Towson Commons to get a makeover under new owner

Western Development talks of new stores and possibly condos


Towson Commons, the retail and office complex in the heart of Towson that has struggled as a shopping mall, will get a $30 million makeover and new stores next year under a new owner, a Washington-based developer of mixed-use projects.

Western Development Corp. closed on a deal for an undisclosed amount Friday to purchase the 324,440-square-foot center at York Road and West Pennsylvania Avenue.

Redevelopment could include a reconfiguration of the retail and office space and the addition of condominiums, Bradford Dockser, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Western Development, said yesterday.

"We see this as a very significant and important development in the potential redevelopment of downtown Towson," David S. Iannucci, Baltimore County's economic development director, said.

"It's a signature location, the key intersection in Towson, and it has obviously had great challenges and not lived up to expectations," the county development official said.

Iannucci said he had hopes of the center being turned around under a new owner with strong retail experience.

Western Development has built Washington-based mixed-use projects, including Gallery Place, a 1.2 million-square-foot-project next to the MCI Center that includes stores, offices, condominiums and parking.

Western also created the concept for and developed Potomac Mills mall in Virginia and three other Mills malls, in Philadelphia, near Chicago and in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., huge centers that combine value-oriented retailers with entertainment.

"We were drawn [to Towson Commons] by the demographics of Towson and the promise for creating street retail and a pedestrian experience in downtown Towson," Dockser said.

The center, built in 1992 as a three-story, enclosed vertical mall with some street retail anchored by AMC Theaters, has struggled to keep small shops. It lost its anchor tenant, Borders Books and Music, in July when the retailer moved to Timonium. The former owner of the center, the state of Utah retirement system, made a decision not to re-lease the space but to instead try to position the mixed-use center for redevelopment.

The center did not work well for retail because of the varying levels, which tenants found difficult to overcome, Dockser said. He said Western will look at how to improve pedestrian access from the complex's 882-space garage.

Competition from newer retail centers also hurt Towson Commons, Iannucci said. The Avenue at White Marsh, a Main Street-style, open air shopping and entertainment project, drew away customers, he said.

"My understanding is when [Towson Commons] first opened, it was the in place to be ... and it ceased to be hot," Iannucci said. "It ceased to be a product that was meeting demand."

Currently, 40 percent of Towson Commons' retail space is vacant.

Dockser said the company is looking into redevelopment but has not settled on how that would be done. The developer is talking with several potential retailers, national chains and local stores, as well as to AMC about its future in the building. "The area should do very well for retail, and we want to redesign the space and the building to take advantage of the retail opportunities in Towson," Dockser said.

Current retail tenants, besides the movie theater, include Paolo's, Ruby Tuesday and Kyodai Sushi restaurants. The complex's 10-story office tower, which is 93 percent occupied, has fared much better, with tenants such as the national headquarters of ViPS, a subsidiary of WebMD, LaSalle National Leasing and State Farm Insurance.

Despite its challenges, the complex has become the anchor of downtown Towson, said Suzan F. Doordan, executive director of the Towson Business Association.

But "the building, the way it was, was not working to its best advantage," Doordan said. With a redevelopment and makeover, "the business that it will draw into the core area, like a domino effect, will help, inspire and encourage other businesses. When there's something new on the block ... every one benefits."

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