Councilman calls a halt to ugly Towson buildings

January 11, 1993|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

It's hard to define a beautiful building, but Baltimore County Councilman Douglas B. Riley thinks 'ugly' needs no introduction in Towson.

"It's like pornography," he said. "I know a bad building when I see it . . . Everyone has his own list of the half-dozen ugliest buildings in Towson."

He doesn't want any more. So he introduced legislation to create a Design Review Panel of architects and other professionals to separate the good designs from the bad and the ugly in Towson and six other areas -- before they're set in concrete.

The panel's nonbinding recommendations would go to the agencies and hearing officers who approve developers' plans.

The 4th District Republican's personal ugly list includes the Penthouse Condominiums tower on Allegheny Avenue, the Burkshire apartments at Burke and York, and the office and retail building at 40 York Road, which he says "looks like it was designed by four different people who forgot to talk to each other."

Not surprisingly, developers' business interests aren't keen on the idea. They argue that one man's art is another man's eyesore.

But Mr. Riley doesn't see his panel as an architectural Legion of Decency.

"By having design professionals, you would have people who presumably have certain standards by which they can judge," he said. "And it would be a diverse enough group of architects so that you would still have innovation. But you don't have an eyesore."

Not everyone is so sure. The Towson Development Corp. has asked Mr. Riley to delay action on his bill. The Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce is flat-out against the plan.

"We don't feel there is a problem. We think beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and a tasteful building cannot be designed by a committee," said David S. Thaler, the Chamber's public affairs chairman.

He said architectural debaters need look no further than the Timonium Crossing building at Timonium and York roads, distinguished by its exterior trusses. Mr. Riley calls it the "Tinkertoy Building." But Mr. Thaler noted that it has won several design awards.

Besides, he said, the county already has a design review process for its government buildings. "I submit that those buildings are certainly as ugly as those the private sector has built," he declared.

Inhabitants of the ugly-list buildings have mixed feelings. Kent Thomas, an accountant who works in 40 York, says it's commonly called the "Darth Vader Building" because its top reminds people of the Star Wars villian's helmet.

Even so, the interior works, and tenants love the ample off-street parking. "The exterior? I see it for 30 seconds when I pull in and 30 seconds when I pull out. So it's OK," he said.

The Burkshire's general manager, Andy Schiavone, defended his building. Sort of.

"If I were a builder, I would not build this look," he conceded. "But for a building built in the late 1980s, I think [the Burkshire] is an attractive building."

His personal preference? The ivy-covered, classical look of Towson State University's old dormitories across Burke Avenue.

That's one of the problems, critics say. As it grew from a sleepy county seat to a crowded center of government and business, Towson developed an case of architectural multiple personality. Communities with design panels typically have a single look they want to maintain.

"Some [design review panels] work extremely well," the chamber's Mr. Thaler acknowledged. But "those seem to be where there is a context, a theme. Annapolis is colonial, so you have some means to measure whether a particular design fits in or not.

"But Towson does not have a real context," he said. "What are you going to design to? The Little Tavern on York Road?"

Mr. Riley conceded that "it is difficult to say what fits" in Towson. "But I think a design professional can say what fits and what doesn't in terms of physical appearance, how it works with traffic and the buildings next door."

The Chamber also argues that Mr. Riley's review panel would create costly delays and design changes for developers, making Baltimore County appear unfriendly to economic development.

But Mr. Riley said the design review would not delay the process. "It will add some additional expense," he said, "but hopefully not very much, and on balance it would be worth it."

The idea for a design review panel originated last year in the Towson Community Plan as a compromise between residents who wanted strict limits on height and bulk and developers who didn't.

County planners originally wanted Mr. Riley to expand his proposed panel's authority to cover the entire county. But to minimize opposition, Mr. Riley scaled it back to include only central Towson and the Dundalk, Essex, Overlea-Fullerton, Pikesville, Liberty Road and Parkville revitalization areas.

The Hayden administration wants him to hold off, too, until it finds out if community leaders support the idea.

"We're not sure all the communities want it," said county administrative officer Merreen E. Kelly. "And secondly, my personal concern is whether this is one more hoop a developer may have to jump through. We have an awful lot of regulations now."

With no major projects pending, Mr. Riley said he's willing to hold up action for a while to satisfy objections. But the debate goes on.

For example, Mr. Thomas, who works at 40 York, thinks the Penthouse Condominiums building is an ugly "concrete monolith."

But not to H. May "Max" Vanwright, who lives on the 17th floor. "Everyone has their own opinion."

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