Towson merchants struggle as `unthinkable' woes unfold

February 13, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

WITH AN ICY wind whipping like an ax murderer along York Road at Pennsylvania Avenue, you duck into Towson Commons for shelter. Inside, there's a different kind of cold, more worrisome, unanticipated: the bleak emptiness of a place that was supposed to throb with life but now seems deserted.

There's an AT&T Wireless store to the right -- and that's it. All other space on the main-level mall floor is empty. On the basement level, Borders Books Music & Cafe is the sole occupant. Take the escalator upstairs to the movie-theater level, and there's more of the same. All previous shops are gone. The entire food court is gone and boarded over, and the long hallway is empty. A ticket-taker at the movie sits alone, waiting for a customer to show up.

Outside, there are more problems: Shops and restaurants once part of the bustling vitality of this area, this seat of government and commerce in Baltimore County, are now closed and the spaces vacant.

"I'm concerned," says Harvey S. Brooks Jr., general manager of Towson Commons. "We're all concerned. We're having meetings all over the place. You look at all those vacancies out on the street. When an area starts to slide, it's tough to come back."

In Annapolis, there is concerned talk about revitalizing Towson before it gets any worse. Baltimore County Sen. James Brochin is pushing a bill to transfer liquor licenses to Towson and open the way for a half-dozen restaurants that he sees as a charming centerpiece to new residences, shops and entertainment.

But here's the strange part: Whoever thought such a thing would happen here?

For a generation that watched the city's long decay, the upscale suburbs such as Towson seemed eternally bathed in sunlight. When the city talked about "urban" problems, it meant crime and decayed housing.

At its own urban core, though, Towson blossomed with businesses and shops and colleges, plus all those government workers. Towson Town Center was bursting with high-end traffic. When the Towson Commons opened a decade ago, it was seen as a kind of maraschino cherry atop an already lush commercial sundae.

"I know, I know," Brochin was saying this week. "To talk about these kinds of problems in Towson would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Now, there are all these eyesore vacancies, and this big Towson Commons in the middle of it, looking so inaccessible.

"It should be exactly the opposite. There are all these great family communities surrounding it, great places to raise kids, people with solid incomes. This should be a place where they come for a nice meal, and walk around in the evening along tree-lined sidewalks, and find everything charming and quaint. And we can still get that."

On the second floor of Towson Commons, in an area deserted but for offices, sits Brooks, the mall's general manager.

"We have," he says, slowly picking his words, "a perception problem. You look outside, you see a combination of things. Local owners not keeping their shop fronts up. And the vacancies. And then the parking situation. There's a perception that, if you come here, you have trouble parking and, once you park, you have trouble crossing York Road.

"While this is going on, you have young people who have discovered other places. They're going down into the city, to places like Canton and Fells Point, which are very attractive. We've got Towson University right up the street. We've got St. Joseph's hospital, GBMC, Goucher College. They're all nearby. We've got to find a way to incorporate the life of those places with life in the heart of Towson."

In Annapolis this afternoon, members of Baltimore County's legislative delegation will meet to discuss these problems. The meeting is open to the public. In Brochin's mind, shifting some of the county's allotted liquor licenses to Towson is an important first step.

"There was a time," Brochin says, "when neighbors would have been opposed to this. But not now. For one thing, we're making it clear that the licenses are for restaurants, not bars. For another thing, they realize, we can't let this area get away."

Neither Brochin nor Brooks see liquor licenses as a panacea -- merely as a first step.

"You want quality restaurants," says Brochin, "you have to put up $750,000 to a million bucks. You think anybody's going to consider that if they can't serve drinks? This is like Field of Dreams. You know, `If you build it, they will come.' But we have to do it while we can still get a grip on it."

"It's time to bring Towson back."

That's a bitter wind blowing along York Road and Pennsylvania Avenue this week. But, in winter, we expect it. What nobody expected is the bitter economic wind, which may yet be tamed and turned around.

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