If a place can suffer from an identity crisis, then central Towson has been such a place. For much of this century, Towson was the sleepy seat of Baltimore County government. But in the past three decades, private office towers, modern government buildings and big commercial projects such as the new Towson Commons and the revamped Towson Town Center have elbowed their way in among the strip shopping malls and neighborhoods near York Road, the area's "Main Street."
The question, then, often arises: What is downtown Towson? A quaint, historic village, typified by the street-level shops on the east side of York Road's 400 block? A business-retail hub, symbolized by the huge Towson Commons complex on the 400 block's west side? Or a government center comprising old and new county office buildings?
The likely answer is that Towson currently is an amalgam of the three, with the latter two identities gaining dominance. Since Towson's first high-rise went up 30 years ago, the village identity has been doomed, although elements of it will be maintained under the Towson community plan the County Council approved last February.
What the plan's backers hope to achieve is a guiding concept for development. A common criticism of the area is that many buildings -- especially ugly, user-unfriendly high-rises -- appear to have been plopped here and there in Towson with little hint of fitting an overall layout. The new plan should remedy that, as public planners, private developers and community leaders work together to instill a method and eliminate some of the madness in Towson's growth.
For now, the plan is limited by recessionary restraints. Efforts in the coming years will be confined to creating "urban amenities," such as green spaces, walking trails and spruced-up streetscapes. The area is abuzz over Towson Town Center, Towson Commons and the imminent debut of the Nordstrom store, but those were developed in better economic times. Similarly dazzling projects are not in the pipeline.
Yet, optimists and visionaries -- such as Leslie Graef, who retired this week after 12 years at the helm of the Towson Development Corp. -- can't wait for the economy to improve. Then, as Les Graef says, you can "let your imagination roll."
In the not-so-distant future, the Hahn Co. could carry out its plan to develop the lot just south of Hecht's and build a skywalk to renovated Hutzler's building, where other developers want to open a cultural arts center. Then imagine what a light-rail stop could do for the area. Imagine a downtown Towson that isn't deserted after 5 p.m., where people come day and night to work, shop, eat, be entertained.
Imagine the completion of the goal stated in the county government's recent Master Plan, to make the area into "a lively, 24-hour urban center with a distinctive high quality appearance building upon Towson's unique character."