Towson Commons turns local trade into overflow crowds

THOROUGHLY MODERN TOWSON

November 15, 1992|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

After more than 40 years, the 1950s have ended in Towson.

The dowdy county seat, where provincialism has long been a matter of civic pride, has changed in an unmistakable way.

New retailers and restaurants are moving in, the sidewalks are no longer rolled up at 5:30 p.m., and if you plan to have dinner on Saturday night you'd better have a reservation or be prepared to cool your heels for an hour or so.

Towson -- no kidding, Towson -- is a happening kind of place.

The main reason: Towson Commons. After a slow start in May, the ambitious retail-office-entertainment complex has become a powerful draw, integrating neatly with commerce along York Road and its side streets. Its movie complex and four restaurants are luring visitors from far-flung communities to a shopping district that formerly depended solely on local trade.

At Mykonos, across York Road from Towson Commons, Lambis Platsis said "dinner has improved drastically" at the family-run Greek restaurant. Diners come from as far away as the Eastern Shore and Pennsylvania to the once-quiet neighborhood restaurant. "It seems that Towson is becoming the place to eat."

Rick Bielski, owner of the Charles Village Pub on Pennsylvania Avenue, said his two other restaurants were carrying the underperforming Towson restaurant for a long time. Now, he said, lines form outside the Towson restaurant on weekend nights.

"I heard one person comment that it looks like Times Square on the weekends now," he said.

The evidence of a restaurant boom is even more dramatic at Towson Commons itself. Mick's, which opened last month, had about 80 percent of its tables filled last Monday at 1:45 p.m. Manager Ryland Johnson said there has been a line for dinner every night since the restaurant opened, with waits of up to two hours for tables on Saturday nights. L&N Seafood, Paolo's and Pizzeria Uno are drawing crowds, too.

Another big draw is the eight-screen General Cinema complex on the second floor of Towson Commons. Some gift shops on the first level are staying open until 10 p.m. or later to catch the outgoing crowds. The theater recently added a midnight showing on weekends, which is already popular with Towson State University students, said assistant manager Jeff Schock.

The other Towson

All this activity plays to mixed reviews in the other Towson -- the sleepy town dominated by a proud corps of World War II-generation businessmen who are separated from Towson Commons by much more than York Road.

Duck into the Kent Lounge, where Peter Karangelen has been presiding for 37 years, and it's like taking a time machine back to the Eisenhower years. The neatly paneled, dimly lighted bar and restaurant look as if they have been preserved in amber since 1955 as a haven from fashionable intruders such as Towson Commons.

Mr. Karangelen fought the project and is still angry about the five liquor licenses Baltimore County awarded it. "We feel they have taken a percentage of business away from the locals and the established businesses."

Dick Rudolph, owner of the Towson Bootery, said that "if business keeps up as it is now, I'll settle for it the rest of my life." But the man who claims the unofficial title of "mayor of Towson" wasn't giving Towson Commons credit for anything more than a "trickle off" of business.

"We needed another shopping center like Custer needed more Indians," Mr. Rudolph said. He still hasn't set foot in the project, even though it's right across the street from the shoe store he has operated since the 1940s.

Some of the project's opponents seem to be softening.

"It's positive. I see more people on the streets," said LeRoy Haile Jr. as he leaned over the tank-like green Olympia typewriter he has used in his Chesapeake Avenue real estate office since 1954.

But doubts remain. "I think we're sort of heavy in the saloon business," Mr. Haile said. "I hope that the clientele doesn't degenerate with the number of liquor outlets."

There is irony in Towson Commons' role as centerpiece of a revitalized Towson. For years, the project seemed snake-bitten as financial troubles and community opposition threatened to halt construction.

Towson Commons was the brainchild of Baltimore developer James Ward, a man whose vision and ambition outstripped his luck and resources. He and several partners assembled the parcel in the early 1980s, with the idea of opening in 1986, but Mr. Ward spent most of the decade in an unsuccessful effort to raise money to build a huge project that would have included a hotel.

Weighed down by carrying costs on the land, Mr. Ward lost control of the project in 1989, when he sold out to LaSalle Partners of Chicago.

At first, LaSalle had no more luck than Mr. Ward. It had to run the gantlet of a yearlong zoning battle, triggered by community opposition to the size of the 10-story complex. LaSalle won, but by the time it started construction, the commercial real estate market in the Baltimore region was going into the tank.

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