Crossing the traffic circle in the heart of town on foot takes courage. Delaware Avenue, with its patched pavement, looks more like an alley than a road through central Towson.
And, according to one expert, the attempts to spruce up the sidewalks along York Road with trees and bricks have just ended up tripping people.
"People are walking in Towson because they need to, not because it's pleasant," said Stuart Sirota, founder of TND Planning Group, a Baltimore-based transportation consulting firm.
Seeking to make the Baltimore County seat more appealing to pedestrians, county officials are holding a series of community planning meetings beginning today to come up with a plan.
Called a design "charrette," the sessions will focus on landscaping, parking, traffic patterns and building design. In the end, the group of residents, consultants such as Sirota and officials will draft a "Walkable Towson Plan" with initial recommendations and longer-term goals.
Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said it's important to have "guidance that is realistic and practical," not some "fairy tale."
The charrette process will jump-start action on the plan created last summer by the Urban Design Assistance Team, a group of professionals who met with business and community leaders in Towson, Smith said.
The pedestrian planning also comes as an unprecedented amount of development is beginning in Towson, including the first expansion of Towson Town Center mall since 1992, when the Nordstrom store opened, as well as three new high-end apartment and condominium complexes with more than 1,400 units.
Some Towson business leaders are also considering asking county officials to create a commercial tax district, allowing merchants to pay for extra services such as street cleaning or landscape maintenance that aren't ordinarily provided by Baltimore County government.
While not all leaders believe the tax district is necessary, most agree that changes are needed to make the area more appealing to pedestrians.
"That's the key to success in Towson," said Vincent J. Gardina, the county councilman who represents the area. "You've got to get people out of their cars. You have to create a destination where people want to go from place to place."
The county is spending about $136,000 and has received an additional $160,000 in federal funds to pay for the consultants, including Richard A. Hall, a Florida-based transportation engineer; Richard Rothenheber, a planner with JMT, a Sparks-based engineering firm; Jon S. Conner, a landscape architect with JMT; and Sirota.
The group has been surveying Towson, taking pictures and measuring streets for a three-dimensional computer model to use during the community meetings, Sirota said.
The mistakes made by developers and planners after World War II, who tended to focus on moving cars faster and not on attracting pedestrians, cannot be corrected overnight, Sirota said.
But, he said, it's not hard to come up with suggestions for improvements, such as allowing vehicles to travel two ways on streets such as Pennsylvania Avenue, or removing the fence along the lush garden in front of the Old Courthouse building.
The four lanes of traffic on York Road should probably be reduced to two, allowing vehicles to park along the main street and giving shoppers and other pedestrians a buffer between the sidewalks and the traffic, Sirota said.
On a walking tour last week with reporters and county officials, Sirota sounded like the host of a television makeover show as he critiqued various streets and buildings.
The banks at the corner of Pennsylvania and Washington avenues are "fortress-like," he said.
To be attractive to patrons, the buildings should be more accessible at the street level, Sirota said.
The offices and restaurants along Allegheny Avenue near the traffic circle offer a good example of appealing facades, but they represent only a "sliver," he said.
He recommended building an upper level over the parking "canyon" at Towson Circle, where Trader Joe's, Barnes & Noble Booksellers, and Pier 1 Imports are located. The new level would be flush with the street, and the county could perhaps build a park there, Sirota said.
"We see this as a critical part in the heart of Towson," Sirota said. "Right now, it's an open wound."
Sirota called the Fidelity Investment building under construction on the roundabout a "missed opportunity" to blend retail and office operations.
Even though people in Towson Town Center would have to walk up a steep hill to get into the center of town, Sirota said, "If the walk is pleasant, people will walk."
The consultants and county officials are urging residents, employees and merchants to attend the meetings.
"Nobody knows Towson like the people who live and work here," Conner said.
`Walkable Towson' meetings
7 p.m. today at Trinity Episcopal Church, 120 Allegheny Ave.
7 p.m. tomorrow at Calvary Baptist Church, 140 W. Pennsylvania Ave.
7 p.m. Wednesday at Trinity Episcopal Church.
The final presentation will be at 2 p.m. Saturday at Trinity Episcopal Church.
Information: 410-887-3317 or baltimorecountymd.gov/go/walkabletowson