Towson trying to find new identity

Councilman, committee seek to readdress issue

`You're in that no man's land'

February 18, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

On paper, Towson is a retailer's dream -- stable, affluent residential communities, easy access from the Beltway, a huge student population and all those lawyers and county government workers who just might do some window shopping over lunch.

Patrick Miller, a commercial real estate broker in Towson, said he has no trouble getting the Old Navy and Restoration Hardware-like stores of the world interested in the Baltimore County seat.

But when those same corporate scouts come to look around, he said, they get spooked.

He and others involved in development said that despite all its advantages, Towson isn't the vibrant heart of the county it once was, leaving it unable to compete with either the city chic of Canton and the Inner Harbor or with the suburban convenience of developments such as the Avenue at White Marsh.

"Towson is neither an urban sort of crunchy street-front type of shopping area that has the energy and the excitement and therefore consumers, nor is it typical suburban retail that offers convenience," said Miller, a principal at KLNB Retail. "You're in that no man's land which leads the consumers to the path of least resistance, and that's out to suburbia.

"You look at White Marsh, which was a created street-front, town-type center, and it does very well," he said. "It's a shame that you have the start of an authentic street front in the heart of the county and you can't make it work."

Towson business people, residents and politicians have been lamenting these problems for at least a decade, and public and private groups have made studies and recommendations -- with little progress.

But now, County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Democrat who represented east-side communities for more than a decade before redistricting made him responsible for Towson, is tackling the issues again with a committee of residents, developers and representatives of the county government and Towson University.

Members said they want to see it become a shopping and entertainment district with street traffic, restaurants, cafes and high-end retail, drawing in students from the universities and residents from near and far.

Some of the problems, committee members said, will take a long time to resolve, such as parking and the difficulty of assembling large blocks of property for redevelopment.

But others can be tackled right away.

One problem in attracting businesses is that parts of the central business district appear run-down, developers said. There are vacant storefronts, peeling paint and rotting wood on some parts of York Road and, worst of all, abandoned gas stations at the northern and southern ends of the district.

The vacant Shell station on the Towson traffic circle to the north and the old Crown station at York Road and Burke Avenue to the south serve as unfortunate gateposts for downtown Towson, said Stephen W. Lafferty, a long-time community activist and committee member.

But redeveloping them has proved complicated.

The county, in partnership with Towson University, tried several years ago to buy the Crown station and make that land part of a development linking the campus to downtown.

Deal fell through

But the property is controlled by an estate trust out of New York, and the terms of its lease with Crown allow for a buyout at nearly double the market rate for the parcel. Ultimately, the deal fell through.

The Shell station has problems of its own. Although its gas tanks have been removed, the soil underneath is contaminated, and the property is being monitored by the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Nottingham Properties, one of the largest property owners in Towson, has expressed interest in developing a triangular block of land behind the station, but not if an abandoned Shell stands between them and the traffic circle, which they see as a focal point of the community. The company would like to see the land made into a park.

Although redevelopment may be difficult, lawyers at a meeting last week on Towson's future suggested using a provision in the county code that allows the county to knock down abandoned gas stations if they have not been continuously maintained.

"If they can knock down the building and either put above-ground planters over the asphalt or rip down some asphalt and put some trees in, it will soften the corner and make it more attractive," Lafferty said. "I think that would be a great solution."

Gardina said he's looking into the idea and also into using existing maintenance laws to compel property owners to spruce up their facades.

He and state Sen. James Brochin, a Towson Democrat, also are working on what they say is another key element to revitalization: more liquor licenses. With Gardina's backing, Brochin introduced a bill in the General Assembly to allow the transfer of as many as six sit-down restaurant liquor licenses to Towson from other parts of the county.

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