As CA Board election season kicks off and candidates begin to emerge in what is sure to be an intense campaign season, more than anything I hope for clean and civil races. Remember, these are unpaid community positions. Our neighbors are seeking these positions with a willingness to volunteer a significant amount of their time in order to do what they believe will make their village and Columbia a better place to live. And whether or not you agree with their position, they deserve respect. These aren’t politicians - these are neighbors. Treat the candidates like you would when you see your neighbor walking their dog or taking their kids to the tot lot or grabbing the mail.
But even an optimistic person like me is fearful of this being a brutal campaign season. Personal attacks, speculation and wild theories about underlining motives are already beginning.
Here’s how I hope to cut through the BS. Asking the candidates questions.
As an individual with significant interest in the future of Downtown Columbia, here are some of the questions I have for the Columbia Council candidates related to land use in Downtown Columbia.
What do you envision for the future of Symphony Woods? Do you support the revised plan for Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods? Do you vow to protect Symphony Woods as a CA-owned public amenity?
What do you want to see happen with Symphony of Lights? Do you support or oppose allowing the event to continue as a driving event on or adjacent to Symphony Woods?
What role, if any, do you see for CA in Downtown Columbia?
Here are my thoughts on these issues (and no, I’m not a candidate - I’m sitting this year out - I'm just a blogger with ideas and opinions).
On Development in Downtown Columbia: I’m obviously just about as big a fan of the Downtown Columbia plan as you can get. I love all the cool new places and businesses we are beginning to see open and I’m psyched for all that is planned for the future. I love the density, walkability, housing and jobs it will provide, the opportunities it offers, and the economic impact that an increased tax base can provide to us residents. So yeah, build it up, but just leave Symphony Woods in the middle of it.
I've read the conspiracy theories that a goal of the Rouse Project is to elect CA Board Members that would support significant increased development in the area of Symphony Woods. To me, this reads as if people think The Rouse Project wants CA to sell Symphony Woods to developers so it can be bulldozed and replaced with even more mixed-use development.
Frankly, this theory doesn’t any make sense to me. Here's why: there is tremendous value for new downtown residents and businesses in having a public park next door and this proximity provides value to the developer. Additionally, there are also already multiple projects lined up in the Howard Hughes development pipeline on land they already own so would they be conspiring to obtain even more now. Not to mention the intense backlash they would receive for suggesting that the last remaining cherished plot of wooded green space in Downtown Columbia should be removed. Hell, even I would turn against them.
With that said, I think it would go a long way in shutting these rumors down if CA candidates, particularly those supported by the Rouse Project, came out with a strong statement of support for protecting and enhancing Symphony Woods. And I will tell you that if destroying Symphony Woods were ever to be proposed, this YIMBY is aligning with the NIMBYs.
On Symphony Woods: I much rather see all stakeholders come together with a clear plan to finance the completion of Merriweather Park in Symphony Woods. I love the newly revised, CA approved, plan for the Park. It adds everyday amenities (several sweet destination playgrounds, paths, pavilions), improved access via new bridges, space for art installations, and reinforced ridgeline to improve infrastructure for festivals and events. It does this with a design that showcases the trees and spotlights the natural environment. I love the idea of including a small welcome center that gives CA and other downtown organizations a place to provide information and let the public sign up for services. I would nitpick small aspects of the park plan. A dog park would be a nice addition and I think equal focus should be paid to improving and beautifying the entrances into Merriweather Post Pavilion (in addition to adding new entrances into Symphony Woods). But on the whole, the plan is great. Make it happen!
On Symphony of Lights: I thought CA relentlessly pursuing legal action to stop the beloved COVID safe holiday tradition this past year was just plain bonkers. But moving forward, and acknowledging that this is likely an unpopular opinion, I prefer that Symphony of Lights does not continue as a driving event in Downtown Columbia. We are supposed to be building a people-oriented walkable urban space. A vehicle procession of idling cars wrapping all around Downtown every day of December does not fit the vision. My preference would be to keep Symphony of Lights in Downtown Columbia but reimaged as a winter festival. One that gets people out of their vehicles interacting with their environment and each other. A festival could spread across MPP, Symphony Woods, and the Merriweather District and include things like snowless snow tubing, a cozy outdoor winter beer garden with heaters and fire pits and themed hot cocktails, a sleigh ride or walkthrough of the SoL LEDs set up in MPP, food/beverage concessions, concerts / performances on select nights, a holiday market of local vendors, the Color Burst Park ice rink, and special winter-themed menus at participating restaurants - all jointly promoted together as mega winter festival. Not only do I think this could be freaking amazing, but it could be hugely profitable and continue to be a major fundraiser for the Hospital or other local causes.
Better cooperation between CA and Downtown Organizations. Merriweather Post Pavilion and Symphony Woods are both cherished landmarks in Columbia that provide so much to our city and greatly enhance quality of life. Instead of fighting over property lines and easement rights, I wish the entities behind these places would work together. The newly-built joint bathrooms that can be accessible from either the Chrysalis area or Merriweather Post Pavilion is a great example on how these neighbors can share resources. I'd like to see more shared infrastructure and joint partnerships on events. I’m in support of large music festivals that utilize both stages or big festival events (like my reimagined Symphony of Lights winter festival) that take place in both MPP and Symphony Woods. Proceeds from events that take place on shared land can be split, and used to help finance the completion of Merriweather Park. I’m totally cool if public access to Symphony Woods is restricted a handful of weekends each year if it means that some profits from these events can help finance park amenities that can be enjoyed by the public every other day of the year.