Towson project, citizens collide

Dorm, retail development proposed near roundabout

`Not what we want,' groups say

County, developers want to rejuvenate downtown

April 17, 2005|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Despite early support from Baltimore County officials and an approved $7 million in public funding, a plan to include college dormitories and a large entertainment venue in a downtown Towson development project is generating opposition from community groups that say the only thing more widely disliked is the traffic circle in the heart of the county seat.

A town hall meeting last week ended with residents arguing about whether key components of the Towson Circle III development would help or hurt downtown business and nearby neighborhoods. The meeting came just a week after state legislators approved $2 million for infrastructure at the proposed development and three months after a Baltimore County government panel gave preliminary approval to the project.

"This is not what we want for Towson," said Judy Gregory, president of Greater Towson Council of Community Associations, an organization representing 35 neighborhood groups. "Part of our angst with this is that we didn't have any input. And we're the ones who deal with Towson University students in our neighborhood on a `have-a-party-every-weekend' basis."

In December, the plan by Heritage Properties and Cordish Co. to build a 600-bed dormitory, 725-space parking garage, 8,000 square feet of retail space and a 56,000-square-foot restaurant was granted preliminary but expedited approval from the county development panel.

The project would be steps away from Towson Circle, also a Heritage-Cordish collaboration, which includes Barnes & Noble, Trader Joe's and Pier 1 Imports. The name stems from Towson's traffic roundabout, the source of complaints made in jest and in earnest.

Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, who represents the Towson area, said he has been shocked by the criticism of the plan.

"I never anticipated community opposition to it," he said. "The intent of Baltimore County was to stimulate revitalization in Towson's business core because it's rapidly failing. Bringing in a high-end development as well as a connection to Towson University seemed like a positive thing."

But Towson University has not committed to the project. Although the developers said they had the university in mind when they submitted their plans to the county, university officials have since requested formal bids for off-campus student housing. Despite the county's preliminary approval of the Towson Circle III plan, Towson University spokeswoman Susanna Craine said, "I really do believe we're looking at everything."

Bids are due next month.

Critics of Towson Circle III say dormitories are not a good mix with the nearby apartment buildings that are home to many seniors, and they question whether students are likely to attract the likes of a Ruth's Chris Steak House.

"White Marsh and Hunt Valley have built towns," Gregory said. "Towson is a town, but we don't have the kinds of businesses we want to patronize. We want the circle to offer upscale shops and restaurants, local, unique ones like Chiapparelli's."

But some community leaders say the proposed mix of housing, shops and restaurants would help downtown business.

"I think it's a wonderful project," said Don Gerding, a Rodgers Forge community activist. "It's a private company taking a key tract in Towson and cleaning up a lot of messy businesses."

The county's revenue authority has approved $5 million for a parking garage at the site.

Because the Towson Circle III proposal is considered an amendment to the existing Towson Circle development, it was allowed to go before the county's Development Review Committee, which doesn't require public input hearings, according to county officials.

However, County Executive James T. Smith Jr. has promised a public hearing will be held regarding the proposal. And he said that after recently meeting with community leaders about the project, "there's actually a lot of common ground." Although they might not agree on the specifics, he said, "They all support a mixed use at the site."

Robert A. Hoffman, a lawyer representing the developers, said he thinks the proposed student housing would create less friction with nearby communities because the students will be located centrally. "Either the students are going to find places within the community or they can be provided with an opportunity like what's being proposed" at Towson Circle III, he said.

Corinne Becker, a board member of the Riderwood Hills Community Association, said she opposes not only the student housing, but also the large entertainment-restaurant component of the proposed project. Dave & Buster's, a chain that serves steaks and other fare with entertainment such as billiards and shuffleboard, has been raised as a possible tenant, but Hoffman said no deal with a restaurant operator has been struck.

"It seems like it's development for developer's sake," Becker said. "I don't think anyone is looking ahead. But this will drive the future of Towson."

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