Towson U. won't house students in development

Decision is based on debt-load concerns in the building of a dormitory in central business district, university officials say

Residents had opposed Heritage-Cordish plan

July 23, 2005|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Towson University officials said yesterday that the school will not house students as part of a development planned for downtown Towson, pleasing residents who don't want a dormitory in the heart of the county seat.

Alan Leberknight, interim vice president and chief financial officer of Towson University, said the decision to reject a bid by Heritage Properties and the Cordish Co. to build a 600-bed dormitory in Towson was based on how much debt the public university system would have had to carry and not on the community's opposition.

Still, residents who have been campaigning against the proposal since plans for Towson Circle III received preliminary approval by Baltimore County in December said the announcement was a victory, though they worry that they might have to renew their fight if other plans for college dormitories surface.

"Initially it was a great relief to hear the decision," said Judy Gregory, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations. "But now, we're not convinced student housing couldn't slip in there."

In addition to the dormitory, the Heritage and Cordish plan included a 56,000-square-foot restaurant, a 725-space parking garage and 8,000 square feet of shops and restaurants.

"It's a golden opportunity for Heritage to take all the feedback from residents and come up with a plan that Towson residents want - upscale restaurants, a mixed commercial use, a traffic pattern that allows reasonable flow and adequate parking," Gregory said. "It would be such a jewel right there."

Some business leaders who see an influx of students as key to Towson's economic vitality were disappointed by the decision.

A hope for future

"I hope the project resurfaces in the months to come," said Robert E. Latshaw Jr., a commercial real estate broker in Towson. "I firmly believe Towson's commercial business district needs the students and their families for retail and restaurants to succeed."

County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, who represents the Towson area, said yesterday that he hopes that the developers will retain residences - "maybe condos or higher end apartments" - in their development plan.

"This particular site is critical to the revitalization of Towson's business district," Gardina said. "I didn't see a problem with student housing there. I'd rather see them in a managed student housing facility than dispersed in neighborhoods where they're unsupervised and we have a long history of problems."

Heritage and Cordish own the site, which is next to Towson Circle. That project, also a Heritage-Cordish collaboration, includes a Barnes & Noble, Trader Joe's and Pier 1 Imports.

Robert A. Hoffman, a lawyer for the developers, said he wasn't sure how the university's announcement would affect the development.

"We'll have to regroup and decide the best course of action," he said yesterday.

In December, the county's Development Review Committee - which includes representatives from the departments of environmental protection, planning, recreation and parks, permits and development management and zoning - gave the project the go-ahead.

An `amendment'

Approval from the committee can expedite a project by up to a year. The project was allowed to go before the committee because it is considered an "amendment" to the existing Towson Circle project.

Although the developers said they had the university in mind when they submitted their plans to the county, university officials requested formal bids for off-campus student housing in April.

Several other developers, including Whiting Turner Contracting Co. and Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse Inc., attended an April conference to hear more about the university's request for housing proposals. But Heritage Properties and the Cordish Co. were the only developers to submit a formal proposal to the university, Leberknight said.

Heritage and Cordish submitted three scenarios in their proposal, said Leberknight. He declined to elaborate.

Still deciding

Leberknight said the university has not decided whether to issue another request for proposals for off-campus student housing or to look for a project similar to Millennium Hall, which opened in 2000 on university grounds under the management of Capstone Properties, or to University Village, built on the grounds of Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital adjacent to Towson and managed by American Campus Communities.

"The need for student housing doesn't go away," Leberknight said.

State Sen. James Brochin, a Towson Democrat, said yesterday that he hoped the university chooses to house students closer to or on the campus.

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