Five thoughts on Symphony Woods

9 minute read

Some semi-random thoughts about Symphony Woods and the controversy over its future.

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 a higher-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 a higher-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 Company 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 Company 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 a higher-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. Click for a higher-resolution version. 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.