and park designers, have maligned it as gaudy and not feasible. The 10-member Columbia Association Board of Directors has both proponents and skeptics of the plan.
In the meeting, McCall updated the CA Board on the status of the project, which is being vetted by the county's Department of Planning and Zoning. McCall said he expects the site development plan for the project, which will encompass all seven phases, to come before the Planning Board for approval in November.
McCall said all seven phases are part of one site development plan submission to the county, even though the project will be built in multiple phases that could draw out over seven years. Site development plans usually expire after two years, but McCall said the Trust is working with the county to extend that deadline.
"I have a lot of ambition for this park, but I don't think we are going to get it done in two years," McCall said. "So we have seven phases, we asked for seven years. They said, 'That's fine.' "
The original plan for the park called for more robust development, most notably an arts village with theatres restaurants and possibly a new CA headquarters to be built on what is currently an empty parking lot used by Merriweather. McCall said at the meeting that those plans are in flux, and that they may be located at a different location – possibly on Merriweather's property – in the park.
"Those functions are very much in the calculation, but they might end up in a different location," McCall said. "We are looking to do something in cooperation with the Merriweather property."
According to Andy Stack, CA Board chairman, the board has reserved the right to build its new headquarters on the property if it chooses. Some board members were concerned that, if the plan changes, there might not be a place for a new headquarters.
In order for the Trust to develop the plan, it needs funding. Set up as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, a designation it received late last year, the group is in the process of establishing a fundraising plan to fit the bill for the approximately $30 million park.
Although they have approval as a registered nonprofit, the group can't yet solicit funds until it receives final approval from the state. It can, however, accept unsolicited donations. Once it is approved, the Trust will focus on local donations first, according to Martin Knott, chairman of the Inner Arbor Board.
"We are forming groups to talk about funding, to get our roots out to the local business community. So, those things are in formation, but we are not making asks. And we know we will be able to when they send us this letter," Knott said of the state's final approval. "On that day, we want to be able to move forward. ... We want to be down the road far enough that we can begin to go after local nonprofits and local businesses."
In addition to fundraising, McCall said the Trust is on the cusp of entering an agreement with I.M.P, the management company for Merriweather Post Pavilion, which will generate income.
McCall said I.M.P. and the Trust have reached an agreement that would pay the Trust an undisclosed amount of money in return for use of the Chrysalis during concerts. McCall said it would also fall on I.M.P. to maintain and monitor the structure as part of the agreement.
He said the agreement would be sufficient enough to match a $1.5 million grant issued to the Trust by the county government. According to Gregg Schwind, CA board member from Hickory Ridge who also serves on the Trust Board, the agreement is a long-term extension of previous agreements reached between I.M.P. and CA.