Ideas to remake Towson offered

Team of architects, planners proposes diverting traffic from town core

June 14, 2006|By JENNIFER MCMENAMIN | JENNIFER MCMENAMIN,SUN REPORTER

York Road in the heart of Towson would be narrowed to a single lane in each direction with on-street parking. Traffic lights would be replaced by four-way stop signs. A cable car, or maybe a trolley, would loop through the district.

And the parking lot near Trader Joe's below Joppa Road might be used on weekends as a "canyon" for festivals, farmers' markets and concerts, with the side of the Towson Town Center parking garage that looms overhead used as a large screen for visual presentations.

The large wall could feature "vibrant electronic displays, like Times Square" in New York City, Lucien M. Roughton, a North Carolina architect, told an audience gathered yesterday at Towson Commons to hear a presentation by a team of architects and urban planners who spent the past week studying Towson.

Members of the Towson Urban Design Assistance Team unveiled yesterday their vision of paths, public spaces and new traffic patterns that they say would, along with an entertainment district, make the Baltimore County seat a more pedestrian-friendly place and an attractive location for shops and outdoor dining.

The group of 12 architects and urban planners from around the country spent the last week listening to residents at community forums and panel discussions, taking walking and driving tours of the area, poring over maps and debating ways to improve the look and livability of Towson.

"For them, the sky is the limit," said Cynthia Bledsoe of the Greater Towson Committee. "It's our job then to step back and create reality. ... We certainly won't do everything. But this gives us an overview of what the best possibilities are."

Only team leader Steven E. Gaddis, a Durham, N.C., architect, was paid with a county grant of about $35,000. The rest of the team members volunteered for the weeklong study of Towson.

Working out of a studio that once housed the Borders bookstore on York Road, the team surveyed an area generally bounded by Charles Street to the west, Loch Raven Boulevard to the east, the Beltway to the north and the city line to the south. The community is home to about 52,000 people, two universities and three hospitals.

Their workspace in the former Borders coffee bar remained littered yesterday with maps, laptop computers, water bottles, soda cans, snacks, paper coffee cups, markers and filmy paper used to layer their proposals onto aerial photos of Towson.

"We just finished about an hour ago," Gaddis told the crowd of local residents, business people, county government employees and community association leaders who gathered for the 1 p.m. presentation. "This is not like a finished play. It's more like a dress rehearsal."

Taking turns at the microphone, team members walked the audience through their vision for Towson. To promote "walkability," the team proposed new networks of sidewalks and crosswalks, beautified alleys and bike lanes.

Stop signs would replace traffic lights at the busy intersections of York Road and Chesapeake and Pennsylvania avenues. Narrowed lanes on roads feeding the traffic circle, different street textures - such as bumpy stone - and two-way traffic on Pennsylvania and Chesapeake avenues would slow motorists in Towson's core, the urban planners said.

And through-traffic would be diverted to roads bypassing the downtown district - not by road signs advertising a bypass but because drivers would consider York Road a less efficient way to drive through the area.

Some of the most ambitious proposals involve the public library, which would be torn down and replaced by a public park. A new library would be rebuilt, mostly on the opposite side of York Road with main entrances at Susquehanna Avenue and Towsontown Boulevard, but with a bridge-like structure over York Road to house a reading room offering views to the north and south.

"We're not advocating going out and ravaging the library just for the sake of doing it," Edward R. Mudd, a Baltimore architect said. Rather, he explained, the proposal fits with plans for the area and would improve one of the area's busiest library branches, whose building is hated and loved by local residents.

In addition, sidewalks that border the old courthouse would be given a historic feel with arcades, and the surrounding garden spaces would be reconfigured to lend more prominence to the 152-year-old building.

The team also recommended forming a special zoning district around Towson that would set standards for building heights and facades and land use.

County officials said the design team's plans will be used as a starting point for local discussions with residents and property owners about Towson's future. Maps and architectural drawings showed yesterday during the group's presentation will be made available at www.tomorrowstowson.org and distributed to community associations and neighborhood groups.

jennifer.mcmenamin @baltsun.com

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