Towson's Ugly Hodgepodge

January 16, 1993

Remember the neutron bomb, the weapon that would kill people but leave buildings intact? A lot of folks wish a bomb with the opposite effect could be used on downtown Towson.

The hodgepodge of buildings in the seat of Baltimore County government has long been vilified for its ugliness and its lack of adherence to a distinct design style. Like so many other suburban towns that boomed after World War II, Towson seemed to expand block by block, building by building, each planned with nary a nod to previous structures nearby. Architecturally, it was madness without method. In contrast, older cities were built within the framework of identities formed over centuries.

Which raises the question: What is Towson's identity? Towson Councilman Douglas B. Riley hopes to find an answer with his bill to establish a panel that would require building proposals for Towson and six other urban centers in the county to meet architectural guidelines. It's a good idea.

The 1990 county Master Plan urged the creation of such a panel, adding in a scolding tone, "Growth Areas should be . . . integrated, coordinated developments. Buildings should not be . . . isolated, freestanding objects surrounded by parking lots."

As county planning director David Fields notes, "The problem isn't so much the design of single buildings as the absence of a coordinating design for Towson. You have buildings of different materials, heights and mass. We've always looked at new buildings just in terms of zoning laws, but we need to look at how they fit into a framework as well."

Builders complain that a design panel would add another roadblock to what they already consider an obstacle-strewn development process. Not so, says Mr. Fields. He notes that a design study would be conducted concurrently with other aspects of a proposal's review. Nor would a review hearing officer be bound to accept the panel's findings.

Besides forming a design panel, the county could improve the area's appearance by taking the relatively easy steps of planting trees, creating open spaces and installing attractive benches, signs and street lamps. The county has, in fact, published a manual of guidelines for such landscaping touches.

Towson's latest big structure shows that new construction need not cause architectural anxiety. Towson Commons, with its embracing front entrance, brick sidewalks and street-level shops, is a happy marriage of modern design and old-fashioned, walk-on-in accessibility. There is hope for the future. Don't drop that bomb just yet.

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