Whimsical touches boost concrete-bound Towson Town Center

TOWSON'S TAJ MAHAL?

October 27, 1991|By Edward Gunts

Upscale regional malls are the dinosaurs of the retailing industry. In an age when wallet-friendly Wal-Mart is the nation's No. 1 retailer and even yuppies are discovering the joys of discount shopping at the Price Club, any developer would be taking a risk to open another mammoth mall full of mostly high-end specialty retailers.

Given that trend, the $150 million expansion of Towson Town Center that made its debut earlier this month may well be the last large retail center or expansion to open in the Baltimore area this century -- the last of the mall-hicans.

As if the recession and penny-pinching shopping habits didn't ,, present enough of a battle for the developers, a group headed by the Hahn Co. of San Diego, they have taken even more of a risk with their design for the 600,000-square-foot expansion. This is not the typical two-level mall in a former cornfield, surrounded by a sea of parking, but a much more complicated project that may be more difficult to grasp for those with a suburban mindset.

At the same time, the architectural firm of RTKL Associates of Baltimore has rewarded shoppers who make the trek inside by creating a Taj Mahal of retailing that has more than its share of wit and whimsy.

"We wanted to make sure it is not only great classical architecture, but an environment that you'll have fun in," Hahn president John Gilchrist Jr. said on opening day. "It only works if you like what you see."

Now that the opening hoopla has died down, the big question is: Will they go for it?

Bounded by Joppa and Dulaney Valley roads and Fairmount Avenue, Towson Town Center represents an effort by RTKL to take the suburban mall format it developed successfully with the White Marsh and Owings Mills retail centers, and adapt it to a more urban setting.

The chief difference is that at Towson Town, most of the 4,360 parking spaces are not in surface lots but in a series of garages that encircle the retail space like the moat of a castle -- and can be just as hard to cross. From almost any vantage point the center seems to be wrapped in a layer of concrete garages, which combine to create a hard, bruising presence that is as forbidding as a fortress. The main indicators that it is more than a place to park are the three domed skylights, which can be seen from a considerable distance on the Towson skyline, and the symbolic mall entrance along Fairmount Avenue.

Further complicating the design process were the irregular boundaries and hilly topography of the site, and the fact that the expansion had to be connected to an existing center that dates from 1959. In response, RTKL created a center that is shaped in plan like an A. One leg of the A is the old retail center, which was upgraded as part of the project. The second leg is the stretch between an existing Hecht's store and the future Nordstrom's, a four-level department store that will open next fall at the apex of ,, the A. Connecting the two legs is a circulation spine that provides much of the common space of the mall, including a large food court and rotunda.

Given the imperfect site conditions, it's not a bad solution. Merchants in the original leg are at a temporary disadvantage because there are no strong anchors to draw shoppers past their doors, but that will change once Nordstrom's opens.

If Towson Town has an Achilles' heel, however, it is the less-than-ideal parking situation. Just the presence of these garages is probably enough to scare the timid driver who would rather circle a surface lot for hours than risk a fender bender inside a parking deck. A wrong turn by one or two of them could lead to the kind of instant gridlock that can paralyze a center such as this, fraying nerves and putting shoppers in a bad mood before they even get to the mall.

But the clever design feat behind this center is that because the garages are linked directly to the retail space, they actually shorten the amount of walking distance from car to store. By parking on the upper level of the garage near Joppa Road and walking directly into the top level of the mall, for example, shoppers actually have a shorter distance to go than if they had parked in the surface lot of another center and walked to its second level.

But it's a sophisticated urban concept for a community that is still wedded to and reveling (some would say mired) in its suburbanism. The issue is whether they will change their parking habits or think it's too much of a hassle and go elsewhere.

Cherubs and butterfly wings

If parking takes more effort than it does at malls with surface lots, the designers tried their best to compensate by creating an interior setting that is worth the effort it takes to get there.

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