Planners to visit Towson

Urban design team will help devise vision for area's core


In Randallstown, the plan calls for a community center and bustling town center where there are now vacant parking lots and empty shops.

In Essex, the vision is a gleaming waterfront destination. And in Dundalk, building a marina district that would include an amateur sports center, a cruise ship terminal, a hotel and a park is among the goals.

Now, Towson is taking its turn with a team of out-of-town community planners known as a UDAT -- or Urban Design Assistance Team -- that is to help Baltimore County officials and community leaders create a plan for the county seat and college town.

To prepare for the weeklong, marathon planning sessions in June, organizers are holding a town hall forum tomorrow to begin talking about residents' desires for the area.

"It's been my experience that there's an awful lot of good ideas and insight in the community," said Steven Gaddis, a Durham, N.C., architect who is leading the team.

He plans to attend the 7 p.m. meeting at Towson High School.

"Development issues have been met with a fair amount of contention in Towson," said Gaddis, who also worked on the Essex-Middle River UDAT. "People want a vibrant downtown. ... But everybody seems to be distrustful of the process."

County officials invited the planning experts to Towson after a series of polarizing development proposals, including one for "Towson Circle III" that called for housing Towson University students downtown near the York Road roundabout.

That plan was withdrawn. But some residents remain concerned about plans by Towson University to increase its enrollment without a corresponding increase in student housing. Residents fear that would result in more clashes with students in neighborhoods and less affordable-housing options for families.

Community groups have also raised objections to several other recent projects, including: plans to convert the Dulaney Valley Apartments into condominiums; a proposal to build condominiums and townhouses in Towson Manor, a neighborhood near the university; and a plan to build houses on Country Club of Maryland property.

Over objections of some residents, the conversion of Dulaney Valley Apartments was approved by the county. Construction is set to begin in mid-summer, said Robert A. Hoffman, a lawyer for the developers.

No date has been set for a hearing on the plan by the Country Club of Maryland to build 46 duplex houses on 13.8 acres near its golf course --10 fewer units than initially proposed. Efforts by community activists to find funding to preserve the land and by County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina to enact a building moratorium in the area have failed to block the development.

In the Towson Manor neighborhood, Bozzuto Homes, a Greenbelt-based developer, has a tentative deal to buy parcels owned by Bob Ward Co., which intended to tear down old rowhouses and build new condominiums and townhouses.

Although Bob Ward Co.'s negotiations with residents about the density of its project failed, Valerie Covarrubias, a spokeswoman with Bozzuto, said the company was meeting with community leaders about its project.

In addition to development, the design assistance team will try to address issues such as traffic and recreation. Most of the work will focus on the core of Towson.

The design plans created in Randallstown, Essex and Dundalk were widely praised as being inclusive of residents' desires and addressing commercial interests. But some community leaders have been critical about how long it takes to see the plans put into action and how much money it costs to see the goals attained.

Mike Ertel, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations and a member of the committee that is organizing the team's visit, said, "It's not going to change overnight. But hopefully people will start thinking differently."

The team of planning experts will be working in Towson from June 8 to June 13. They will set up a "studio" in Towson Commons, in the space that had been occupied by Borders Books and Music. Residents are invited to drop in to see the planning and talk with the team members.

A community meeting to kick off the week is scheduled June 7 at Towson University.

The committee planning the UDAT visit met last week with Towson University students, who Ertel said, offered suggestions that are frequently made by neighborhood groups.

"They talked about the need for more restaurants, which is what I hear in the community. ... They talked about the walkability of Towson--that it seemed disjointed -- which is another thing a lot of residents say," he said.

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