Towson landlords join streetscape project Building owners use low-interest county loans to improve properties

June 22, 1998|By Ron Snyder | Ron Snyder,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

With Phase One of the $4.5 million Towson streetscape project nearly complete, building owners along York Road have begun working on improvements of their own.

Faced with paying higher tax assessments or using that money to improve the fronts of their properties, most businesses chose the latter -- some spending thousands of dollars in the last several months, with the help of a county architect and low-interest loans through the county.

The change is apparent at a Towson landmark, Angel's Grotto, where owner Joseph Varvaro, 67, put $4,000 in improvements into the 30-year-old restaurant, including new windows and doors.

"As I like to say, 'If we stayed with the old style we would all be wearing button-style shirts and driving the old Model-T Fords,'" said Varvaro.

Susan DiLonardo, executive director of the Towson Business Association, said the group has encouraged property owners to make the improvements, in lieu of taxes, "in order to help give Towson a fresh new look."

And Councilman Douglas B. Riley, a Towson Republican, said that with Phase One nearly complete, building owners whose properties are empty should find it easier to find tenants.

"With the construction going on, renting property was put on the back burner until owners could see what the area would look like," Riley said. "The sidewalks and roundabout look great, but I think the thing that will draw in businesses the most will be the Towson Circle project, which is renovating the old Hutzler building and is planning on putting new retailers in there.

"This will finally provide a bridge between the York Road corridor and Towson Town Center, which attracts 11 million people annually."

Phase One of the revitalization includes the roundabout, which helps ease traffic along the historically congested intersection of York, Dulaney Valley and Joppa roads and Allegheny Avenue.

It also includes the Towson Circle project and the streetscape sidewalk work on the 300, 400, 500 and 600 blocks of York Road.

Later phases of the project include a second streetscape along York Road from Towsontown Boulevard to Burke Avenue, which is in the design stage, and beautification of York Road north of the business district.

Sean Gahagen, co-owner of Souris, a restaurant on York Road, said the landlord is painting the front of his building, and that the Towson renovation projects can only benefit the community.

"The Towson Circle is good for everybody, it should help draw more businesses to the area," he said.

Already, new businesses are moving into some vacant properties. Stephen Adams recently opened Furniture Safari in the building he owns on York Road.

"The roundabout has made traffic flow a lot easier, and all the work should help the area," he said.

Unity needed

But Adams said that despite the streetscape project, he is not sure the county, businesses and community share a vision for the area.

"There is not a unified front," Adams said. "It seems there are just different quasi-government organizations working separately and not trying to bring everything together and talk to those that matter."

Both Varvaro and Adams say that for Towson to grow, it needs to attract a broader mix of businesses.

"Right now there are at least three buildings empty which were restaurants. What we need are more gift shops and retail stores to attract more people," Varvaro said.

Riley said it would be difficult to put retail stores in the area because of the close proximity to the mall. He wants to focus on restaurants, stores such as the Barnes & Noble book and music store due to open in the long-vacant Hutzler's building, and other businesses that don't overlap with the mall.

"One way Towson can be successful is if people think of Towson as a destination stop for dinner," he said. "Many restaurants have hesitated moving there because of the state's antiquated liquor laws." In the past, officials have expressed frustrations about state laws that restrict the allocation of liquor licenses.

He said he and some state legislators are considering separate liquor laws for the Towson area in order to attract more tenants.

As for the fact that many of the empty buildings were once restaurants, Riley cites successful restaurants in the area, including Ruby Tuesday and Pizzeria Uno Chicago Bar & Grill.

"All we need to do is find the right restaurant and they can be successful," Riley said.

Pub Date: 6/22/98

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