Columbia Association plans arts district for Symphony Woods Park

The Columbia Association unveiled new plans for the Symphony Woods Park on Friday.

The Columbia Association unveiled a concept plan Friday for Symphony Woods Park that includes the construction of a headquarters, the relocation of Toby’s Dinner Theatre and the creation of an “arts village.”

Known as the Inner Arbor Plan, it also calls for a children’s theater, three restaurants, an outdoor amphitheater, a 1,750-space garage, a ballroom-style meeting house and an “iconic interactive sculpture.”

CA President Phil Nelson did not say how much the project would cost, stating the organization would wait until the plan is approved by the CA Board of Directors before seeking estimates from architects and engineers.

“The plan is conceptual and prices aren't attached to concepts,” Nelson said. “Costs of the projects could be financed through many different sources, including philanthropic organizations, government grants, individual donations/contributions, CA or anyone else who might want to contribute to building a regional park and entertainment venue.”

The board is scheduled to review the plan at its Jan. 24 meeting, and could approve it as early as Feb. 14, according to Nelson. If approved by the CA board, the plan would go to the Howard County Planning Board to begin the site development plan phase, the second half of the 16-step downtown development approval process required by the Downtown Columbia 30-year Master Plan. 

The focus of the new development centers on property east of Merriweather Post Pavilion and west of the current Toby’s Dinner Theatre location. A new road will be constructed between the development and the parking garage, which will be built on the current site of Toby’s. A footbridge will connect the garage to the development.

The plan was developed by Columbia resident Mike McCall, a disciple of Columbia developer Jim Rouse. It has been called “an original Columbia creation” by CA leaders

“This is for Columbia and this is for Howard County, but this is designed to be a place of statewide significance,” McCall said.

The 30,000-square-foot CA headquarters would be built adjacent to the “arts village,” which will house Toby’s Dinner Theatre and the children’s theater sponsored by the Columbia Center for the Theatrical Arts.

Toby’s Dinner Theatre co-owner and CCTA treasurer Harold Orenstein said the creation of a central location for the arts’ community is something Columbia needs.

“We are really excited about it,” Orenstein said. “This is going to provide a single-focused place where people can come and see the arts. ... Hopefully it is the start of something.”

According to Orenstein, if the plan is approved, he and his wife, Toby, will begin discussions with CA regarding the acquisition of Toby’s Dinner Theatre. He said the couple would like to continue operating the theater. 

County Executive Ken Ulman said he supported the CA plan.

“I have long viewed the property that is now Symphony Woods as a centerpiece and linchpin for downtown Columbia,” Ulman said in a statement. “Among the many pieces needed to make a true world-class community is a large open space dedicated to people, the arts and culture. New York City has its Central Park. Chicago has its Millennium Park. And Columbia deserves and must have the same landmark status.”

McCall hopes the “interactive sculpture,” in the northeast corner of the park near Little Patuxent Parkway, will become an “instant attraction,” and compared it to the “Cloud Gate” sculpture in Millennium Park. 

Columbia Association board member Tom Coale said the board already has seen the plan, which he said will act as a catalyst for a new arts district.

“Overall, we can thank our critics for this plan, for pushing us to do more with our community,” Coale said. “This plan has something for everyone.”