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The Right Thing For Symphony Woods….Years Later

Last week, Wordbones had Cy Paumier on his podcast, and wrote a subsequent blog about it titled, “Captain of the Dream Team”.  One passage stood out to me:

Some have called this the “dream team” of planners. Some have criticized CA for not bringing in new blood.

It’s a moot point. The Dream Team is “weeks away” from unveiling their master plan for Symphony Woods. What many don’t know is that Howard Hughes has also been busy with Merriweather Post Pavilion. HHC has retained Sasaki & Associates to develop a new master plan for the outdoor theatre. They have been working closely with CA to make sure both efforts are complimentary and the two parties may have found the formula to make the café in the woods concept work.

And then this past Sunday, HCR released a statement from The CA Board, in the form of a blog post, saying:

In an effort to meet the goals of Howard County’s General Development Plan, CA will be working with the Howard Hughes Corporation to develop a complete neighborhood plan for the Symphony Woods/Merriweather Post “Neighborhood.” The Columbia Association feels that the proposed neighborhood plan will fulfill the General Development Plan’s purpose of providing an exceptional cultural and recreational area in the new Town Center area. Additional details and negotiations with Howard Hughes will begin so that land uses and area amenities will benefit park and pavilion users. CA believes that this venture will meet the goals of the plan and will be a place that can be enjoyed by Columbians and those who will visit both the park and pavilion.

HCR then goes on to write:

“I believe this is the only way to go on this issue and am very happy with the manner in which this partnership has been able to develop.  Respectfully, this was never about “big ideas” for Symphony Woods.  It was about connectivity and congruence.  This approach should meet both objectives and find its way through County vetting. “

I respectfully disagree with HCR when he says, “this was never about “big ideas” for Symphony Woods.” It was about “big ideas” when GGP engaged a world class team (Jaque Robertson of Cooper, Robertson & Partners, Alan Ward from Sasaki Associates and Keith Bowers of BioHabitats) to work on the plan for Downtown, including Symphony Woods. I remember hearing about the possibility of a having library or museum that would have fostered the growth and development of Howard County’s children in the Arts. As CA’s plan stands now, we’ll get a cafe, water feature and years more of underutilization.

I do agree that connectivity and congruence are important, but we could have had that a long time ago. The manner in which this partnership has developed goes back a long way and I can’t help think that it only came about after the County twice rejected CA’s plan for Symphony Woods. It all goes back to when CA first refused to work with GGP on Symphony Woods. They completely rejected their vision for it and decided to develop it on their own, despite the fact that they are not developers. I find it telling what Cy Paumier said about it three years ago in this interview with MIA reporter Jack Cole. In it he (Mr. Paumier) states:

“No one’s ever really cared enough about it to do a plan, CA hasn’t been encouraged, nobody in the community has been saying we ought to create a great park there. So along comes General Growth [Properties], General Growth’s got a couple hundred acres that they’ve got to develop right? They’ve got all the land in the world to develop, why don’t they just focus on what they own. I mean they don’t have to start taking CA’s land . . . its crazy!”

So there you have it. Mr. Paumier was upset that GGP had the gall to include Symphony Woods in their overall vision (“big idea”) for Downtown Columbia. So, fast forward a couple years, and now Mr. Paumier has convinced CA to hire him to come up with the plan that currently exists. You know, the one that’s been twice rejected by the County.

Look, I’m glad CA is finally getting in the game, and I hate to dig up the past. But the fact is, this should have happened years ago. To say that Symphony Woods isn’t about “big ideas” is to sell it short. As the father of young daughter, I want Symphony Woods to become a special place for her to enjoy now, and to hopefully one day bring her children to. After hearing about this partnership between CA and HHC, I am hopeful that, after all these years, it will be.



Liz Bobo: Almost as bewildered as we are

On July 6, we read that Columbia Association officials have pushed back the start date on construction of a redeveloped Symphony Woods due to what they are calling the “difficulty of navigating the new county laws governing that plan.”  CA Board chair Cynthia Coyle couldn’t understand why CA would be held to the same planning process as everyone else.


Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Columbia Democrat, said she was unsure if pushing back the start date on the park would threaten the state funding, which was intended for “shovel-ready” projects.

Although she said she had never heard of bond money being withheld, she said the legislature, “was very precise about its criteria for bond bills. There weren’t that many because money is tight.”

Eligible projects, she said, were required to be planned and ready to begin, thus providing immediate jobs, and awarded matching funds from another source.

“We certainly presented the (Symphony Woods) project as one that’s ready to go and I believe we were telling the truth,” she said of vetting the project in Annapolis last winter.  …

“Here they are, ready to go,” she said. “I’m bewildered by it.”

You’re bewildered, Liz?  Not as much as we are.

First, how could she call this project “shovel-ready” or “ready to go” when the deadline for proposals for landscape architecture, planning, and engineering services was just twelve days ago, on Thursday, July 29?

CA Website 7/28/10

Shovel ready?  The process has barely even begun.  Typically, between concept plan and “ready to go” is about six months: the actual design work ending in final, approved site plans; the bidding process; the awarding of the construction agreement(s); and – most important – the sometimes thorny process of regulatory approval, which includes approval through Planning and Zoning or Inspection Services.  For our park, this process is further complicated by a very sensitive environmental component.

Second, a look at the Bond Bill Fact Sheet reveals that construction was slated to begin in April 2011 – and to continue until summer of 2014, beginning with Phase 1 (a plaza and promenade), then onto Phase 2 (a fountain, parking lot, etc.), and, finally, “future phases” that include, among other things, a play area and small cafe.  So where is the holdup if the groundbreaking date hasn’t changed since the bill was passed, months before this article appeared?

2010 Bond Bill Fact Sheet

Third, the state deadline for spending the money is seven years away. This is typical, since capital dollars from the State are hardly required to be “shovel ready” like stimulus projects but rather are for community enhancement projects that take years to build.

Another fun fact: the total cost is estimated at $4,528,000.

Delegate Bobo says she told the state the project was ready to go four months ago.  In July, CA blamed the county for delaying its project.  And yet, twelve days ago, designers and planners for the project hadn’t even been hired, let alone begun the designing and planning process.

Furthermore, the delegate implies that the funds are being jeopardized because of this imaginary delay due to “very precise” state criteria about the readiness of the project.  This implication simply does not follow from a bill that allows seven years for the money to be spent and which includes “design” of the park in its description.

So: why so many discrepancies?  We are just bewildered.

UPDATE: HoCoRising and Wordbones have picked up this story with these respective postings: “Is CA doing a good job?” and “Careening out of Control” (which, incidentally, has quite a heated debate going on in the comments section!)  Get in on the discussion!

A Unilateral Plan

Columbia is characterized as being created from the very best community planning processes available. Our county’s planning process has been a thorough one, from Jim Rouse’s original, painstaking planning of this first community of its kind, to the five-year process we’ve just completed for the revitalization of Columbia’s downtown. Indeed, this most recent planning process was one of the most extensive planning processes in the history of Maryland. We are proud of our planning process, which is meant to ensure that nothing is rushed through, that every perspective is given equal consideration.

Some of the most vocal advocates of an extended planning process sit on the CA Board, including at least two members who collected signatures in an effort to take our downtown plan to a referendum by voters after it had been passed unanimously by the County Council with overwhelming public support. Time and time again, the folks on that side made unsubstantiated arguments that the process was being circumvented or hurried along and that the county was giving the developer special treatment.

Now, in a sudden rush to redevelop Symphony Woods – which the CA Board has neglected for decades – these members of the CA Board are expressing surprise that they, too, should held to the standards established in our community’s planning process – the same standards they so vigorously upheld when applied to someone else.  The Board is asking to skip certain steps in the planning process, while pointing fingers at the county for “holding up” its rush plan.

Previously, the Board had opted out of the opportunity to participate with the community and the county during the planning of downtown, which included funding from the developer for special projects just like this. Instead, CA procured $250,000 in taxpayer money, and an equal amount in anonymous private funds, to draft its own plan with minimal, if any, community input. It is not clear yet how the remainder of the *$2 million plan will be funded, nor is it clear who exactly formed the consensus on the plan aside from, presumably, the eleven members of the board.

Why does the CA Board think it is exempt from the planning process?

*UPDATE: CA’s plan for Symphony Woods is budgeted at $4.5 million.

Symphony Woods: a difference in perspective

Last week I read with amusement the portrayal of Symphony Woods as “open-space parkland” in a letter to the editor in the Columbia Flier.  That description is a little far-fetched for a place that has become basically a walk-through to Merriweather and hosts one community event a year.  It may be open space, but it’s not a park.  A park implies people.  There are almost no people in Symphony Woods.  For most of the year, it’s neglected and it’s empty.  Take a look at the video (below) my sister and I made last year.  It says it all.

Brian Dunn

Warfield, Lakefront and Symphony Overlook

Here it is!  We’re still working on the sound, so thanks for your patience!

The Crescent and Merriweather

Our second video explores the plans for the area surrounding Merriweather Post Pavillion. We’d love to hear your comments.

Wordbones Gets It

Local blogger wordbones had a great post this past Friday in response to this article in The Flier.

In his post, wordbones calls Liz Bobo out for saying she, “remains skeptical about Columbia gaining mass transit anytime soon because of high costs.” He calls her, “shortsighted” for not trying to lay the groundwork now for mass transit in the future.

He also lays into CA Board Member Alex Hekimian for calling GGP’s traffic study, “not credible”. Wordbones says, ” It certainly would be valid for Alex to have some objections to certain criteria in the study but to say that a traffic study prepared by a professional traffic engineer is “not credible” is both a little over the top and insulting.”

We agree on both points, wordbones. It always seems to be something with Liz and Alex, not to mention Lloyd and Alan. They kind of remind me of Rachael Dratch’s character “Debbie Downer” on SNL. You remember her, right. She would persistently add bad news or her own negative feelings to a gathering, thus bringing down the mood of everyone around her. “Feline AIDS is the #1 killer of domestic cats.” Waa Waa Waa.

I guess it’ll always be something with these people. This time it’s too much traffic. Last week it was not enough affordable housing. Tomorrow it’ll be something else. It’s always easier to find an excuse not to do something than it is to roll up your sleeves and get it done.

2.0 Blog!

After our initial launch last month, a few of you suggested we start a blog to better communicate our thoughts on the redevelopment of Town Center. We thought it was an excellent suggestion, so we are proud to announce that we are re-launching as a blog.
We’re currently working on a lot of exciting projects designed to bring awareness to our generation’s participation in this next phase of Columbia’s growth. More importantly, switching to a blog also allows us to hear from you in real time, which we always welcome.
So now that you’re up to date on our new look, let’s move on to some good news out of Columbia. We were invited to a press conference in Symphony Woods today given by a new group called Columbia Tomorrow. They held the event there to highlight the fact that it is unhealthy, underutilized and disconnected from the rest of downtown.
Phil Engelke, Columbia Tomorrow’s Vice President, stated the last time he was in Symphony Woods was when he took his now grown kids to the petting zoo that used to be there. Hint: that’s a really long time. I guess if you’re not into music (Merriweather) or wine (Wine in the Woods) there’s really not a lot going on in the woods.
Add to that the years of neglect and watershed mismanagement, and Symphony Woods is in bad shape. Columbia Tomorrow believes we have a crown jewel here in our backyard, and they want to see it live up to its potential. We think they have a great point, and look forward to working in conjunction with them to ensure that Symphony Woods will be enjoyed for many generations to come.
That’s all for now. But please check back often as we plan to be much more active, both online and in the community.