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. ↩︎