Help wanted: Add life to the heart of Towson

At events tonight, design team seeks public's advice


A team of architects will begin planning the future of Towson today, and its location couldn't be more telling: a vacant retail space.

Working out of a studio that once housed a Borders bookstore, the team will tackle the challenge of re-creating a downtown that attracts businesses while appeasing traffic-weary residents.

It has invited the public to share its ideas on growth in the Baltimore County seat at a public forum tonight at Towson University and a series of panel discussions through Tuesday.

"There's a lot of potential in Towson that's not being tapped," said Mike Ertel, a community leader who serves on a committee that brought the planning team to Towson.

"When my wife and I want to go out to dinner, we tend to go into the city or Hampden or anywhere but Towson because there's not enough venues there that people continue to want to go to. A lot of people want to see some new shops, some new restaurants, stuff that serves the demographic of the area," he said.

To lead the effort, local leaders have convened 12 architects and urban planners from around the country. The team is called an Urban Design Team, and all of its members are volunteers, save for team leader Steven Gaddis, a Durham, N.C., architect who is being paid with a county grant of about $35,000.

Gaddis piloted a similar team in Essex-Middle River, and separate design assistance teams drafted plans for Randallstown and Dundalk.

The Towson team will study an area generally bounded by Charles Street to the west, Loch Raven Boulevard to the east, the Baltimore Beltway to the north and the Baltimore City line to the south. It's a community of about 52,000 people, with two universities and three hospitals.

The team will focus on how to fill empty spaces in the downtown area, including the Towson Commons retail and office complex, where the design assistance team will set up its studio. The challenge will be to attract businesses that don't compete directly with larger companies at Towson Town Center mall, Gaddis said.

The design assistance team will ask the public for thoughts on broader issues, such as the county's development process, as well as specific questions, such as whether to reconstruct the roundabout at Towson Circle, said Jay Doyle, a spokesman with the county Office of Community Conservation.

The team and local officials will participate in a public forum from 7 to 9 tonight at Towson University's Center for the Arts. The team will hold a series of discussions over the next few days, culminating in a final presentation Tuesday.

The recommendations will go to a 45-person committee of local leaders, who will study them and, if they agree upon them, look at how to implement them.

One idea Gaddis is floating is the formation of a special zoning district around Towson that would set standards such as building height, density and types of land use.

Such districts make sense in places like Baltimore County that have no local municipalities, Gaddis said. Different building standards might be more suitable for waterfront areas such as Middle River than areas such as Towson, he said.

"If you write a countywide ordinance, you can't fine-tune it to different places," Gaddis said.

"You don't get the sort of assistance in making good communities because their needs are different depending on where they are, what their economics are, what drives their development," Gaddis said.

The team will also focus on specific proposals for properties in Towson. For example, to encourage people to walk, should more stores line York Road in residential communities? And if so, how should they be designed so they mesh with the neighborhood?

"When people say, `I really like Towson. It has such a village feel,' that always catches my attention because that's not the first thing that hits you when you're coming off of 695 and you see all those high-rise buildings," Gaddis said. "That doesn't look like a village at all."

The team will have to deal with the contentious issue of how to provide housing for the additional students expected at Towson University in coming years. Many residents are worried that students will be integrated in established communities where older residents live.

There's also the question of what to do with the additional traffic.

"I think people want to come to an agreement, but there's only so much room for compromise on many issues," said community organizer Corinne Becker. "Traffic is certainly a dilemma no matter how you look at it."


The Urban Design Assistance Team will hold a public forum at 7 tonight at the Towson University Center for the Arts, followed by a series of events at the former Borders bookstore at Towson Commons:

1 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. tomorrow: panel discussion on development issues, neighborhood life, housing, recreation.

9 a.m. to noon Friday: panel discussion on small business, the Towson University master plan and area institutions.

2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Friday: panel discussion on traffic and pedestrian issues.

4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Friday: small-group brainstorming.

2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday: presentation of drawings and plans.

1 p.m. Tuesday: final presentation.

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