The Inner Arbor plan takes shape, part 1

7 minute read

Last Tuesday night the Inner Arbor Trust revealed a clearer picture of what’s they’re proposing for downtown Columbia. I attended the pre-submission meeting, including the Q&A afterward. See Luke Lavoie’s before and after articles in the Baltimore Sun and a similar article in the Washington Post for straightforward overviews of the design proposal and reactions to it; read on for my more opinionated take.

Map of the proposed Inner Arbor plan in relation to the surroundings

Overview of the Inner Arbor Trust “Merriweather Park” plan, from the pre-submission meeting

First, my overall impression: I think the plan proposed is very promising overall. It does well on several of the key criteria by which people will judge the Inner Arbor development (and the Inner Arbor Trust itself), and contains some individual elements that I think are potential standouts. In this post I’ll discuss some of the overall issues around the proposal, and then in a follow-up post I’ll comment on the proposal itself.

Along the way there have been several concerns raised about the Inner Arbor plan, and pretty much all of them came up last night, many raised by the very people you’d expect to raise them. To deal with them one by one:

Cy Paumier spoke about—well, I’m not exactly sure what his intended point was. His remarks struck me as in large part a complaint that his original Symphony Woods plan (for a fountain, cafe, and walkways) had been replaced with the Inner Arbor plan, after a fair amount of time and expense had been spent on the original plan. I don’t know Cy Paumier personally, but I understand where he’s coming from on a gut level. I work in a sales group, and have been involved in deals where we put in a lot of work and thought we would win, only to have a competitor swoop in at the last minute and make the sale. It sucks to be in that position, but it happens.

From an objective standpoint I think the Inner Arbor plan as presented Tuesday is a significant improvement on the original Symphony Woods plan, so I think the CA board made the right decision. I think the fact that a lot of time and expense had been spent on the original plan is irrelevant; preceding with that plan would have just been an example of the sunk cost fallacy. I appreciate the work Cy Paumier and his associates put in on the original plan, and wish them success on the next venture they undertake.

Part of the advocacy behind the original Symphony Woods plan seemed less related to the plan itself and more to the idea that it was being put together by a long-time Columbian. It’s an example of people emphasizing how things are done, sometimes to the detriment of what things get done. That focus on process over product showed up in Alan Klein’s remarks, in which he once again complained about the alleged lack of transparency on the part of the Inner Arbor Trust (and as a bonus, put in a little dig about the Inner Arbor Trust not being an actual trust in the legal sense). I’d be more exercised about concerns around transparency if there were any real suspicion that Michael McCall and other people associated with the Inner Arbor Trust were actually abusing their positions in some way.

As best I can tell, the main non-public activities of the Inner Arbor Trust have been the selection of the design team and (I presume) negotiations with potential funders. The latter I think should clearly be exempt from public disclosure until there’s actually something to announce. As for selection of the design team, I am an elitist when it comes to art and architecture: I think some people clearly have better taste than others, and I would rather put my trust in people with taste to do the right thing, as opposed to following a process-driven democratized approach to design. And this way the Inner Arbor Trust is more accountable for the success of the proposed design, as opposed to being able to blame major design flaws on an overly-interfering public.

Alan Klein and others did make a good point about the likely inadequacy of the proposed parking associated with the plan. However I think the response by Michael McCall was appropriate: In the final analysis the problem of parking near Symphony Woods is a shared problem, with the Howard Hughes Corporation and the Howard County government having as much if not more responsibility for solving it. After all, except for relatively infrequent events like Wine in the Woods the major demand for parking in the vicinity of Symphony Woods will come from events at Merriweather Post Pavilion, and also from a new library if one is built. (Even the existing Central Branch is short on parking, as I discussed in an earlier post, and constructing a new facility closer to Symphony Woods, as suggested in the Inner Arbor conceptual plan, will make the problem even worse.)

Let’s conclude by looking at two of the biggest issues raised in connection with plans for Symphony Woods, namely what happens to the trees, and how the area will relate to Merrieather Post Pavilion. On the tree issue I’ll note three points:

First, the Inner Arbor Trust is clearly aware of people’s sensitivities regarding the trees and has taken many steps to address them. Martha Schwartz (the first of the design team presenters) emphasized up front that the site was already beautiful and that “the trees come first”. The plan details show lots of care being taken to minimize the impact of the proposed new structures.

Second, Scott Rykiel (of the landscape design firm Mahan & Rykiel) made the observation that the woods were not ecologically sustainable in their current form, basically consisting of just the tree themselves with mowed grass underneath. Thus the goal has to be not just simple preservation but rather reconstituting a natural ecology in the woods, including new plantings under the trees and naturalization of streams running through the woods.

Finally, in response to a question from Russ Swatek regarding whether the Inner Arbor Trust would commit to a maximum limit on trees removed, Scott Rykiel noted that the current plan as presented would require the removal of only 15 trees. Given that the original Symphony Woods plans envisioned removing significantly more trees, I found this pretty impressive—as did Russ Swatek, judging from his reaction.

The bottom line is that I think the Inner Arbor Trust is addressing concerns about the trees of Symphony Woods to the satisfaction of everyone except those who’d be opposing the project for other reasons in any event.

I’m not quite as sanguine about the other major issue, namely working with Howard Hughes Corporation to integrate the Inner Arbor plan with Merriweather Post Pavilion. From the Inner Arbor Trust side there was a lot of talk about trying to integrate the new park with Merriweather in various ways, and in particular making it possible for park visitors to traverse the Merriweather space during times when no events were scheduled.

Whether that enthusiasm will be reciprocated remains to be seen. John DeWolf was quoted in the Baltimore Sun as finding the Inner Arbor plans “interesting” and “applaud[ing] their efforts”; he then went on to say “They are going to have to give us some due deference on Merriweather. Right now, we don’t feel as compelled to think about it as one neighborhood.” I may be over-reacting, but I thought this comment introduced rather a sour note into the overall atmosphere of optimism over the future of Symphony Woods; at the very least I wouldn’t consider it to be a “buying signal”, to use a sales analogy. If I were a potential major funder of the Inner Arbor Trust I’d quite possibly see the need for cooperation from the Howard Hughes Corporation as a potential risk factor threatening the success of any investment in the Inner Arbor effort.

DeWolf’s comment certainly contrasted with Ken Ulman’s comments in the same article that “We need to think big about Merriweather and Symphony Woods.” Howard County politicians in general have been vocally supportive of the Inner Arbor effort as its unfolded. Perhaps one of them could have a quiet chat with the folks at the Howard Hughes Corporation and encourage them to be a little more enthusiastic in their public comments, especially given the major positive effect a successful Inner Arbor plan could have on the value of Howard Hughes developments in downtown Columbia. It would certainly be ironic if the high-flying visions for Symphony Woods were to ultimately crash not through the efforts of anti-development Columbian activists but through the indifference of and lack of cooperation from the Howard Hughes Corporation.

But enough of naysaying and potential problems; in my next post I’ll look at the proposal itself.