Remaking Towson a work in progress Make-over: Putting a new face on Towson's business district brings smiles and frowns to people enduring the construction.

September 22, 1997|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

The face of Towson is changing.

The former Hutzler's department store -- long a white elephant -- is scheduled for a spring transformation into a multilevel shopping center. A roundabout under construction will ease traffic into Towson's business district, which is getting brick sidewalks and decorative lighting. Nearby, the state's only cancer survivors' park is being readied for visitors.

Amid all the changes, roads and sidewalks have been torn up. Orange construction cones are everywhere. Merchants have posted "We're open" signs to attract business.

But, by early next year, the dust should settle as the county seat assumes a long-awaited, new look.

"There's a lot of turmoil going on," said Wayne Skinner, executive director of Towson Development Corp. "But the anguish will be worth the wait."

Heritage Properties President David G. Rhodes, who is developing the vacant Hutzler's property, expects Storage USA, a mini-warehouse business, to move into the four-story building's two upper floors this year.

Rhodes, working with partner Cordish Co. of Baltimore, has not signed tenants for the lower levels of the 270,000-square-foot building that closed seven years ago. But he said he is negotiating with Barnes & Noble for a bookstore and cafe and The Gap's Old Navy clothing store to be the complex's anchors.

The complex, which will shed its steel-and-concrete exterior for more glass and signs, should be ready for shoppers by spring, he said.

Down the street, near Towson Town Center, an Oct. 15 dedication is planned for the Richard and Annette Bloch Cancer Survivors Park.

The park, designed as a tribute and an inspiration to people who are battling or have survived cancer, is being financed by a $1 million gift from the Blochs. Richard A. Bloch is a co-founder of H&R Block and a cancer survivor.

The Blochs have provided money for 11 similar parks across the nation, including in their hometown of Kansas City, Mo. Four more parks are being planned.

The Blochs chose the 1-acre, county-owned site at Fairmount Avenue and Goucher Boulevard at the urging of current and former county recreation and parks employees, said John Weber, the department's director.

"The park is not a mausoleum," said Jean Tansey, chief of capital planning and development for the Recreation and Parks Department. "It is a tribute to the living."

The park will include eight life-size bronze figures depicting phases of cancer treatment. A computer in an enclosed kiosk will list the names of five-year cancer survivors in the Baltimore area, their stories and information about the disease.

Closer to the heart of Towson, state highway officials are working with the county on a $4.5 million streetscape-roundabout project that has turned the town into a construction zone -- forcing vehicles to maneuver in single lanes and pedestrians to squeeze around chopped-up sidewalks.

Officials predict that sidewalk work in the 300, 400, 500 and 600 blocks of York Road and the traffic circle -- at the congested intersection of York, Dulaney Valley and Joppa roads and Allegheny Avenue -- should be completed by next year.

Library officials are working on a plan that could provide a face-lift for the bunker-like Towson branch in the 300 block of York Road, said Jim Fish, director of the county system. He conceded that the Towson branch, a hulking gray concrete structure, is "not as open and friendly as people would like it to be."

He added: "We're looking at low-cost ways to make it fit in with what else is going on in Towson."

Construction is swirling around the library as workers lay copper-colored bricks to enhance the sidewalks and trees. The corner at Chesapeake Avenue and York soon will be transformed into terraced, brick steps with lighted, free-standing pillars.

"That will be a nice focal point to the library," said Frank Lipscomb, a construction liaison between Towson businesses and the streetscape-roundabout project.

During the past 11 months, Lipscomb, a consultant for the State Highway Administration, has walked hundreds of miles -- all within a half-mile radius in Towson. He has become a trouble-shooter and friend to many of the merchants he sees during his 7 a.m.-to-3: 30 p.m. workday.

"Frank's role is critical," said Linda Singer, the highway administration's community liaison. "We're on a tight schedule. We needed someone -- a familiar face -- to address issues in the field."

Lipscomb and the Towson Business Association helped change the streetscape construction schedule to accommodate shopkeepers on the west side of the 500 block of York Road. Instead of tearing up the sidewalks next month during their busy season, construction crews did the work during the less hectic dog days of August, finishing in three weeks.

"He's wonderful, nothing but the best," Marcia Ribakow, owner of Once Again for Men, a consignment shop, said of Lipscomb. "He deals with people with equanimity."

But Ribakow views the impact of the project cautiously.

"The sidewalks are lovely, and I'll see what the roundabout does," she said. "Of course, we're all waiting for Hutzler's. That will be the key."

Pub Date: 9/22/97

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