The shelves of her beloved bookstore were emptying, its racks of CDs thinning, its cafe dark and closed. Trudie Wetherall looked around the latest shop preparing to leave the Towson Commons shopping complex and wondered what went wrong.
"I don't know why this building isn't getting better use," said Wetherall, a Charles Village resident who regularly came to the Borders until it recently left.
The bookstore's departure for Timonium is just the latest blow for the block-long complex, with its shops, restaurants and multiscreen movie theater that was celebrated as a boon to the downtown's revival upon its opening 13 years ago.
But now, what is widely considered the anchor of downtown Towson's retail district appears to be at a crossroads.
While the 10 floors of offices in the building along York Road hum with activity, about 40 percent of its 100,000 square feet for restaurants and stores sits vacant. If its owner doesn't approve a costly redevelopment of the complex, its retail use might be abandoned and the empty space could be converted into more office space, according to the county councilman who represents the area.
And that would be a big blow to downtown Towson's other shops and restaurants, civic leaders and county officials say, because the $70 million complex plays an important role in attracting customers to the area.
"If you don't have people coming there to shop, or people using the restaurants, then you're not going to have a viable retail district," said Baltimore County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Towson Democrat who has been working to find a solution.
Towson civic leaders, county officials and shoppers offer several reasons for the complex's retail problems - among them that Towson Commons' retail spaces are too big for any but national chains to inhabit, and that there is intense competition from nearby shops, such as Barnes & Noble in the Towson Circle shopping complex.
A common complaint involves parking. Some shoppers said that it is confusing to drive around Towson Commons' 900-space parking garage and then walk to and from the complex. They also said there isn't enough street parking.
"Over here, it's like, where do you park?" said Ed Worthington, a salesman from Baltimore who prefers to shop at nearby Towson Circle because it offers a parking lot.
Robert E. Latshaw Jr., president of the Greater Towson Committee, said it might be a wrong move for Towson Commons to try to woo big-box suburban stores to fill its space without providing suburban-style parking.
"Chains generally don't pull into an urban setting where people can't pull up in the front, park and go in," Latshaw said. "We are more attuned in Towson to a more boutique-type" store or restaurant.
Harvey S. Brooks Jr., general manager of the Towson Commons complex, said in a statement that Borders left last month because a redeveloped building wouldn't have been able to accommodate the kind of space the bookstore requires. A Borders spokeswoman confirmed Brooks' statement.
Towson's shops and restaurants seem to have a ready pool of customers. More than half of its residents live in family households, and the median family income is $75,832, according to 2000 U.S. Census figures.
Towson doesn't have the only downtown in Maryland working to attract more residents who want to dine and shop near their homes. Marie Howland, a professor of urban studies and planning at the University of Maryland, College Park, said Wheaton is trying to figure out how to lure mall shoppers, and Silver Spring wants to stop the exodus of small businesses that are leaving because of skyrocketing rents.
Bethesda might be an exception, Howland said, with a thriving retail district that features a parking garage in the center of the shopping and dining area.
"One of the reasons Bethesda has done so well is the streets are narrow, and there's a lot of parking, which slows traffic, so a lot of cafes have opened," Howland said. "A lot of parking in the center of activity helps a lot."
It's about time that county officials took action to improve the downtown area, Towson residents and consumers say.
"We go to Hampden [in Baltimore City] before we go to Towson," said Mike Ertel, secretary of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations, who lives in West Towson with his wife and three children. "Hampden has better restaurants."
Ertel and others said they would prefer small boutiques and fancy restaurants, a parking garage that's easy to navigate and roads that aren't so clogged by traffic that crossing them seems dangerous.
"Make it pedestrian-friendly. Make it a place where people don't have to ride an escalator to get to the shops," said Edward T. Kilcullen Jr., president of the Towson Manor Village Community Association.
Kilcullen said he rarely visits Towson Commons because its offerings aren't appealing. He feels similarly about the rest of downtown.