Symphony Woods envisioned as destination park in Howard

Development talks spurs officials to consider `Central Park' in Columbia

October 05, 2003|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

For 36 years, Symphony Woods in Columbia's downtown has remained a bunch of trees with no clear identity.

While the 40-acre site that surrounds the Merriweather Post Pavilion is a park, it has no obvious pedestrian entrance. Only a few events are held there each year, and few residents regularly visit the woods.

But that could all change. Now that the Rouse Co. wants to develop the area, Howard County Councilman Ken Ulman and Columbia Councilman Joshua Feldmark want to turn Symphony Woods into a destination park.

"I'd like to see Central Park, Columbia's Central Park," said Ulman, whose office overlooks the woods. "To be in my office and look out on a Saturday ... and see people pushing strollers and older couples walking hand in hand."

The councilmen's idea comes from a letter they recently found that LDR International, a land-design firm in Columbia, wrote to the Columbia Association in 1999, offering its services with planning and designing Symphony Woods.

Pointing out that Symphony Woods is a "magnificent natural feature which has remained virtually unchanged," LDR described the main components of its proposed design: a main entrance to the park, a promenade encircling the area and connecting the pathways to others throughout Columbia.

If LDR's proposal is realized, the woods would have a sound garden where music would play through hidden speakers, sculptures, a small bandstand and a promenade that would pass by a wildflower meadow, plantings and the existing pond.

The future of the Symphony Woods area - as well as the 9-acre Merriweather site - has come into question recently. Rouse wants to develop the 60 acres that surround the woods and has petitioned the county to allow more residential units to be built there.

The development company has maintained that bringing in an estimated 2,352 additional residents and building shops and office space on the site will turn Columbia's downtown into an active urban center.

Rouse has said it will convert Merriweather into a year-round theater but has pledged that Symphony Woods - which is managed by the Columbia Association - would not be developed.

Rouse's petition for additional housing is before the county Zoning Board, which will resume hearings on the matter Oct. 15. At a hearing last month, Ulman presented LDR's letter, saying he would be interested in pursuing the ideas it lays out.

Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, said that the county would have little to do with the design of Symphony Woods, but he wants to make sure the project is "front and center" on the agendas of the Columbia Association and Rouse.

"If in fact this [Rouse] proposal would help convert downtown into a more vibrant area, well, just locating residential units there doesn't necessarily make that happen," he said.

Feldmark said he may propose the project for CA's fiscal 2005 budget, which the association board - consisting of the same members as the Columbia Council - will begin discussing this month. However, Feldmark said he believes Rouse should have a significant financial role in the project, if not fund it outright.

"Since clearly they're very interested in creating a vibrant downtown, this would be a good way to prove that's what they're actually interested in," said Feldmark, who represents Wilde Lake on the Columbia Council.

Chick Rhodehamel, CA's vice president for open space management, recalled that when LDR made its presentation to the Columbia Council four years ago, the council consensus was that the project was not necessary at that time because it was unclear what was going to be developed near the woods.

"I think we should be mindful that the [proposed Rouse] development [could be] coming, and maybe we should be able to react to that and possibly do something, or maybe just leave it as it is," he said.

During Symphony Woods' two regular annual events - the Wine in the Woods event and the Symphony of Lights - the area is populated. But beyond that, the woods - which are near Toby's Dinner Theatre and the Central Library - are usually used to get to Merriweather.

Padraic M. Kennedy, CA's first president, who served 26 years, described Symphony Woods as a "very passive recreation site." He said the area could benefit from more activity.

"Even before the [proposed addition of units] was talked about ... I thought it was a good idea," he said. "I certainly think it makes sense at this time."

Rouse officials in the past have agreed that the area could be a central park for Columbia. In presenting future plans for Columbia's downtown last year, Alton J. Scavo, Rouse's executive vice president of development, said within 10 years he'd like to see Symphony Woods better used.

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