Columbia’s “Central Park": The Inner Arbor Trust Plan for Symphony Woods

The Inner Arbor Trust, the not-for-profit organization in charge of Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods, released an updated concept plan in November to outline their vision and design plan being considered for the transformation of Symphony Woods into a true community park in Downtown Columbia.


An 80-slide slide-deck (with tons of concept images) and a 100 minute long YouTube presentation are available on the Inner Arbor Trust website describing the plan, and I highly encourage you to have a look-see for yourself if you want the deets straight from the source. But, I did this work already and also spoke with Inner Arbor Trust President and CEO, Nina Basu. Here's my overview of the plan, complete with maps, concept art, and insights.


INTRODUCTION

As it is, Symphony of Woods is a public space available for use by the community. Anybody, at any time of day, is currently welcome to enter the space for recreation and relaxation. You can picnic, toss a frisbee, read a book under a tree or visit the creeks. You can even step foot onto the Chrysalis stage and let your kids put on an impromptu performance. But, due to a lack of access and a lack of amenities, the one last remaining slice of wooded natural terrain in Columbia is infrequently used by the community outside of special events. If the concept plan is realized, that will change. The new concept plan is big and bold; it envisions a "Central Park" for Columbia that showcases its unique natural setting characterized by woodland and creeks, but with improved accessibility, amenities, connectivity, playgrounds, and yes, bathrooms - all designed using natural materials that do not overpower the serene oasis or overwhelm the woodlands.


The new 2020 concept plan is an update from a 2013 version of the plan, and has been reimagined after a five month development process with a stakeholder advisory committee comprised of representatives from all the major downtown organizations, landowners, as well as resident members.

Collectively, this group of community leaders provided the following guiding principles that aided the design:

  • Building on the vision and legacy of Columbia to make the park a unique and popular destination for all

  • Respect and enhance the existing natural woodland and creek character of the park without overcrowding the park

  • Ensure the park works as a 365-days per year space, for all ages.

  • Selectively add features that are flexible to accommodate a wide range of activities, while also improving function

  • Create a unique "art park" - a place that promotes and displays art and culture

With these principles in mind, Living Design Lab and Unknown Studio were brought in as the landscape architecture and urban design team to conceptualize the community vision of a “Central Park” for Columbia that contributes to the quality of life for all Columbia residents.

PLAN COMPONENTS

The plan includes the addition of four signature bridges that allow access and welcomes visitors into the park via pedestrian bridges over river and through the woods; an amenities building at the high ground at the ridgeline; three new playgrounds; several architectural interesting gazebos and pavilions; and many more pathways.


As readers of The Merriweather Post already know (since I have noted this fact in nearly every one of my recent articles), Symphony Woods surrounds and entirely landlocks Merriweather Post Pavilion, though most people only associate the Chrysalis area and nearby wooded fields where special events are held as part of the Park. The new plan would incorporate the largely unutilized wooded terrain in the north behind the The Chrysalis plus the creeks in the South.


Key aspects of the plan include:


Bridges: Four signature "over the water and into the trees" gateway bridges that provide access and invite visitors inside. Two bridges high-up in the trees and two down low by the creek. A Southwest Gateway, Southern Gateway, Eastern Gateway, and Northeast Gateway Bridge.


Ridgeline: A newly reinforced ridgeline spine along the high ground of the hillside capable of hosting arts installations, vendor kiosks, food trucks, tents, and service vehicles. The ridgeline would include improved fencing and a covered walkway/promenade that provides separation between Symphony Woods and Merriweather Post Pavilion.


Amenities Building: A new amenity building along the ridgeline would include bathrooms, a visitor center for all things Downtown Columbia, and concession capabilities. This amenity building concept is different from The Butterfly, a Welcome Center component of previous interactions of the Symphony Woods plan. Though, the exclusion of the Butterfly from the new plan would not preclude a structure like the Butterfly, with a rooftop providing sightlines into both Merriweather Post Pavilion and Chrysalis stages, being added in the future.


Pathways: New pathways all throughout Symphony Woods that would create a circuit that could be used for exercise. Benches and tables throughout. Recently, one of these new pathways (leading into the Park from Little Patuxent Pkwy) has already been constructed, and a new east/west pathway will be constructed in Spring/Summer 2021.


Gazebos and Pavilions: Several new gazebos and pavilions designed for picnicking with interesting contemporary designs that will fit in nicely with and compliment the Chrysalis.


Playgrounds: Three (!) new playgrounds. An acoustic/kinetic play" structure near the future amenity building. A sculptural destination playground ("The Moth") in the Upper West Side. And an iconic natural "Bend in the Creek" treetop playground behind the Chrysalis in the northeast corner that has already unofficially been nicknamed Ewok Village by the Basu family.


EVENTS

All these additions and new amenities would be done in order to support currently beloved events like Wine in the Woods and the Hops and Harvest festival, as well as the recent favorite of my family, FantasyWoods (we gotta bring back those mermaids and unicorns!). More events, including more Cultural and Art events, Food Festivals and perhaps (cough cough, a Walking Symphony of Lights Winter Festival), could be added in the future. Plus, smaller things like weekly happy hours or Food Truck Fridays. All this begs the question: Can COVID soon be over? Please!


TIMELINE AND FUNDING

This is just a concept. We are still in the imagining process, and the plan still needs the approval of the Columbia Association. But this revised plan is scalable, considers recent land-use changes, and was closely developed with all key neighbors and stakeholders. The Inner Arbor Trust is confident that this plan will be achievable.


Of course, the issue is funding. While some small components of the plan have some partial funding in place (for pathways, storm water management, and partially for the amenities building), this plan is not funded. Public and private grant funding is currently being pursued. It is not anticipated that the Columbia Association will be capable of contributing financially to this project anytime soon. If approved, the timing and order in which components of this Symphony Woods plan would be built would also be dependent on the the realization and timing of when the rest of the Downtown Columbia Master plan comes online, including the Merriweather District and New Cultural Center.

Credit: Unknown Studio. www.unknownstudio.la
Credit: Unknown Studio. www.unknownstudio.la
Credit: Unknown Studio. www.unknownstudio.la
Credit: Unknown Studio. www.unknownstudio.la

Credit: Unknown Studio. www.unknownstudio.la