Category Archives: howardcounty

How not to save Symphony Woods

After discussing the characteristics of the previous Cy Paumier plan for Symphony Woods it’s time for my verdict. Spoiler alert: It’s not favorable—not a horrible plan, but one whose key design choices left it flawed in several ways.

Since I finished up with tree removal in my last post, I’ll start with it here. As I noted previously, the number of trees requiring removal is dependent on the exact version of the Paumier plan being discussed, and was inflated by the choice of formal rather than meandering walkways in the design. In his rally announcement to “save Symphony Woods” Paumier quoted a figure of 30 trees requiring removal, which is ostensibly one lower than the Inner Arbor estimate (but see below) and substantially lower than the figures of 50 to 60 or more trees presented to the Howard County Planning Board and documented in Paumier’s own 2012 letter to the Baltimore Sun. The key point here is that Paumier has abandoned the 2011 and 2012 versions of the plan that the Columbia Association submitted to the Howard County planning process, and is referencing an older version of the plan from 2009, a version the CA board decided later to revise.

If that plan is the one pictured on the Slater Associates web site then it did not have the north-south or east-west walkways present in later versions of the plan, and the fountain was proposed to be located next to the pavilion rather than midway between the pavilion and Little Patuxent Parkway. Reducing the number of walkways obviously would require fewer trees to be removed. Also, Paumier’s wording in the announcement implies that the estimate for tree removal includes only walkways and not proposed park features like the pavilion and fountain (much less the children’s play area and amphitheater); adding all those features back in would require more trees to be removed. By comparison the Inner Arbor estimate of 31 trees is for all walkways and all proposed features.1

Now, back to the other disadvantages of the Paumier plan, disadvantages that exist to one degree or another in all versions of the plan that have been proposed:

First, in its attempt to avoid disturbing the forest area of Symphony Woods the Paumier plan would have limited the ability of people to enjoy walking through that area, which as I previously mentioned is the most scenic part of the northern portion of Symphony Woods. From the viewpoint of a visitor the apparent intent of the Paumier plan would have been to keep you on the main walkways in the lawn area, and to discourage you from venturing into the forest area at all. Some people probably wouldn’t have been able to go into the forest area even if they wanted to, since from the extant plan documents it’s not clear that any paths in the forest would have been accessible to people using wheelchairs or who otherwise had difficulty walking.

Second, the formal geometry of the walkways and the north-south axial alignment of the main walkway (present in the plans from 2011 on) were arbitrary, inconsistent with the character of Symphony Woods, and forced design choices in other areas that made the plan less than optimal. Although it’s certainly true that the Mall in Columbia is north of Symphony Woods, and that Merriweather Post Pavilion is south of this portion of it, there is no real north-south alignment of properties and features. In particular Merriweather Post Pavilion is not just off-access but actually rotated with respect to the mall access road and north-south walkway.

Northern terminus of proposed Paumier plan main walkway

Looking up to Little Patuxent Parkway and the mall access road, near the northern end of the proposed main north-south walkway in the Paumier plan. Click for high-resolution version.

This desire to force a formal walkway geometry onto an irregularly shaped Symphony Woods property had various negative consequences. Since there is a drop going from Little Patuxent Parkway into Symphony Woods across from the mall access road, the main north-south walkway would have had to go down a set of stairs at its northern point, again potentially causing accessibility problems.2

Since Merriweather Post Pavilion itself (i.e., the amphitheater structure) is not located at (or even visible from) the southern end of the proposed north-south walkway, the plan put a small pavilion building there to provide a visual endpoint to the walkway and a destination for visitors. This pavilion would have been at probably the worst possible location in terms of integration with Merriweather, since it would have butted up against the Merriweather fence next to the restrooms and at some distance from the eastern and western entrances to Merriweather. The secondary east-west walkways had a similar problem: They would also have terminated on the south end at the pavilion, well away from the Merriweather entrances, and due to the attempted symmetry with the west walkway the northeast end of the east walkway at Little Patuxent Parkway would have been located in the middle of the block, some distance away from any crosswalks.

South end of proposed Paumier plan main walkway

Near the south end of the proposed main north-south walkway in the Paumier plan, showing the Merriweather fence and restrooms. Click for high resolution version.

Given the formal and circumscribed walkway geometry the Paumier plan would have offered limited opportunities to take a lengthy walk in Symphony Woods. When I walked in the woods myself it took about 20-30 minutes not counting stops. However in the Paumier plan the walk along the main north-south walkway would take no more than two and a half minutes even walking slowly (based on a timing I did on my own walk); a complete walk into the park on the main walkway and out again on one of the secondary walkways (or in on one secondary walkway and out on the other) would likely have taken well less than ten minutes.

Third, although the Paumier plan put almost all its proposed structures as close as possible to Merriweather Post Pavilion, those structures, and the design in general, were not well integrated into Merriweather. As noted above, the main north-south walkway of the Paumier plan would have terminated at a pavilion structure across the fence from the back of the Merriweather restrooms and some distance away from the main Merriweather entrances, as would have the east and west curved walkways. Although there is some mention in the plan documents of trying to get a gate in the fence at that point, and of needing to cooperate with the Merriweather operators and Howard Hughes (which had taken over from GGP), there was no overall strategy presented for how to integrate the pavilion and other plan features with the Merriweather property. As another example, the children’s play area was proposed to be right next to the Merriweather VIP parking lot—not exactly an ideal choice I would think.

Finally, leaving aside the actual design choices, the Paumier plan seems rather underspecified for a plan that was over three years in the making. For example, the Design Advisory Panel presentation does not show detailed draft designs for the pavilion, the fountain, the children’s play area, or the outdoor amphitheater. (It contains only a “for discussion purposes only” concept drawing of the main walkway, fountain, and pavilion, and a couple of pictures of representative restroom structures from other parks.) Such detailed designs were not part of the submitted final development plan either. Granted, in the context of Howard County planning a “final development plan” is not really final in the sense most people would normally think of, since it must be followed by a more detailed “site development plan”. However I still find it rather surprising that a plan initially conceived in late 2008 was so sketchy and incomplete as late as the middle of 2012, especially given the support provided by CA from 2010 on.3

As I’ve mentioned previously the Paumier plan was revised multiple times over the years to tweak it in various ways. However I don’t think simple tweaks would have been sufficient to solve the problems I mentioned above, since they stem from aspects of the plan that remained consistent, including trying to overlay a north-south alignment on a park that runs east-west, using a formal geometry for walkways, and putting structures in close proximity to the Merriweather Post Pavilion property line without truly integrating them with Merriweather itself. The Paumier plan in its various incarnations would not and could not “save Symphony Woods” except in the very narrow sense of being a better alternative to the GGP plan of 2008. The GGP plan has been consigned to the dustbin of history, and today we can do better than the Paumier plan.

This is not just my opinion as an amateur architecture critic. The Howard County Design Advisory Panel echoed these criticisms in its comments on the 2011 design, for example, questioning the need for a north-south alignment: “Aside from the mall axis extension and a loose connection to Merriweather Post Pavilion (MPP) there seems to be no rationale for the path organization.” As reported in a Baltimore Sun article, members of the panel also thought the plan lacked an overall vision and narrative, and emphasized the need for a park that could set standards of design excellence for the rest of downtown Columbia.

In its decision on the Final Development Plan [PDF] presented in July 2012 by CA, the Howard County Planning Board, while approving the overall concept of a park with walkways and various features, including a shared-use amphitheater and café, focused its attention on the formal walkway geometry and the poor integration with Merriweather Post Pavilion. It recommended that removal of trees be minimized by “aligning paths around healthy trees and minimizing grading”. It also called for “continuing coordination between Columbia Association and Howard Hughes Corporation regarding a shared vision and design for Merriweather-Symphony Woods as a unique cultural and community amenity”, and “development of a coordinated plan for the neighborhood”.

Just as Cy Paumier had come forward in 2008 to offer an alternative to GGP’s plan for Symphony Woods, another local Columbian and former Jim Rouse associate, Michael McCall, subsequently came forward with his own alternative plan, which like the Paumier plan in its time was then adopted by the CA board as its preferred plan moving forward. In my next post I’ll discuss that “Inner Arbor” plan as both a continuation of and improvement on the Paumier plan.

1. In his rally announcement Paumier also claims that in fact more than 100 trees will have to be removed for the Inner Arbor plan, basing his claim on a 2010 CA study. It’s worth noting that the Baltimore firm Mahan Rykiel Associates served as landscape architect for the Paumier plan and is currently the landscape architect for the Inner Arbor plan. Since Mahan Rykiel prepared the tree removal estimates for both plans, and presumably would have been aware of the 2010 CA study when preparing these estimates, I’m inclined to accept their estimates as accurate absent any compelling evidence to the contrary.

2. On slide 6 of the Design Advisory Panel presentation [PDF] these stairs are identified as “grand stairs to transition down steep grades”. No ramps are shown as alternatives to the stairs; presumably people arriving from the mall who were not able to negotiate the stairs would have had to go down Little Patuxent Parkway a few hundred feet to one of the other entrances.

3. I have no inside knowledge about this, but it’s certainly possible that at least part of the delay was due to micromanagement of the design process (aka “bikeshedding”) by the CA board. If a January 2012 Baltimore Sun article is any indication, the board seemed to spend a lot of time discussing—and disagreeing about—the design details of the proposed fountain. In this case, and perhaps others related to the Paumier plan, coming to consensus and making a final decision appeared to require multiple meetings stretched out over several months.

Looking back at the Paumier plan for Symphony Woods

Proposed pathways and other features of the 2012 version of the Symphony Woods plan from Cy Paumier and his associates. Click for high-resolution version. Adapted from FDP-DC-MSW-1, Downtown Columbia Merriweather-Symphony Woods Final Development Plan.

Proposed pathways and other features of the 2012 version of the Symphony Woods plan from Cy Paumier and associates. Click for high-resolution version. Adapted from sheet 3 of FDP-DC-MSW-1, Downtown Columbia Merriweather-Symphony Woods Neighborhood Final Development Plan.

I previously gave my understanding of how Cy Paumier’s plan for Symphony Woods won the support of the CA board and others whose opinions mattered, in large part because at the time it represented the only real alternative to a proposal from General Growth Properties that was seen as too destructive to the character of the woods. But was it actually a good plan? In this post and the next I leave the politics behind and look at the Paumier plan itself.

A 2009 Baltimore Sun article spoke of Cy Paumier as having “long dreamed of turning Symphony Woods into a sort of American suburban Tivoli Gardens”, the venerable Copenhagen amusement park that (among other things) inspired Walt Disney when creating Disneyland. The real-life Tivoli Gardens is a very intensively developed urban park that crams five roller coasters and over three dozen other rides and attractions into 21 acres, only a slightly larger area than the 16 acres covered by the northern portion of Symphony Woods. Whatever might have been Paumier’s ultimate vision for Symphony Woods (or, for that matter, what it might yet be), his plan as proposed was not nearly so ambitious.

The plan evolved somewhat over the years, including a “concept diagram” in 2008 or 2009, a more complete plan presented to CA in 2009, a plan presented to the Howard County Design Advisory Panel in 2011 [PDF], and the final development plan submitted to the Planning Board in 2012 [PDF].1 However pretty much all incarnations of the plan reflected a consistent set of design choices:

The northern portion of Symphony Woods would be divided into two distinct areas, one with formal pathways and one without. These correspond roughly to the “lawn” and “forest” areas respectively. (See my previous post for representative pictures.) The 2009 concept diagram (which can be found on slide 3 of the Design Advisory Panel presentation) shows this most clearly, with a large circle drawn in the lawn area, outlined by formal curved pathways around a central “sunlit lawn”, and a somewhat smaller circle drawn in the forest area, with irregular pathways passing through a “woodland garden”. The formal pathways in the lawn were to be paved for general use by everyone (or almost everyone—see below), while the irregular pathways in the forest area were apparently intended to be gravel only.

The formal pathway area would have a north-south axial alignment with the mall access road leading into the Mall in Columbia. In plans from at least 2011 on the main proposed pathway (in one section 40 feet wide, including a central grassy median) would head directly south from Little Patuxent Parkway, aligned with the relatively short mall access road to the north of Little Patuxent Parkway. The pathway then would go straight across the lawn area and end just north of the Merriweather Post Pavilion property line. Two other major pathways would run from that southern terminus to points on Little Patuxent Parkway to the east and west of where the north end of the main path would terminate. These other pathways were to be roughly (but not exactly) symmetrical to each other.

With one exception all park features other than pathways were to be located as close as possible to the Merriweather property line. At various times the proposed features included a pavilion at the southern end of the main north-south path, a café (sometimes envisioned as being part of the pavilion, and sometimes seen as a separate building to its west), a children’s play area right next to the Merriweather VIP parking lot, and a small outdoor amphitheater just east of the children’s play area. A fountain was the only feature not to be located next to Merriweather; it was proposed as being on the main north-south pathway, either just north of the pavilion (in the concept diagram and apparently in the 2009 plan) or in the middle of the lawn area (in later plans).

What about tree removal? After all, minimizing the number of trees removed from Symphony Woods was long touted as an important factor in preferring the Paumier plan to the GGP proposal, and apparently in some people’s minds it was and remains the only factor worth considering. Although the Paumier plan was certainly less disruptive to the woods than the GGP plan (which proposed constructing multiple buildings in the northern part of Symphony Woods), the formal pathway geometry in the Paumier plan unfortunately meant that more trees would need to be removed than with pathways explicitly routed around trees as needed.

The estimates of the number of trees to be removed have varied among different incarnations of the Paumier plan. In the recent announcement of his April 19 rally Cy Paumier claimed that “Only 30 existing trees were to be removed to implement the walkway plan that was approved by the Columbia Association Board in 2009.” Note that the 2009 plan referred to is not the plan that was actually submitted into the Howard County planning process, but an earlier plan that was later revised. Also, based on the wording of Paumier’s statement this figure of 30 trees removed was apparently for walkways only and not for park features.2

In a July 2012 letter to the Baltimore Sun Cy Paumier wrote that “Between 50 and 60 trees will need to be removed to construct the Symphony Woods Park walkways.” This figure is for the design submitted to the Planning Board. At the actual Planning Board hearing three weeks before, Charlie Bailey of Mahan Rykiel Associates (the landscape architects for the plan) testified that “the current design predicts a worst-case scenario of 64 trees to be removed within the 16.1 acre project area.” Note that again these figures do not include any trees removed for construction of the proposed park structures.3

I’ll take a breather now and return tomorrow with my verdict on the Paumier plan.

1. I’m not aware of any definitive online source for the 2009 plan presented to CA. If anyone can point me to relevant documents I’d be glad to add links to them. (I did find a Slater Associates web page that may preserve an image of this plan.) There apparently also were additional plan versions considered by the CA board, but I can’t find online public documents about them either. Finally, there were plan diagrams included with the presentation to the 2011 pre-submission community meeting prior to the Design Advisory Panel meeting; they were apparently identical to the ones presented at the DAP meeting.

2. I could not find any independent public record of estimates on tree removal for the 2009 plan.

3. By comparison the current Inner Arbor estimate (as contained in the latest “by the numbers” document [174MB PDF]) is for 31 trees to be removed for construction of all walkways and all proposed park structures.

GGP, CA, Cy Paumier, and the battle over Symphony Woods

After walking in Symphony Woods last weekend I wondered again how the woods might best be preserved and enhanced for everyone in Columbia and Howard County to enjoy. This weekend former Columbia planner Cy Paumier will be heading into Symphony Woods himself to promote a plan to “save Symphony Woods”—essentially an attempt to revive support for his own Symphony Woods design, originally proposed in 2008. That design was the Columbia Associations’s preferred proposal for Symphony Woods for quite a while, and plans based on it went partly through the Howard County planning process before receiving criticism from the Howard County Design Advisory Panel and Planning Board and then being rejected by the CA board in favor of the Inner Arbor plan. Since Paumier’s plan has been recently and repeatedly brought up by people opposed to the Inner Arbor plan I thought it was worth a closer look, if only to highlight why (in my opinion) the Inner Arbor plan is superior.

After reading past new articles and planning documents about the Paumier plan and downtown Columbia redevelopment in general, I’ve concluded that it’s impossible to discuss the plan without considering the context in which it was originally proposed.1 As I noted in a previous post, Jim Rouse inadvertently planted the seeds of future controversies when the Rouse Company deeded the Symphony Woods property to the Columbia Association while retaining ownership of the Merriweather Post Pavilion property inside Symphony Woods and the Crescent property outside of it. This didn’t cause any problems as long as CA and the Rouse Company were in sync and the Crescent property remained undeveloped. However after Jim Rouse died, the Rouse Company was acquired by General Growth Properties, and GGP subsequently attempted to more intensively develop its downtown Columbia properties, the stage was set for conflict between a more independent CA and a GGP perceived as an outsider to Columbia.

In the spring of 2008 GGP proposed a vision for Columbia Town Center that included as a main feature a “pedestrian-friendly ‘cultural spine’ between The Mall in Columbia and the Merriweather Post Pavilion.” As presented by GGP officials the ‘spine’ would terminate in a renovated Merriweather and a newly-developed Symphony Woods:

Developers would raise the venue’s roof, build a new stage, provide new backstage facilities for artists, extend the covered seating area and upgrade the concession and restroom areas.

The pavilion also would serve as the center of an arts and cultural hub that could eventually include a museum, an enhanced central public library, an international center dedicated to the study of small cities, and a Symphony Woods park redesigned to make it more accessible and useful to residents.

Also mentioned as possibilities were a “a skating rink, … a new home for Toby’s Dinner Theatre, a hotel [on Little Patuxent Parkway] and possible new quarters for the Columbia Association and Columbia Archives.”

This was all well and good, but as it happened the land on which much of this new development was proposed to be constructed was actually owned by CA, not by GGP. Given that relations between the CA board and GGP were already somewhat strained, the reaction from CA board members to GGP’s proposal was pretty much as one would expect: For example, CA board chair Barbara Russell complained that

My fear that GGP would want to put amenities on our land—that’s exactly what they were showing. … I do not think that developing Symphony Woods by gobbling up the land with buildings, parking areas and roads is a good idea.

GGP’s plans also sparked a backlash among some Columbia activists, with Alan Klein sponsoring a meeting to discuss alternative proposals. Klein complained that the GGP plan would “destroy, not restore” Symphony Woods by removing 40 percent of its trees, and noted that children’s parks and a fountain were more appropriate uses for the property. This meeting apparently marked the first public discussion of a new proposal by Cy Paumier and others for Symphony Woods, emphasizing its development as “user-friendly parkland”. As GGP continued to promote building new buildings in the north of Symphony Woods, the Pauimer proposal (originally developed on a pro bono basis) gained favor with the CA board and eventually became the basis of a CA proposal.

As presented by CA, under the new plan

[Symphony Woods] would become a park with a fountain-type water display and a small café surrounded by paved pathways. The woods’ dense canopy would be thinned in certain areas to provide for “pockets” of sunlight, according to planners.

In addition, the park would have a more visible entry plaza off Little Patuxent Parkway, a woodland garden with crushed stone pathways, a children’s play area with sculptures, rest rooms and a 150-space parking lot, …

Once adopted by CA the Paumier plan gained other supporters as well. The Columbia Flier advocated it as a better match for Sympony Woods: “A middle ground between completely passive parkland and a cultural campus makes the most sense for all concerned. Of the two visions offered, the CA plan comes closer to that ideal.” Howard County’s legislative delegation secured a $250,000 Maryland state grant to CA to help implement the plan, with further support promised from an unnamed nonprofit organization.

By this time GGP had conceded defeat and abandoned its own plan for Symphony Woods. However relations remained strained between CA and GGP, and apparently a potent narrative had lodged in some people’s minds: That outsiders were bent on destroying Symphony Woods in the course of pursuing their own designs on it, and only “true” Columbians like Cy Paumier and his associates, Alan Klein and other activists, and others in and out of CA could be relied upon to thwart them. Part of the narrative was an intense focus on the question of exactly how many trees were to be removed from Symphony Woods, so intense that when it was necessary to remove 18 damaged trees CA felt compelled to reassure residents that it was not part of a Symphony Woods redevelopment initiative.2

Thus the Paumier plan became the consensus plan for Symphony Woods, its status as the only proposed alternative to GGP’s widely-disliked plan making its success to a large degree independent of the merits of the design itself. But was it (and is it) actually a good design? I’ll give my thoughts on that question in the next post.

1. I wasn’t directly involved in events around Columbia Town Center development, so my comments are based on published reports in the Baltimore Sun and Columbia Flier. (I will also note here that the Columbia Flier archive search function for the period in question is completely broken, which is why I’m not linking to more Flier stories.) If you have personal knowledge you’d like to add, or corrections you want to note, please feel free to submit a comment.

2. Both the “outsiders vs. Columbians” narrative and the intense focus on tree removal continue to shape the debate over the future of Symphony Woods, as I’ll discuss in future posts.

A walk in Symphony Woods

View of Symphony Woods looking west

View through Symphony Woods looking west to Merriweather Post Pavilion, showing the more forested portion of the area. Click for high-resolution version.

Last Saturday morning I took a walk through Symphony Woods. Besides having a nice walk I gained a new appreciation for the Inner Arbor plan, as well as a better understanding of both the apparent goals and the shortcomings of other plans that have been proposed for the woods.

Leaving aside stops to take pictures and some doubling back, the walk took me about 20 to 30 minutes, starting at the east side of Symphony Woods near the Central Branch of the Howard County Library System, going across the northeast portion of the woods near the intersection of South Entrance Road with Little Patuxent Parkway, through the northern portion of the woods bordering Little Patuxent Parkway, over to Merriweather Post Pavilion and back, and then returning. This was the first time I had walked through the woods when I wasn’t attending some event, and I had a chance to reflect on the nature of the area.

View of Symphony woods showing mixed landscape

View through Symphony Woods looking southwest to Merriweather Post Pavilion, showing mixed forest and lawn landscapes. Click for high-resolution version.

My first thought was that Symphony Woods is really two woods in one. As noted above, I entered the woods near the library. It’s not a particularly convenient way to enter the woods (among other things it requires jumping across a small stream) but it has the advantage of being quite scenic—more like a forest than the parts of the woods most visitors see. The topography is relatively rough, with a small stream valley, and the ground more like what you expect in a forest, including leaves and downed limbs and even (in one case) an entire fallen tree. However at the same time it’s obvious that Symphony Woods is not an isolated woodland: You can easily look up and see office buildings across Little Patuxent Parkway, and there’s a low but consistent hum of traffic.
View of Symphony Woods lawn area, looking south to Merriweather Post Pavilion

Symphony Woods looking south from near Little Patuxent Parkway to Merriweather Post Pavilion, showing the grassy lawn in this area. Click for high-resolution version.

As I moved across the park the landscape became less forest-like and more lawn-like. In the northern portion of the woods, between Little Patuxent Parkway and Merriweather Post Pavilion, the woods loses its forest character entirely and resembles nothing so much as a big suburban lawn with a number of trees on it. The area is relatively flat and devoid of pretty much anything other than tree trunks and grass; it looks a bit beaten down, which I guess is to be expected given the number of people who walk across it.

I stopped at the northwest corner of Symphony Woods, at the entrance drive to Merriweather Post Pavilion. Although there is more wooded land to the west bordering Little Patuxent Parkway and extending to the corner of Broken Land Parkway, it is not part of Symphony Woods itself, i.e., the Columbia Association property. Instead it is Howard Hughes property that is proposed to be developed as general office space as part of the Crescent project. Crescent Area 4 begins just west of the Merriweather entrance drive; Area 1 is beyond that, bordering Broken Land Parkway.

Crescent Area 4 as viewed from Symphony Woods

Crescent Area 4 as viewed from the northwest corner of Symphony Woods, looking across the Merriweather Post Pavilion entrance drive toward Little Patuxent Parkway. Click for high-resolution version.

I then doubled back toward Merriweather Post Pavilion, walking all the way up to the fence that marks the boundary line between Symphony Woods proper and the Merriweather Post Pavilion property (currently owned by the Howard Hughes Corporation). What I found interesting about this portion of the walk is that the portion of Symphony Woods immediately bordering the fence doesn’t actually feel like Symphony Woods itself, but rather like an extension of the Merriweather Post Pavilion property. The fence is quite off-putting, and I felt somewhat nervous as I approached it, as if armed guards were about to come out and shoo me away. (A posted sign stating “This area under video surveillance” didn’t help my mood.)
Merriweather Post Pavilion fence as viewed from Symphony Woods

The Merriweather Post Pavilion fence and outbuildings, as viewed from Symphony Woods looking south. Click for high-resolution version.

However no one made an appearance, and not just at the Merriweather fence. The park was utterly empty throughout my entire walk, with not a soul to be seen. Symphony Woods in a sense has a split personality: occasionally overrun with people attending events, and completely devoid of visitors during the rest of the year. This seems a great shame given the natural beauty of the woods, especially in the forested area of the park. How could Symphony Woods be an area that everyone can (and does) enjoy on an ongoing basis? I’ll write more about that in my next post.

Five thoughts on Symphony Woods

When I was writing my post on Symphony Woods and sacred lands I had a number of thoughts that were too long to put in that post and too short to each deserve a post of their own. So here they are, all collected together:

15 reality checks on the Inner Arbor plan

“15 Reality Checks on the Plan” from the Inner Arbor Trust. Click for high-resolution version. Adapted from “Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods: By the Numbers”, © 2014 Inner Arbor Trust; used with permission.

Sacred lands and the facts don’t always get along. Recently the Inner Arbor Trust released a document (“Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods: By the Numbers” [PDF]) that attempts to correct misconceptions about the Inner Arbor plan. It’s a good document (though at almost 180MB it takes a while to download), and if and when I have time I’ll blog more about it in detail. However I suspect it’s also probably a wasted effort as far as many people are concerned: When people come to think of land as sacred they often stop thinking about the reality of the land as opposed to its sanctity, and the facts are then often ignored, overlooked, or distorted.

For example, in my last post I wrote about a controversy in New York City relating to 9/11; you have probably heard it referred to as “the mosque at Ground Zero”, but in fact it was neither: not an actual mosque but an Islamic community center with a prayer space (albeit a fairly large one), and not at Ground Zero but rather two blocks away. But the emotion around the 9/11 attacks was (and is) so intense that the juxtaposition of “mosque” and “Ground Zero” was much more memorable than the actual reality, and once that juxtaposition lodged in people’s minds it was difficult to impossible to get it out.1

Those who preach a land’s sanctity aren’t always saints. Going back to the example above, did people just happen to innocently get the facts wrong and decide a mosque was going to be built right where the twin towers stood? Well, no, not exactly. There were plenty of people who worked to actively spread this idea because they themselves stood to benefit if others believed it were true: news channels trying to increase their ratings, politicians trying to attract votes, advocacy groups trying to raise money, and so on.

Map of trees to be removed and planted as part of the Inner Arbor plan

A map of the trees to be removed as part of the Inner Arbor plan. Click for high-resolution version. Adapted from “Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods: By the Numbers”, © 2014 Inner Arbor Trust; used with permission.

There’s no reason why Columbia should be exempt from this phenomenon, and based on reports from others some reasons to think that Columbia and CA have their own versions of it. (For example, consider the case of the elderly CA voter who was convinced Julia McCready was running for the CA board in order to run old people out of Columbia.) I would not be surprised to hear that some Columbians are now firmly of the opinion that the Inner Arbor plan will result in wholesale cutting of trees in Symphony Woods, because someone else saw fit to put that idea in their heads. (In actual fact the Inner Arbor plan as proposed will result in many fewer trees being removed than in the previous Columbia Association plan, also known as the Cy Paumier plan after its lead designer.2)

This is all Jim Rouse’s fault, really. Recently Robert Tennenbaum, the former chief architect and planner for Columbia, quoted Jim Rouse’s words about Symphony Woods from the 1964 presentation “Columbia: A New Town for Howard County”: “Today a magnificent stand of trees, this 40 acre woods will be permanently preserved and cultivated as a quiet, convenient and strikingly beautiful asset of the town.” All well and good; however I think it’s also useful to consider what Jim Rouse did and not just what he said.

First, as I’ve previously mentioned, Jim Rouse saw fit to put a large outdoor amphitheater smack in the middle of the “magnificent stand of trees” in question. Second, Jim Rouse also saw fit for the Rouse Co. to retain ownership of the Crescent property surrounding Symphony Woods, as opposed to deeding it to CA or to the county. Did he do this because he planned for that property to be “permanently preserved and cultivated as a quiet, convenient and strikingly beautiful asset of the town”? Given that Rouse was a canny and successful businessman, I presume instead that he did it because the Crescent was a potentially-valuable piece of centrally-located property that the Rouse Co. or its successors could at some point profitably develop for high-density office, retail, or residential use.

So if you’re concerned that “Symphony Woods” (i.e., including the wooded area next to US 29 and Broken Land Parkway) will soon start looking much smaller, and that Symphony Woods itself (i.e., the CA property) is going to be across the street from 20-story condo towers, be aware that this is not because evil outsiders invaded Columbia and betrayed Jim Rouse’s vision, it’s because Rouse himself took the actions that made these developments possible, and perhaps inevitable. (However, in Rouse’s defense there are in fact areas in the Crescent that will remain undeveloped, for example between Area 1 and Area 2 and between Area 2 and Area 3. So more woods will remain than one might think, and it’s possible that given appropriate easements and paths that they could be used as an extension of Symphony Woods itself.)

Cy Paumier plan for Symphony Woods

Cy Paumier plan for Symphony Woods showing park features proposed to be constructed. Click for high-resolution version. Image adapted from FDP-DC-MSW-1, Downtown Columbia Merriweather-Symphony Woods Neighborhood Final Development Plan.

There is no “let’s not build stuff” plan for Symphony Woods. Many people think of the choice for Symphony Woods as between a new plan involving radical changes and a prior plan preserving Symphony Woods pretty much as is. This is in fact not the case: The previous CA plan by Cy Paumier envisioned as many new park features in Symphony Woods as the Inner Arbor plan, just in different places. To be specific, as presented to the Howard County Planning Board [PDF] the plan “proposed future parkland improvements, including a network of pathways, a fountain, a shared use pavilion, a shared use amphitheater, a shared use cafe, play activity area, woodland garden area, [and] parking within a 16.1 acre project area ….”

Almost all of these features have direct counterparts in the Inner Arbor plan: The shared use amphitheater became the Chrysalis, the shared use café and pavilion were combined to become the Butterfly, and the play activity area became the Merriground. The Inner Arbor plan has no fountain in Symphony Woods proper, but the Inner Arbor Trust has proposed locating one in a plaza next to Merriweather Post Pavilion. The Paumier plan had no equivalent to the Caterpillar, presumably because unlike the Inner Arbor plan the Paumier plan assumed that Symphony Woods would be closed to the general public during most Merriweather events. (A primary purpose of the Caterpillar is to control Merriweather access closer to the pavilion itself, rather than at the park boundaries.) There also was no direct equivalent to the Merriweather Horns in the Paumier plan, although the plan did state that “[The] entire park is a potential site for future public art.”

Being “Disneyesque” is not necessarily a bad thing. One of the persistent charges against the Inner Arbor plan is that it is “Disneyesque” and turns Symphony Woods into an “amusement park” with “attractions” (in scare quotes) unsuitable for the wooded setting. This seems an odd accusation for several reasons. First, as noted above the Paumier plan had pretty much the same set of “attractions” as the Inner Arbor plan. Second, given that Jim Rouse was apparently quite the admirer of Walt Disney—he said in 1963 that “the greatest piece of urban design in the United States today is Disneyland”—I suspect he would have thought the term “Disneyesque” to be more a compliment than an insult.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that preserving Symphony Woods for future generations to enjoy will require more than a bit of the same sort of design thinking that went into Walt Disney’s theme parks. In particular, once the Crescent property is developed the remaining area of Symphony Woods is going to seem relatively small: the Inner Arbor plan preserves almost 80% of Symphony Woods as a natural wooded area, but that’s still only 14 acres or so—about the size of a small subdivision in western Howard County (land of 3-acre lots). A prime task is then to make Symphony Woods seem bigger to visitors than it actually is—the same problem faced by theme parks like Disneyland, and one that their creators did a good job of addressing through artful design.

Two miles of walkable surfaces in the Inner Arbor plan

Walkable paths and roads in the Inner Arbor plan. Adapted from “Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods: By the Numbers”, © 2014 Inner Arbor Trust; used with permission.

The Paumier plan with its straight paths does a poor job of this in my opinion; in particular the main path through the park makes it glaringly obvious how short the distance is from Little Patuxent Parkway to Merriweather Post Pavilion. The Inner Arbor plan instead has lots of “meandering paths” (as called for by the Howard County Planning Board after the Design Advisory Panel found fault with the Paumier plan), together with access roadways forming about two miles of walking surfaces within the confines of the park, and featuring over two thousand places to sit along the way. But I suspect people will probably prefer to walk than to sit, since as with the best theme parks walking will continually bring new sights to visitors’ attentions, between the natural beauty of the woods and the various attractive park features.

That concludes my thoughts on Symphony Woods, at least for now. I hope to come back later with more thoughts on the Crescent development.

1. I’m as culpable as anyone else when it comes to not letting facts get in the way of my emotions and convictions. A few blog posts back I wrote that some people seemed to oppose the Inner Arbor plan because “Jim Rouse (or one of his disciples) didn’t propose [it]”. Soon afterward Michael McCall wrote me and politely pointed out that he had worked for Jim Rouse for many years; in other words, one of Jim Rouse’s disciples was in fact behind the Inner Arbor plan. I actually knew McCall had worked for Rouse, but I was so invested in the narrative of forward thinking vs. “What would Jim Rouse do?” nostalgia that my mind conveniently forgot this particular fact.

2. The Inner Arbor “by the numbers” document lists the total number of trees to be cut as 31, at least half of which are not considered to be in good condition; see the full document for a complete list of exactly which trees are proposed to be removed, their species, and conditions. Contrasting this to the original plan, Cy Paumier wrote in July 2012, “Between 50 and 60 trees will need to be removed to construct the Symphony Woods Park walkways.” According to testimony at the Howard County Planning Board hearing on the plan, also in July 2012, up to 64 trees could be removed, or a bit more than twice the number proposed to be removed for the Inner Arbor plan. Note that unlike the Inner Arbor plan these figures do not appear to account for any trees to be removed for the shared-use pavilion, shared-use amphitheater, play area, and other park elements proposed in the CA documents submitted to Howard County.

Symphony Woods and sacred lands

“Symphony Woods” is at risk of disappearing. Not the literal Symphony Woods, the trees on the Columbia Association property surrounding Merriweather Post Pavilion—as I’ve written before, the Inner Arbor plan proposed for that property would result in the removal of very few trees, fewer even than the previous Cy Paumier plan that’s been touted by some as more true to Jim Rouse’s vision. Rather what’s at risk of disappearing is a certain idea about what “Symphony Woods” actually is, and I think understanding better what that means is key to understanding the ongoing resistance to the Inner Arbor plan and related developments concerning CA and downtown Columbia. This post is a first attempt at such an understanding.

My personal thinking on this topic has evolved. As readers of this blog are well aware, I’ve been a big supporter of the Inner Arbor plan, and I remain a supporter. While I’ve tried not to demonize them, I have not been particularly sympathetic to those who opposed the plan, an opposition that in my opinion was misguided and not in the best interests of Columbia and Howard County. I even felt a touch of schadenfreude when I read that some current CA board members were upset about the Inner Arbor Trust referring to “Merriweather Park” instead of “Symphony Woods”—“reduced to arguing about a name”, I remember thinking.

But, but… as I myself drove by the woods on my way through Columbia and looked more into the Crescent development plan, I came to realize how small Symphony Woods the property was in relation to what I had traditionally thought of as “Symphony Woods”. I had been used to thinking of the entire area bounded by Broken Land Parkway, Little Patuxent Parkway, US 29, and the South Entrance Road as encompassing a relatively unchanging “Symphony Woods”. It certainly looks that way from the road, and also when I ventured into the area for events like Wine in the Woods and Symphony of Lights. So I was surprised and a bit disturbed to find that much I had thought of as “Symphony Woods” wasn’t really Symphony Woods at all, but simply undeveloped commercial property that had been originally acquired by Jim Rouse and passed down by the Rouse Co. to GGP and now to the Howard Hughes Corporation, ultimately to be the site of the intensive development represented by the current Crescent proposal.

My consternation didn’t end there. In reviewing the Crescent plans I compared them to current maps of the area and went looking for Symphony Woods Road, what I thought of as the current and future boundary between the Crescent development and Symphony Woods itself. But there is no Symphony Woods Road in the Crescent plan—or if there is it is reduced to a mere stub of what it once was. In its place is a ring road named “West Crescent” after the development itself. It’s another symbolic encroachment on the idea of “Symphony Woods”, even if it leaves Symphony Woods (the property) itself undisturbed.

At about the same time I read an article by Peter Turchin (whose writings I’ve previously recommended) explaining why (in his opinion) Vladimir Putin and indeed the vast majority of Russians were so intent on wresting control of Crimea from Ukraine. In essence Turchin’s argument is that evolutionary dynamics since the invention of agriculture have favored those who defend their core territories—their “sacred lands”—with an intensity that is impossible to account for as a “rational” weighing of costs and benefits. In Turchin’s view Crimea is such a place for Russians, sanctified by a history that includes the Crimean war and the siege of Sevastopol, the Crimean capital.

The example of Crimea may be off-putting given Putin’s reputation as an authoritarian and corrupt leader. But (as Turchin writes in a follow-up post) almost all countries have their own sacred lands and sacred ground—consider for example the vehement opposition to building an Islamic community center near the site of the destroyed World Trade Center towers.

I believe that Symphony Woods—or, if you will, “Symphony Woods”—is in a strong sense “sacred land” for some Columbians, especially including many Columbia “pioneers”. It is in the heart of Columbia, and because of its location is not seen as being part of any one village (as, for example, Lake Elkhorn is part of Owen Brown) but rather as part of Columbia as a whole. And because of its ownership by CA it both literally and symbolically belongs to all Columbians in a way that a commercial development like the Mall in Columbia (or, for that matter, the Crescent development) never could. Note also that much of the opposition to the Inner Arbor plan is couched in terms of sanctity and disgust, honor, invasion by an alien presence, and so on—“deeply disturb me”, “bizarre sights”, “Disneyesque”, “disrespect”, “betrayal”, “a threatening … insect looming over the pathways”—a clear sign that more is at work here than a measured weighing of pros and cons.

So where do we go from here? My first thought is for myself: Whether I agree with Inner Arbor opponents or not, the distress they express is for the most part sincerely felt and deserving of respect. (I say “for the most part” because in every controversy there are always people on both sides who enjoy controversy for its own sake, or for the opportunities it brings them to advance their own agendas.) It’s also good to remember that my own reasons for supporting the Inner Arbor plan are also in large part emotional and “irrational”. (For example, I’d like to see Columbia and Howard County be a site for good contemporary architecture. I’m sick and tired of the former Rouse building and Merriweather Post Pavilion being the only well-known examples of architectural distinction in the county— that was forty years ago, folks, and there are good architects other than Frank Gehry.)

My next thought is for the Inner Arbor Trust and the Howard Hughes Corporation: Don’t be so quick to discard the “Symphony Woods” name in pursuit of your own branding strategies. Names aren’t simply names: The one who names a place exerts (symbolic) ownership over it, and the one who renames a place is symbolically seizing ownership of that place from those who formerly called it their own. Yes, retaining the “Symphony Woods” name may be only a symbolic concession, but this is a situation in which symbolism is, if not everything, at least a great deal.

My final thought is for everyone: To wait and see what happens, especially in the case of the Inner Arbor, for which the need for additional funding means that the plan will be (can only be) realized in many steps over many years. The first phase of the Inner Arbor plan will be the Chrysalis outdoor amphitheater. As it happens, a “shared-use small outdoor amphitheater on CA land” was also proposed as part of the former plan, so in that sense the Chrysalis is in the spirit of an alternate approach touted by Inner Arbor opponents.

And maybe it will turn out that they and others will like it. It’s not uncommon for new works of architecture to be derided before being embraced—consider for example the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall, now almost universally praised but condemned before its construction as a “black gash of shame” and a “nihilistic slab of stone”. I wouldn’t put the Chrysalis and the other Inner Arbor features up there with Maya Lin’s design, but I think they are solid examples of good architecture, respectful of the Symphony Woods setting, and potentially great additions to Columbia and Howard County. They deserve a fair judgment on their merits, and I hope will receive it. In the meantime no more schadenfreude from me.

The Crescent development in downtown Columbia: Areas and phases

Downtown Columbia neighborhoods

Downtown Columbia including the Crescent and Areas 1 though 4 within it. Click for high-resolution version. Image adapted from Downtown Columbia Plan: A General Plan Amendment (Howard County, Maryland, Adopted February 1, 2010), Exhibit E, “The Neighborhoods”.

Enough random impressions of the proposed Crescent development—what’s actually proposed to be built? In the pre-submission meeting representatives of the Howard Hughes Corporation outlined their proposal to develop in four separate areas of the overall Crescent property, with construction to occur in three separate phases.

The overall Crescent nighborhood surrounds Symphony Woods on the west, south, and east like a giant letter “C” open to the north, hence the “crescent” name. On the west and south the Crescent is bounded by Broken Land Parkway and the exit ramp from US 29, on the east by US 29 itself. Within the Crescent development will be restricted to four areas, designated Area 1 through Area 4. (See the accompanying image; at the pre-submission meeting John DeWolf of Howard Hughes joked about the unimaginative naming.) The remainder of the Crescent will be retained as natural space, with no development planned except for the construction of a few paths through the woods. (Some of this natural space is currently not wooded, but will be replanted with trees as part of the overall development.)

Of the four areas, Area 3 is the most important in terms of defining the new Columbia downtown. As envisioned by the Howard Hughes Corporation it includes six residential buildings, a hotel and convention center, a concert hall (possibly named “Merriweather Hall” or similarly), an aquatic center suitable for competitive swim meets, a new Central Branch of the Howard County Library System, and lots of retail and dining space, for example occupying the first floors of the hotel and residential structures. At least some of the residential structures could be up to 20 stories tall; the remaining structures in Area 3 (including the hotel) could be up to 15 stories tall. Parking in Area 3 would be in the form of parking garages in the residential buildings and a parking garage behind the hotel, conference center, and library.

Rendering of proposed Crescent development

Rendering of proposed Crescent development in downtown Columbia. Click for high resolution version. Image © 2014 The Howard Hughes Corporation; used with permission.

Areas 1, 2, and 4 are more conventional. Area 1 and Area 4 are proposed to contain general office buildings; in the pre-submission meeting DeWolf expressed a desire to have a single major corporate tenant occupy all the space in Area 1 (for example, a company like McCormick & Co. Inc., currently considering relocating its headquarters from northern Baltimore County, or a large Federal contractor). Area 2 is currently proposed for use as medical offices. All three areas are proposed to have small amounts of retail space as well, in total well less than 5% of the space in those areas.

The development of the Crescent is scheduled to occur in three phases. Based on John DeWolf’s comments in the pre-submission meeting, apparently Howard Hughes changed the originally-proposed schedule to front-load more construction in Area 3. If so I think this was a wise move: It more quickly brings the benefits of the various public and civic uses (which are of interest to people throughout Columbia, Howard County, and beyond) as well as bringing some initial residents to downtown Columbia to liven the scene and provide a local customer base for shops and restaurants constructed in phase 1. Without any Area 3 development in phase 1 the Crescent would simply look like another corporate office park.

The overall Crescent schedule then looks as follows:

Phase 1 would see initial office space in Areas 1 and 2, initial residential, retail, and dining space in Area 3, and the hotel, conference center, library, and aquatic center also in Area 3. Parking would be provided primarily by surface lots in Areas 1 and 2, and by parking garages in Area 3.

Phase 2 would add more office space in Areas 1 and 2, along with a small amount of retail, and more residential and retail space in Area 3. The surface lots in Areas 1 and 2 would be cut back in size to make way for office space and parking garages, and more parking garages would be constructed in Area 3 as part of the residential development.

Phase 3 would add yet more office space in Areas 1 and 2, along with a bit more retail, and more residential and retail space in Area 3. The surface lots in Areas 1 and 2 would be completely replaced by office space and parking garages, with more garages being constructed in Area 3 as well, again as part of the residential development.

Overall construction of office space would be spread roughly equally over all three phases, as would construction of residential units in Area 3. Most if not all of the restaurant and dining space would apparently be constructed in phase 1, with more retail space coming along in phase 2 and especially phase 3.

For more on the details of exactly what will be built and when see my next series of posts, beginning with a look at phase 1 development.

No fooling, Columbia’s becoming a city

Rendering of proposed Crescent development in downtown Columbia

Rendering of proposed Crescent development in downtown Columbia. View is of Area 3 looking east, with the proposed swim center to the right. Click for high-resolution version. Image © 2014 Howard Hughes Corporation; used with permission.

Columbia is well on its way to becoming a real city with a real downtown. (This is not an April Fools’ joke.)

Last night I attended the pre-submission meeting at which Howard Hughes Corporation presented its plans for the Crescent area next to Symphony Woods and Merriweather Post Pavilion. (I arrived a few minutes late, missing the introduction of the presenters and the opening remarks.) For now I’ll leave a more complete description of the meeting to the professionals (see Luke Lavoie’s story today in the Baltimore Sun) and will just give some initial somewhat disconnected impressions.

The attendance seemed a bit less than that for the pre-submission meeting for the Inner Arbor plan. (Luke Lavoie concurs, citing 75 people attending the Crescent meeting and about 100 at the Inner Arbor meeting.) I find that a bit strange in at least one sense. In the case of the Inner Arbor plan people got exercised over what I consider relatively minor things, like identifying the exact number of trees to be removed from Symphony Woods, and presumably showed up at the meeting in force to make sure those concerns got on the record. To me this is a case of not seeing the forest for the you-know-whats, given that the Crescent development will change Columbia in ways far more radical than anything that might happen in Symphony Woods. In the immortal words of Vice President Biden, this is a big [expletive] deal.

Without really trying to I ended up sitting next to Jane Dembner of CA; the same thing happened to me at the Design Advisory Panel review of the Inner Arbor plan, and (if I remember right) at the Inner Arbor pre-submission meeting as well. I keep running into the same people at these events; I get the feeling that there’s a core group of perhaps a few hundred people at most who have influence over, strong opinions about, or (in my case) an abiding interest in what happens in Columbia and Howard County—call them the Howard County 0.1%.

The presentation itself was divided into two parts: One section on the site plan, roads and pathways, public amenities, design guidelines, sustainability, and related matters, presented by two Howard Hughes employees whose full names I didn’t catch, and a second section providing more detail on the actual buildings, presented by Howard Hughes SVP John DeWolf. This second part was apparently an adaptation of a pitch DeWolf does for investors and potential tenants, so it included a lot of high-level marketing stuff about the appeal of Columbia and Howard County, the desirability of a vibrant downtown Columbia, and the ability of Howard Hughes to execute on that vision. Due to time constraints DeWolf had to march through this second presentation in about 30 minutes, including interspersed questions and answers; this was unfortunate since this section contained some of the most interesting material from my point of view.

DeWolf was clearly enthusiastic about the project (as he himself said, the man likes to build stuff). He went out of his way to emphasize the importance of Merriweather Post Pavilion to the Crescent project, particularly as a way to “make Columbia cool” and attract a younger demographic. Whether the hip twenty-something with a lip ring depicted on one of his slides will actually want to live in Columbia (as opposed to just attending a Merriweather event) is an open question, but full marks to DeWolf for trying. DeWolf didn’t mention anything specific about Merriweather renovation or plans for Merriweather parking, but did make a brief aside about his tiff with Ken Ulman. He didn’t mention anything about the Inner Arbor plan. In general DeWolf is an entertaining presenter, though having done lots of sales presentations myself I think I can tell what’s unforced enthusiasm and what’s a bit feigned for the benefit of prospects. (For example, does DeWolf really think the lengthy multi-step Howard County approval process is a great thing for developers, as he seemed to imply?)

As Luke Lavoie’s story indicates, the possibility of 20-story-high buildings in downtown Columbia was a major theme and concern at the meeting. It reminded me of the controversy several years ago over the proposed 22-story WCI Plaza tower near the Columbia lakefront. For various reasons that plan eventually died an ignominious death, but by all indications thus far the Crescent proposal should escape that fate, 20-story buildings and all. For what it’s worth, I think 20-story buildings in the context of the Crescent development are appropriate to the setting. They don’t stick out as stand-alone structures, but appear to exist in the context of nearby buildings of somewhat smaller size. I don’t mind the contrast with the adjacent Symphony Woods either; it actually reminds me of the buildings next to New York’s Central Park, a juxtaposition I find striking and attractive. There’s an open question as to whether and how much those buildings will shadow Symphony Woods at various times of the day and year; I hope to see something about that in future presentations from Howard Hughes.

Speaking of “massing” (to use the technical term for defining the overall shapes and sizes of buildings), I think the Crescent plan actually works pretty well in relation to its site. One person commenting at the meeting was concerned about the implications of the Crescent area being relatively isolated, in the sense that it was hemmed in by Symphony Woods and Merriweather to the north and by existing roads and development to the east, south, and west—not to mention the areas within the Crescent development itself that are unsuitable for building and will remain in a relatively natural state. Far from being a bad thing, I think this might actually work to the benefit of the development. Among other things, the compact and constrained site forces a higher density of development and helps prevents the sort of “micro-sprawl” I’ve noticed in places like Tysons Corner and Reston Town Center, where large urban-scale buildings and their associated “structured parking” sit next to low-density suburban-style strip shopping centers with large open-air parking lots.

The compact site and relatively high density will of course lead to increased traffic, which was another major concern expressed, along with concerns about the implications of that increased traffic for pedestrian access to and within the Crescent area. I suspect that true mass transit (e.g., heavy or light rail) will be a long time coming to downtown Columbia, if it ever does, so I don’t expect any relief on that front. Nevertheless I’m reasonably optimistic about the traffic situation, based in large part on the advances occurring in automobile automation that will likely be widely adopted within the longer-scale time frame of this development. Even if we never get to fully-autonomous “self-driving” cars, I think increased intelligence in automobiles will go a long way to making cars more safely co-exist with pedestrians, as well as potentially speeding up traffic by allowing cars to intelligently cooperate with each other to improve traffic flow and reduce congestion caused by stops and starts due to humans’ poor reaction times.

Other thoughts: I was surprised by the interest shown in a proposed swim center (or natatorium, if you want to get fancy). I wasn’t paying much attention to the discussions over the future of CA’s swimming pools, so missed the fact that there is a fair size group of people actively lobbying for a high-end professional-quality swim center that could host local and regional swimming competitions—something Howard County currently lacks. It sounds like a worthy facility, and one which could attract lots of visitors to the proposed hotel and restaurants in the downtown area. There was also mention of locating a new library downtown, but not much discussion of that. For the record, I think the Crescent area would be a better location for a new Central Branch than near the location of the present facility. I for one am looking forward to the possibility of a large multi-purpose central library of some architectural distinction.

Finally, as implied above I didn’t really get a good feeling for how parking at Merriweather will be addressed as the various phases of construction proceed. However I did glimpse some slides that may shed some light on that question, and if I can find out more I’ll post again.

Parking at venues comparable to Merriweather Post Pavilion

I previously discussed parking at Merriweather Post Pavilion. How does Merriweather fare compared to other venues? Do they offer any glimpses of Merriweather’s future with respect to parking? For this post I picked three different venues, each with a Merriweather connection and all of them together showing a wide range of venue parking situations.

Aerial view of Jiffy Lube Live and surroundings

Jiffy Lube Live and surroundings, Bristow VA. The circles show areas within a quarter mile and half mile of the venue. Click for high-resolution version.

First is Jiffy Lube Live (formerly Nissan Pavilion) in Prince William County, Virginia. Jiffy Lube Live is notable as Merriweather Post Pavilion’s most serious local competitor for outdoor summer concerts. With a total capacity of 25,000 (10,000 in the pavilion proper, and 15,000 on the lawn) it is significantly larger than Merriweather, and thus tends to attract the very largest shows. As can be seen from the aerial view of Jiffy Lube Live, the venue is located in a primarily rural area, with plenty of space for open-air parking.1

Despite that, Jiffy Lube Live has persistent and at times horrendous problems with parking and traffic, as evidenced by the large number of complaints on Yelp and elsewhere. To quote from the very first reviewer: “The parking lot … is a total and utter nightmare! Every freaking show it takes HOURS to get out.” He went on to note: “Merriweather parking is so much easier!” Part of the problem is that although Jiffy Lube Live is close to I-66 it can be reached only via a two-lane road, and there is apparently only one main entrance and exit to the parking lots. However traffic management seems to play a role as well; one Yelp reviewer vented at length to the venue operators:

I have to say that without a doubt, the exit out of the parking lot was the worst I’ve ever seen at a concert. I’ve been to Merriweather Post and Wolf Trap several times—and your venue wins the prize for the most amateurish traffic and parking lot management in the [DC/Maryland/Virginia area]. It took us 1.5 hours to get out—that was longer than [the] actual set. …

Your “senior” staff abdicated responsibility to a bunch of pimply faced teenagers with no training, who had no idea what they were doing. Worse yet, what few of them there were—all stayed bunched together at the very end of each parking zone. They did NOTHING to help manage traffic flow out of the parking lots. They just stood around, checking their phones and talking to each other.

Ouch. I may be cherry-picking bad reviews to some extent, but overall people apparently have pretty negative feelings about parking, traffic, and other aspects of the Jiffy Lube Live experience; the average Yelp rating for the venue is only two-and-a-half stars (out of five), compared to three-and-a-half stars for Merriweather.2

Jay Pritzker Pavilion and surroundings

Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park and surroundings, Chicago IL. Circles show areas within a quarter mile and half mile of the pavilion. Click for high-resolution version.

Let’s now turn from a rural setting to a very urban setting, and look at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park in Chicago. The Pritzker Pavilion has two Merriweather connections: First, like Merriweather it was designed by Frank Gehry, although unlike Columbia Chicago got the benefit of the mature Gehry style.3 Second, the Pritzker Pavilion and the surrounding Millennium Park occupy roughly the same land area as Merriweather Post Pavilion and Symphony Woods, and the Inner Arbor Trust has used Millennium Park as an example of the sort of structures and activities that could be fitted in the combined “Merriweather Park” footprint.

As can be seen from the aerial view of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, there is essentially no open-air parking available anywhere near the pavilion and the surrounding park. However there is a complex of underground parking garages providing over 9,000 spaces in total, most of them within a quarter mile of the pavilion, and there are also nearby rail and bus transit stops. The Pritzker Pavilion is wildly popular (rated at four and a half stars on Yelp), and in reading nearly a hundred reviews I found only one complaint about parking—and that seemed to be as much about the cost as about the availability. (Note also that I found many reviewers commenting on how clean the bathrooms were.)

Cythnia Woods Mitchell Pavilion and surroundings

Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion and surroundings, The Woodlands, Houston TX. Circles show areas within a quarter mile and half mile of the venue. Click for high-resolution version.

Unfortunately (or not, depending on your perspective) Columbia is not a major city like Chicago and thus doesn’t have the transit infrastructure to supplement on-site or nearby venue parking. Probably a better comparison is thus to the Cythnia Woods Mitchell Pavilion (also known as the Woodlands Pavilion) in The Woodlands outside of Houston. Like Columbia, The Woodlands is a planned community and is of roughly similar size (just over a hundred thousand residents). (The pavilion itself is named after the wife of George Mitchell, who as the original developer of The Woodlands played a role similar to that of Jim Rouse in Columbia.) As you can see from the aerial view of Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, like Merriweather the pavilion is located in an exurban location that is heavily car-dependent, with the pavilion itself surrounded by office, residential, and retail developments, including a nearby regional mall. Both pavilions have roughly similar maximum capacities as well, at around 19,000 people (including both pavilion and lawn).4

In fact, the parallels between Merriweather Post Pavilion and the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion are so close that in 2005 the Citizens Advisory Panel on Merriweather Post Pavilion specifically referenced the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion as one of the case studies in their final report [PDF]. Of particular interest in this context are comments by Jerry MacDonald, president and CEO of The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion Center for the Performing Arts, regarding parking:

MacDonald believes that parking is generally not a problem for the pavilion during most concerts, but there are a few major concerts a year, attracting up to 12,000 people, where parking needs are at a premium. MacDonald has agreements with surrounding office buildings to use 5,000 parking spaces and the pavilion has a 932-space garage adjacent to its facility. MacDonald said parking generally fills up in the mall corner nearest the pavilion, but there are many unused spaces on the north side of the facility. He suggested shuttles could be used to distribute parking more evenly.

This sounds like a good guide to the future of parking at Merriweather: leverage parking at nearby office buildings, make use of mall parking when needed, and employ shuttles to more remote parking lots (e.g., on the north side of the Mall in Columbia or at Howard Community College in the case of Merriweather) for the very largest events. The one element not currently present at Merriweather is an on-site parking garage; however the Columbia Association’s original Inner Arbor conceptual plan included exactly such a garage with a capacity of 1,750 cars, almost twice that of the on-site garage at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion.

The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion has been a very successful venue. In addition to hosting popular music concerts it’s the summer home of the Houston Symphony (similar to how Merriweather was to be the summer home of the NSO), and with total annual attendance of over 300,000 in 2010 was second only to the Filene Center at Wolk Trap among outdoor amphitheaters that year. (I couldn’t find recent figures for attendance at Merriweather, but according to the Citizens Advisory Panel report total attendance was about 180,000 in 2004.) Its Yelp ratings (reviewed both as the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion and the Woodlands Pavilion) are three and a half stars and three stars respectively, similar to that of Merriweather, and like Merriweather most people thought traffic and parking were not problems.

Will Merriweather Post Pavilion continue its own tradition of ease of access and convenient parking once construction in the Crescent area begins in earnest? If I can I’ll be attending the Crescent development presubmission community meeting on March 31, and that’s one of the things I hope to be able to ask about.

1. Note that the aerial views of Jiffy Lube Live and the other venues discussed in this post are to the same scale, and cover the same area, as the aerial view of Merriweather Post Pavilion in the previous post.

2. The numbers of Yelp reviews for Jiffy Lube Live and Merriweather Post Pavilion are currently 120 and 134 respectively. Google reviews are even more lop-sided: An average of 2.3 out of 5 for Jiffy Lube Live (70 reviewers) and 4.3 out of 5 for Merriweather (43 reviewers).

3. In case you’re wondering what a Frank Gehry-designed structure currently costs, the total price tag for the Jay Pritzker Pavilion was $60 million dollars, of which about $15 million came from a single private donation (from the Pritzker family). By comparison the current Inner Arbor cost estimate is in the neighborhood of $30 million for all proposed features, with the Chrysalis outdoor amphitheater budgeted at $3.5 million dollars.

4. The two pavilions even have their own respective sort-of-hometown indie bands: Animal Collective, originally from Baltimore, famously named an album after Merriweather Post Pavilion, while Arcade Fire singer and songwriter Win Butler and his brother and bandmate William grew up in The Woodlands, an experience that inspired the album The Suburbs.

Parking and the future of Merriweather Post Pavilion

The future of Symphony Woods and the Inner Arbor plan is tied up with the future of Merriweather Post Pavilion. So what of Merriweather’s future? The past weeks have seen a brewing battle over Merriweather between the Howard County government (more specifically, County Executive Ken Ulman) and the Howard Hughes Corporation. For the complete rundown see Luke Lavoie’s ongoing coverage in the Baltimore Sun, as Ulman first verbally admonished Howard Hughes over the pace of renovations to Merriweather, then proposed legislation expediting transfer of Merriweather to the nonprofit Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission (a move that was envisioned in the original Downtown Columbia plan [PDF]). In response, according to an article by Kevin Litten in the Baltimore Business Journal, John DeWolf of Howard Hughes claimed Ulman had “blindsided” them, and floated the idea of Howard Hughes pulling out of Columbia entirely.

I have no inside knowledge of this whole affair, but I presume that private discussions between the county and Howard Hughes didn’t bear fruit, so that negotiations are now being conducted via press release and lawsuit. I also have no firm opinion as to which side has the better case, so I’ll refrain from commenting on the merits of their respective positions, leaving that to Bill Woodcock and others.

Merriweather Post Pavilion and surroundings. The two circles show areas within a quarter mile and half mile of the pavilion. Click for high-resolution version.

Merriweather Post Pavilion and surroundings. The two circles show areas within a quarter-mile and half-mile of the pavilion. Click for high-resolution version.

My concern in this post is much more mundane, namely the future of parking at Merriweather Post Pavilion. If you check out people’s opinions about Merriweather Post Pavilion on Yelp there are three things that stand out. First, they like the wooded setting. Not surprising, that’s why all the future plans proposed for the Merriweather area have envisioned preserving the natural character of Symphony Woods. Second, a lot of people don’t like the bathrooms. Again, not surprising; I guess that’s one reason why both the county and Howard Hughes agree on the need for renovating Merriweather (even as they disagree on the estimated cost).

Finally, people like the ease of access to Merriweather Post Pavilion and the ease of parking. As one person noted, “[Merriweather] is easy to get to off Rt. 29, and the parking is simple, free and relatively good in terms of easy in, easy out.” Another person expanded on this:

There is also parking right on site in a big lot out back, and though we waited to leave until after the performance was fully over, we still got out of there in a completely reasonable amount of time. To be honest, we were impressed with how efficiently the parking lot exodus was that night.

You can see that “big lot out back” in the above aerial view of Merriweather Post Pavilion and the surrounding area; it’s the open area immediately to the south of Symphony Woods Road, to the south of the pavilion and the southern portion of Symphony Woods. Note that it’s less than a quarter-mile from that lot to the stage of the pavilion, say a five-minute walk or so.

But let’s suppose that Merriweather gets renovated and secures a renewed lease on life. Let’s also suppose that development of the Crescent area surrounding Merriweather on the west and south proceeds along the lines proposed by the Howard Hughes Corporation. The “big lot out back” currently used for Merriweather parking is not part of Symphony Woods itself, nor is it part of the Merriweather property that is proposed to be turned over to the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission. Rather it’s part of the so-called Crescent Area 3 proposed to be developed by Howard Hughes, and per the downtown Columbia plan could eventually be the site of buildings up to 15 to 20 stories tall. At the point when construction starts in earnest in Area 3 (which could be as early as 2015 or 2016) Merriweather is going to experience a severe parking crunch assuming nothing else is done.

What to do about parking at Merriweather? This is by no means a new concern. Almost ten years ago (during the Jim Robey administration) the Citizens Advisory Panel on Merriweather Post Pavilion (established to look at a possible county purchase of Merriweather) had this to say in the executive summary of their final report [PDF]1:

A major concern of the Panel is the expected loss of approximately 4,600 on-site parking spaces when [General Growth Properties, the predecessor to Howard Hughes] develops the adjacent “Crescent” property on which most of that parking is located. The panel recommends that the County replace those spaces by formalizing the use of existing spaces at the GGP office buildings along the north side of Little Patuxent Parkway and the southern portion of the Mall parking near Merriweather; by constructing a parking garage on nearby property owned by the Columbia Association; or by constructing a parking garage jointly with GGP at the Columbia Mall. Another possible solution could be presented if the Crescent parcel is developed as a mixed-use project such that up to 2,000 vehicles could be accommodated for evening events as part of the eventual build-out of the property.

The panel went on to say:

Failure to formalize the available parking agreement with GGP would jeopardize the County’s ability to lease out Merriweather to an operator and would severely limit the long-term viability. Without solving the parking capacity issue, the County should not proceed with the purchase of Merriweather.

How much parking is needed? The panel report estimated that at least 3,700 parking spaces would be needed for a typical 10,000 person show at Merriweather (assuming 2.7 people per space), while the largest Merriweather events at 19,000 people would require at least 7,000 spaces.

Where will this parking come from? It’s worth noting that the panel report was somewhat pessimistic about gaining access to parking spaces at The Mall in Columbia (and in any case, note that most of those spaces are more than a quarter mile from Merriweather). They believed that approximately 3,700 spaces could be cobbled together using parking easements at various existing GGP office properties around Symphony Woods and at the Columbia lakefront (e.g., at the American City Building). They also recommended construction of an up-to-2,500-car parking garage on CA property in Symphony Woods. Finally they looked to the Crescent development to provide even more parking, as noted in the quote above.

How does this match up with current plans for the Crescent area and Symphony Woods? According to the recent Baltimore Sun article on the Crescent Area plans, the entire Crescent development (including Areas 1, 2, and 3) might contain up to 4,360 spaces. On the face of it this seems like enough spaces to replace those lost to development.

However there are a couple of potential problems: First, using the per-area breakdown listed in the Baltimore Sun article (500 spaces for Area 1, 600 spaces for Area 2, and 1,200-1,900 spaces for Area 3) the total parking provided in the first phase of development will be only 2,300-3,000 spaces, well short of the 4,360 figure claimed for the full development and not nearly enough to replace the current spaces that will be lost as soon as construction in the Cresecent area begins. Finally, it’s not clear how many of these spaces, whether in the first phase or later, might be made available for use by Merriweather patrons, or under what terms.

What about other sources of parking? Recall that the original Merriweather advisory panel suggested constructing a parking garage in Symphony Woods on Columbia Association property. That idea reappeared in the original CA Inner Arbor concept presentation, though scaled down somewhat to a 1,750-car facility (in conjunction with a transit center). If constructed this garage would likely be sufficient to handle visitors to Inner Arbor facilities such as the Chrysalis amphitheatre, as well as to any future cultural facilities proposed for Symphony Woods itself, such as a replacement for the current Toby’s Dinner Theatre. However it comes nowhere close to satisfying all of Merriweather’s parking requirements. The associated transit center could help reduce the parking requirements, for example via a shuttle bus system that could allow people to park at more remote locations. However that would require further agreements with other organizations like Howard Community College, and it’s not clear at this time how popular and effective such a service might actually be.

It’s also possible that future parking easements could be secured for the various office buildings around the mall and along Little Patuxent Parkway (as also recommended by the Merriweather advisory panel). However note that the task of gaining easements is more complicated than previously because ownership of those buildings is now split between Howard Hughes (which owns 70 Corporate Center and the American City Building, among others) and GGP (which retained ownership of 10 Corporate Center through 60 Corporate Center).

Where does that leave us? The short answer is that regardless of whether and when ownership of Merriweather Post Pavilion itself is transferred to the Downtown Arts and Culture Commission, the pavilion has no future unless the parking problem is addressed. In turn the Merriweather parking problem can be completely addressed only with the cooperation of Howard Hughes Corporation, regardless of whether or not Howard Hughes actually ends up developing the Crescent property. Parking thus serves as a potential bargaining chip for Howard Hughes in its dispute with Howard County, just as issuance of building permits is a bargaining chip for the county.

In the end realizing people’s dreams for a vital and vibrant downtown Columbia depends on the cooperation of many different players, including not only Howard County and Howard Hughes, but also the Columbia Association, the Inner Arbor Trust, GGP and other property owners, and those private organizations and individuals who can help provide the financing to turn paper plans into attractive built and natural environments. As I wrote above, I have no idea who is “right” in the dispute between Howard County and the Howard Hughes Corporation, and in some sense the idea of either side being “right” or not is beside the point. I simply hope the county and Howard Hughes can find a mutually acceptable resolution to their differences, and that as downtown Columbia evolves both residents and visitors alike can enjoy visits to Merriweather Post Pavilion and Symphony Woods without having major problems just trying to park.

1. The whole report is worth reading; it contains a wealth of information relating to Merriweather Post Pavilion, much of which is still relevant and likely to be echoed in the Merriweather studies currently being commissioned by Howard County and Howard Hughes respectively.