Citizens group aims to influence plan for Symphony Woods


Spurred by an effort to develop Symphony Woods into a "more inviting" urban park, a downtown citizens group is trying to influence the forthcoming plan.

The Columbia Association awarded a $15,000 contract this week to Land Design Research Inc. to study ways of increasing use of the 40-acre Town Center woods while preserving the park's natural qualities.

Symphony Woods, which includes the 12-acre Merriweather Post Pavilion, is bordered by Little Patuxent Parkway, Broken Land Parkway and South Entrance Road, an area slated for high-density residential, office and commercial development.

It is in the shadows of The Mall in Columbia and several high-rise office buildings.

Four members of the Downtown Work Group -- part of the Columbia Forum think tank which recommended a broad set of goals last year for the unincorporated city of 80,000 -- met Monday night to discuss its role in the study and how to involve the community.

"When you're talking about a resource like Symphony Woods, there will be opposing opinions and trade-offs," said James E. Loesch, the work group's new chairman. "We want to get the issues out before the public."

He said the group, which hasn't adopted positions, intends to offer "thoughtful, carefully studied input that professionals and those who pull the purse strings will listen to."

Dick Lewis, past chairman of the work group, said one goal will be ensuring that a broad range of options is considered.

"We could have a festival that attracts 10,000 people every weekend or put an eight-foot chain link fence around the property. How far to each end is what we're debating," Mr. Lewis said.

Land Design Research's charge is to document the park's physical characteristics and adjacent land uses, determine constraints to development and prepare alternative plans for improving Symphony Woods with minimal environmental disturbance.

Public hearings will be scheduled to present options, recommendations and cost estimates. The 10-member Columbia Council, which sets policy for the nonprofit Columbia Association that operates the city's public facilities and programs, will make final decisions on plans and expenses.

Columbia Association ecologist Charles "Chick" Rhodehamel said options for Symphony Woods outlined by the association several years ago still apply.

Among those are: landscaped and easily recognizable entrances, seasonal landscaped areas, picnic areas, pedestrian pathways, lighting for walkways and parking areas, public rest rooms, sites for gardens, sculpture and art, provisions for food vendors, a small bandstand for concerts and activity areas, such as chess and bocce courts.

"We want something that explores the realistic possibilities for that park, which is a rather unique chunk of open space in one of the more dense areas of development in Columbia," Mr. Rhodehamel said.

"The idea isn't to make it like an amusement park," he said. "It's to make it more inviting."

A first-time Wine in the Woods festival weekend sponsored by the county attracted more than 10,000 people to Symphony Woods last spring. Through the study, association and work group leaders want to evaluate the effects of heavy use on the park's vegetation.

Crowds in Symphony Woods are unusual, though. The last time the work group met on a spring evening in 1992, members toured the park and found it nearly deserted, Mr. Lewis said.Columbia Association spokeswoman Pam Mack said the study should take three to four months. Association managers, following the private, nonprofit organization's internal competitive bidding policy, reviewed several job proposals and made the decision on the contract. The council allocated $22,000 in this year's budget for the study.

Land Design Research, a Columbia firm, designed a plan to renovate Town Center's lakefront area and improve downtown streets in the late 1980s for the association and the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer.

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