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Howard Planning Board gives green light to Inner Arbor

The Howard County Planning Board gave the developers of the Inner Arbor Plan approval Thursday to start building the initial phases of a curated arts park in downtown Columbia's Symphony Woods.

The plan, introduced last year, proposes building a series of cultural venues connected by a system of meandering pathways on 16 acres of woodlands north of Merriweather Post Pavilion.

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Estimated to cost $30 million, the plan has incited debate among members of the planned community.

The Planning Board's approval of the first two phases of the park is the final hurdle standing between development and construction of an outdoor, shell-like amphitheater built of lightweight metal called the Chrysalis.

All five board members said they support the plan. Some spoke glowingly of its vision and aesthetics, laid out by the designer, the Inner Arbor Trust. Board members all agreed the park meets requirements of the Downtown Columbia Plan, a guiding document that sets the course for Columbia to transform its Town Center from a rolling suburb into a true urban center.

"The plan meets the criteria we set out; the criteria we created because it was holistical in the vision we wanted to see in downtown Columbia," said Planning Board Chair Josh Tzuker. "The debate about this park has become, in some respects, about more than just this park. It's about the future of Columbia, its about generational change.

"Merriweather is going to be this cultural touchstone that will bring people to Columbia," he said.

The board also conditionally approved five additional phases. However, the Inner Arbor is required to return to the Planning Board in future years before building permits for those future phases can be issued.

The approval comes two weeks later than originally expected — the board had started considering the plan on Nov. 6, but decided to postpone a decision for two week because of the large number of residents who came to testify. More than three hours of testimony was presented earlier this month. Public input on the plan has been mixed, although the majority are those who testified were in favor.

The board heard another hour of testimony Thursday, and all but three of the 19 people commenting supported the plan.

Brad Canfield, director of operations for Merriweather Post Pavilion, said Merriweather is "very much in favor of the plan."

Canfield said the Inner Arbor Trust has had an open dialogue with the pavilion since the plan was announced, and that Merriweather has agreed, in principal, to help maintain the park in exchange for use of some of the venues.

He said it's a "win-win," and a vast improvement over previous plans and the park in its current state.

"Somebody came up with a vision and now is the time to do it," Canfield said.

The Inner Arbor, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, has said it will fund the project using grants and donations, both public and private. To date, the development has $6.6 million allocated to the project -- $5 million of which came from a grant from the Howard County government.

The plan will be developed in seven phases. 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 metal, will be used by both Merriweather operators and the Trust.

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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. Inner Arbor Trust President Michael 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, 13-foot high tube — which will be landscaped with potted plants – dividing the park and the concert venue. There will also be a fountain built between Merriweather and Symphony Woods.

It also includes creating a new access point and parking for the park called "Free To Be Drive," which is phase seven and likely will be the last development.

The Inner Arbor Plan was revealed by McCall in January 2013 as a alternative to an earlier proposal for a more traditional park. That plan had been called the Paumier Plan after its principal creator, Cy Paumier.

The revised plan for the Inner Arbor proposes more cultural uses and different structures. It was approved in February 2013 by the Board of Directors of the Columbia Association, the owner of Symphony Woods and the entity that operates much of Columbia's parkland.

The association's board also approved the creation of the Inner Arbor Trust, a separate nonprofit led by McCall, to control the development of the park. The board also voted to convey the land to the trust through an easement agreement and give the trust $1.6 million in seed money.

This story has been updated. 

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