Towson's transformation gets going

Flurry of projects set to replace rubble from demolition

May 20, 2007|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,Sun reporter

The heavy equipment has arrived in Towson.

Bulldozers have plowed through many of the old stone apartment buildings on Dulaney Valley Road, and they've knocked down a gas station next to the Towson Town Center mall, along with three commercial buildings near the York Road traffic circle.

Before the various demolition crews are finished, they'll take out a fast-food restaurant, part of the Towson Commons complex and dozens of houses. The rubble, though, will soon be replaced with luxury apartments, restaurants and new stores.

Projects long in the works are moving forward in Towson - and the work crews are providing visible evidence of what some say is an unprecedented flurry of development in the Baltimore County seat.

"People have been saying, `We just want to see the cranes,'" said Andrea J. Van Arsdale, commercial revitalization director for the county's Department of Economic Development, whose office puts the value of development coming to the area at more than $400 million. "Now, when you get off the Beltway in Towson, you see the cranes. ... Dirt is being moved."

County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, who represents the area and has been on the council since 1990, said: "I don't think we've ever seen all this, all at the same time."

For decades, residents, business leaders and elected officials have kicked around ideas to reshape Towson. While the core of the town has grown over the years, it retains many of its quaint elements, and residents crave such amenities as upscale restaurants. Stubborn problems - notably, traffic patterns that can make walking an adventure - remain unresolved.

But some who live and work in Towson are hoping those questions can finally be answered, even as the new wave of development draws more visitors and residents - and gives all of them more chances to spend their money.

Projects getting off the ground include the first expansion of Towson Town Center since 1992, when the Nordstrom store opened, as well as three new high-end apartment and condominium complexes with a total of more than 1,400 units. The new Fidelity Investments office on the traffic circle is due to be completed within months. And new restaurants and shops are part of a renovation under way at the 15-year-old Towson Commons, which includes an enclosed, three-story mall and 10-story office tower.

County economic development officials haven't even included the likely cost of some other, newer projects in estimating at least $400 million in development in the area in the next five years.

"People see other people jumping in, and they jump in, too," said J. Stephen Adams, president of the Towson Retail and Restaurant Association. "You need momentum."

Some business and community leaders are less enthusiastic about the projects in the works, saying there's nothing, thus far, that has created a strong buzz. Residents want - and have the cash to support - boutiques and restaurants that offer an alternative to the chains, said Mike Ertel, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations.

"From a neighborhood perspective, we're still hoping we get those things," he said.

Transforming Towson - home to Goucher College, Towson University and three hospitals, along with the county government - has been a source of frustration, and conflict, for years. Spiro T. Agnew was Baltimore County executive when, in 1964, a commission put together a spiral-bound plan for "A New Urban Center" of shopping and dining. But many of the same issues remain under discussion - as seen by the fact that at least five studies have been conducted since 1992.

And not all development plans have been warmly received. When the county gave preliminary approval for a proposal that included student dormitories in the heart of town, residents complained of being shut out of the process - and claimed victory when the dormitory proposal was dropped in 2005.

Perhaps no other problem has proved as vexing as creating an urban, walking environment in a hub of suburban car culture.

Merchants have long lobbied to extend the hours for parking along York Road through the center of town to slow traffic and steer drivers toward the Towson bypass. The most recent blueprint for Towson even suggests taking down the stop lights in favor of four-way stop signs.

"Right now, York Road is a highway bifurcating the town," Adams said.

And while some who already live in Towson worry that more development will mean too many more traffic jams, others point out that the new high-rise dwellers should be able to simply walk to the new stores and eating establishments.

A weeklong planning session dubbed "Walkable Towson" is planned for next month. This comes a year after an out-of-town Urban Design Assistance Team, or UDAT, helped draw up a plan for Towson.

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