Urban designers could help Towson plan future

October 04, 2005|By LAURA BARNHARDT | LAURA BARNHARDT,SUN REPORTER

The neighbors thought the drawings looked nice, but they complained that more apartments on Dulaney Valley Road would mean too much traffic. When college dormitories were proposed for the heart of Towson, they said it was the wrong place.

A housing development on the edge of a country club? Schools would be crowded, precious trees lost.

Towson-area activists and residents have been registering their opposition to development proposals in and around the county seat for months, and some have even called for a "summit" where they, business owners, developers and officials could agree on the direction of development in Towson.

Now Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. says he wants to assemble a lineup of experts.

An Urban Design Assistance Team of out-of-town architects and professional planners would collaborate with residents to steer revitalization efforts in the county seat.

"It's worked beautifully in Randallstown, Essex-Middle River and Dundalk," Smith said. "It's a community-driven process."

With so little open land left in the Towson area, scrutinizing proposals for projects that will stand for decades has become more important than ever, say community leaders who criticize the way plans have gone forward over the years.

"We live in the havoc that Baltimore County has allowed to be created over many generations," said Judy Gregory, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations. "It doesn't have to be this way. It can be better."

Gregory and her organization were in the center of a battle that erupted at the start of the year. The fight surrounding the Towson Circle III proposal touched on two subjects that are sensitive in Towson: university student housing and downtown development.

The plan was to build a 600-bed dormitory for Towson University students in a complex with a large restaurant, shops and offices, near the York Road roundabout. County officials, including Smith and Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, thought the proposal would be a hit with residents.

But community groups adamantly opposed the plan, saying college students should not be housed next to senior and other high-rise housing, so far off campus and in the middle of downtown Towson. And, they said, the restaurant initially discussed for the site, Dave & Busters, wouldn't bring the kind of well-heeled patrons that the business area needs.

The issue was divisive enough that when the Towson Farmers' Market opened for the season in June, a small group of residents opposed to the Towson Circle III project held protest signs, as did business owners who supported the idea.

At another point, state legislators representing the area asked Maryland's attorney general to investigate whether the project's developers had an unfair advantage in winning the bid from Towson University for off-campus housing. The attorney general declined to intervene, but in July, the university rejected the bid by the developers, Heritage Properties and Cordish Co.

Plans to replace Dulaney Valley Apartments with 900 upscale condominiums and apartments and to create a housing development at the edge of the Country Club of Maryland's golf course are generating similar community opposition.

The proposed $160 million Dulaney Valley development would include three times as many units as there are now, and would cause traffic and parking problems and potentially more storm water issues in the area, according to neighborhood leaders.

Meanwhile, neighborhood groups are also working to stop a development of new houses on 16 acres owned by the Country Club of Maryland. At a particularly emotional hearing two weeks ago, more than 100 residents crowded a community hall to voice objections to the project.

A summit that brings together neighborhood leaders, business owners and county officials to create an overall plan for the area might help, some community leaders and officials say.

"You can't please everyone," Gregory said. "But at least you've planned for the future. ... We need a cooperative movement between institutions, developers and residents."

She said it's unclear whether the UDAT meetings will accomplish that goal.

Rob Hoffman, a lawyer who represents many development companies in the county, including the developers of Towson Circle III and the Dulaney Valley Apartments project, said he supports the idea of general discussion about Towson, adding: "If there's a potential for productive dialogue, you ought to take it."

Various groups have tried over the years to come up with blueprints for development in Towson, home to Towson University, Goucher College, three sizable hospitals and nearly 52,000 residents. In the early 1990s, the county planning board developed a 60-page plan. Other partnerships of business leaders, residents and government officials developed plans in 1996, 2001 and 2003.

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