On February 14, CA approved a plan for Symphony Woods called the Inner Arbor Plan which includes an Arts Village. The Inner Arbor Plan will add a cultural/musical/arts dimension, while protecting the woods. It is a balance of active and passive uses. Moreover, as the Inner Arbor Plan will fulfill Jim Rouse’s idea for a Tivoli-like area in Columbia, it is fitting for CA to complete one of Jim Rouse’s unfinished plans. The public has asked several questions which need to be addressed.
“What about public input?”
CA’s approval of the Inner Arbor Plan is just the beginning of the process. It is still a concept plan. The County has defined a sixteen-step process for developing land in Downtown Columbia. This process allows public input in eight forums including two community meetings. There is a lot of opportunity for public input/comment. This gives the public, particularly Columbia residents, ample opportunity to ask their questions and express their opinions. This process for developing land in Downtown Columbia has been used previously by GGP for the Mall expansion and by Howard Hughes Corporation for the new Metropolitan apartments. There is no need for CA to duplicate the County process. Adding another CA process on top of the County process sends the message that CA wants to be special and that the County’s process is not good enough for CA. We need to work more cooperatively with the County and relying on the County process is in everyone’s best interest.
“Didn’t CA already complete the County Downtown Development Process?”
No, CA started the process, but did not complete the entire process. Building cannot start until the whole sixteen-step process is complete. The County’s process is divided into two phases, each with eight steps (and ample opportunity for public input). The first phase can be described as the concept or planning phase. In general terms, this first conceptual planning phase of the County process addresses: how the design fits into the overall Downtown Plan and specifically the local neighborhood plan; how the design meets the Downtown and neighborhood design guidelines; how the design is compatible with the surrounding buildings/uses; and how the design meets the requirements for Downtown Columbia. The second phase of the County process can be described as the detailed plan. This phase describes exactly what is to be built in precise terms (height, size, construction material, landscape, etc.), exactly where it is to be built, and what infrastructure (roads, water, sewer, electrical, etc.) is needed. The final result of completing this phase is a very detailed site design plan, which can then move into the construction process.
“What did CA submit to the County?”
CA submitted a concept plan for the northern part of Symphony Woods. This concept plan included items such as a plaza, pathways, a fountain, a café, an amphitheater, places for sculptures, and parking. CA also submitted neighborhood design guidelines. This concept plan was submitted to the County and completed the first eight steps in the County Downtown Development Process. However, it was clear from the legally binding stipulations contained in the Planning Board’s Decision and Order issued on September 6, 2012, that the County was not pleased with the specifics of CA original concept plan. Specifically, the
Decision and Order said, “The Final Development Plan is to be revised to add a general note stating that tree removal shall be minimized by aligning paths around healthy trees and minimizing grading.” This simple sentence’s import is clear and binding on CA’s efforts: No plan that cuts down trees due to the formal geometry of paths is permitted. Additionally, the Decision and Order stipulated a greater degree of integration with Merriweather Post Pavilion. (It should be noted that even without these clear directives from the County, CA still only completed the concept phase and was not anywhere near the ability to construct any of it.)
“Can CA merge the first plan with the Inner Arbor Plan?”
Actually, the Inner Arbor Plan incorporates many of the items included in the first concept plan. The Inner Arbor plan includes a fountain, several plazas, an amphitheater, pathways, and one or two food places (a café) in addition to an Arts Village and other items. What the Inner Arbor Plan does is to position these items in different areas, consistent with the County’s Decision and Order and its binding stipulations (see above). Where CA’s first plan addressed the northern section of Symphony Woods, the Inner Arbor Plan addresses the whole of Symphony Woods, i.e. the northern, eastern, southern, and western portions of Symphony Woods. It gives a broad view of what is planned for the entire park. It also better integrates Symphony Woods with Merriweather Post Pavilion and surrounding properties. Again, CA’s original design, or any design that requires trees to be cut down because of the formal geometry of paths (e.g. straight lines, circles, etc.) is not permitted. As per the County’s binding Decision and Order, the paths must “meander” through the woods, and this is what the Inner Arbor Plan calls for.
“Does the Inner Arbor Plan meet the Downtown Columbia Vision?”
Yes, which is evident from the County’s reaction. At least four of the five County Council Members (Calvin Ball, Mary Kay Sigaty, Jen Terrasa, and Courtney Watson) and County Executive Ken Ulman have written endorsements of the Inner Arbor Plan and the formation of the Trust to effectuate its development, and they praised CA for its leadership in this regard. Howard County’s leaders believe that the Inner Arbor Plan is a physical design of what the strategic law of the land, articulated in the Downtown Columbia Plan, enacted by the County on February 1st, 2010. While County officials were lukewarm, at best, regarding CA’s first plan; all indications are the CA has hit a home run with the Inner Arbor Plan, for what the Downtown Columbia Plan calls the Merriweather-Symphony Woods Neighborhood. The Inner Arbor Plan will add a cultural/musical/arts dimension for which the Columbia community has been clamoring, while protecting the precious woods. It is a balance of active and passive uses, in an environmentally sensitive strategy.
“Why build a CA Headquarters in Symphony Woods?”
Symphony Woods can be an ideal place for CA’s headquarters, as part of the Arts Village in the Inner Arbor Plan. The Arts Village buildings together with CA Headquarters will be positioned to take advantage of the land topology and stacked together. This would minimize the land needed for buildings, locate all the utilities in one compact area, and contain the most active uses of the park in one area. This is an example of smart, environmentally friendly development. However, the final location of CA Headquarters depends many considerations, and the final decision has not been made.
“Does this mean that CA will build its headquarters in Symphony Woods?”
The CA’s Board preferred location for the new CA Headquarters is in Symphony Woods; though, CA has not stopped looking at other options. One of the difficulties in other locations is the high cost of land and building, plus requisite renovation costs. CA has explored several properties, but the cost was beyond the budget. CA will continue to explore the market to see if any property is available at a reasonable cost to CA. If such a location is found at a reasonable cost, in Downtown Columbia, it will be seriously considered for the CA Headquarters.
“Why create a Trust to implement the Plan?”
Creating a separate 501.c.3 organization for specific purposes has been done before by CA. It is not a new or radical concept. There are two major reasons for creating a non-profit, charitable (501.c.3) trust to implement the plan. First, the Trust will be responsible for raising money to implement the plan. Having it charitable, means that people and organizations can make contributions that would be deductible. The cost of the project does not have to fall totally to CA. (This is one of the reasons CA created a nonprofit charitable organization to operate Columbia’s 50th Birthday Celebration.) The second reason is that this arts and entertainment cultural development project is a complex, multi-year endeavor which requires oversight by a specific organization focused on developing the Plan. The CA Board of Directors has many responsibilities and cannot devote the time and effort to adequately oversee a project of this complexity and time-span. The Inner Arbor demands a purpose built organization and team focused solely on implementing the Inner Arbor Plan.
“Will the Trust own the land in Symphony Woods?”
No, CA will own the land and will continue to own the land in Symphony Woods, in perpetuity. The Trust will have no ownership of the land in Symphony Woods. What the Trust will have is an easement to use the land in Symphony Woods. CA has granted several easements for use of its land including easements to the County and to utility companies. By granting easements, CA retains ownership of land, and everyone benefits from the development of the Inner Arbor Plan.
“Why not just create a ‘Friends of…’ to raise funds for the Inner Arbor Plan?”
CA has created a Friends of Columbia organization, but it has not been successful in getting the organization operational. The Friends of Columbia has too broad a scope and is too closely tied to CA. For the Inner Arbor, CA’s lawyers recommended creating a Trust that focuses solely on Symphony Woods, at an “arms-length” distance from CA. This means that the Trust will be separate from CA and will not be controlled by CA. The IRS insists on this arms-length concept. Although it is a non-profit organization, CA is not a charitable organization. CA is a 501.c.4 organization. It is crucial that the Trust be a 501.c.3 organization, in order to raise funds by attracting grants and donations. If the Trust is not a 501.c.3 organization, then the burden of building the Inner Arbor will fall completely on CA and the lien payer residents of Columbia. This must be avoided.
“What conditions were placed on creating the Trust?”
The CA Board directed CA management to establish the Inner Arbor Trust under the following terms:
1. The Trust will be a 501.c.3 entity, able to accept charitable donations and grants.
2. The Trust is tasked to implement the approved Inner Arbor Plan. Any material deviations from the Plan will require CA Board approval.
3. The Trust will be governed by a five (5) member Board, of which:
a. The CA President and CEO will be an Ex Officio voting Board Member;
b. Two (2) Board Members will also be CA Board Members; and,
c. Two (2) Board Members will not be CA Board Members, but will, nonetheless, have a strong record of community involvement and service.
4. CA will enter into a perpetual easement agreement and other related documents, which will obligate the Trust to implement the Inner Arbor Plan.
5. The Trust funding:
a. CA will allocate to the Trust the existing budgeted amount for Symphony Woods of $1.6 Million.
b. CA provides future grants consistent with the amounts allocated in the adopted operating budgets.
c. The CA Board must approve all additional funding or financial obligations made from CA funding sources. These criteria mandate that the Trust implement the Inner Arbor Plan approved by CA. If the Trust proposes major changes to the Inner Arbor Plan, it must come back to the CA Board of Directors for approval. This will be handled in a public process just as other requests to the CA Board. Since CA retains ownership of the land and the Trust has an easement, this constraint is a legitimate condition, which can be imposed upon the Trust. CA did this to ensure that the Trust stays focused upon completing the Inner Arbor Plan.
“Why is CA giving the Trust money?”
To start off the Trust, CA will give the Trust thecapital funds that have already been approved for Symphony Woods. Over several years, the CA Board has approved a total of about $1.6M to fund the development of Symphony Woods. The funds are to implement items that are now part of the Inner Arbor Plan. Since the Trust will have the responsibility of implementing these items under the Inner Arbor Plan, the Trust can use these funds to begin to build these components. It also allows the Trust to start projects as it searches for additional funding sources.
“Does the Trust automatically get additional CA money?”
No. If the Trust wants anyadditional capital money from CA it has to come back to the CA Board and request it. CA has a public budget process that the Trust will have to follow (just as any other organization such as the Villages). The Trust can request additional funds, but it must tell CA what it intends to do with those funds and the CA Board must approve allocating all future funds to the Trust for the Inner Arbor Plan.
“What safeguards is CA using to protect itself (and its residents)?”
First, the Trust is obligated to implement the Inner Arbor Plan. Any major changes require the CA Board to approve the proposed changes. Second, CA is giving the trust $1.6M, but any additional CA funds will require the approval of the CA Board of Directors. Third, the CA President is a permanent member of the Trust Board of Directors. Fourth, CA will continue to own the land in Symphony Woods.
“Does the Inner Arbor Plan contain a parking structure in Symphony Woods?”
No, there is no parking structure on CA Symphony Woods land. The Inner Arbor Plan does show a potential parking structure on non-CA land, but it is not the responsibility of the Trust to build that structure. The Downtown Columbia plan envisions patrons for Symphony Woods – Merriweather Post Pavilion using parking facilities in buildings surrounding the park, but not in the park itself.
“Isn’t the Inner Arbor Plan rather rushed?”
No. The CA Board has been working on plans for Symphony Woods for over two years. There have been many discussions about Symphony Woods and working with the County and Howard Hughes Corporation. In October, the CA Board, in an open meeting followed by a work session open to the public, discussed Symphony Woods and took a straw vote that it wanted to make the Inner Arbor Plan the center- piece of the development of Symphony Woods, that it wanted to set up a Trust for Symphony Woods and that the preferred location for a CA
Headquarters would be Symphony Woods. This was not done in a closed meeting and people were free to pass this information along to Village Boards and residents. The Inner Arbor Plan presented in January was the result of the CA Board’s direction to CA management.
Thanks to Andy Stack, Owen Brown Council Representative, for providing this useful information.
To view the Inner Arbor Plan, click here.