Towson two-way plans tied up

Some oppose proposal for Pennsylvania and Chesapeake avenues

July 15, 2008|By Kevin Rector | Kevin Rector,Sun Reporter

With traffic changes to York Road and the Towson roundabout complete, the next step in the plan to make downtown Towson more pedestrian-friendly is to convert Chesapeake and Pennsylvania avenues into two-way streets.

According to professional planners Richard Hall and Stuart Sirota, the conversions of the streets will slow vehicular traffic, promote pedestrian traffic and support local businesses.

But while Hall and Sirota are eager to start the next phase of the two-year-old Walkable Towson Plan, Baltimore County officials say there is no consensus on when - or even if - the changes will occur. And at least one store owner says the plan could harm his business.

"Everyone is keenly aware that this is the next step, but when it will start? There's no schedule," said county Public Works spokesman David Fidler. "The talk hasn't really begun."

Converting the avenues to two-way streets will be a "thornier and considerably more expensive" task than the York Road and roundabout changes, Fidler said, and the question of who will pay the approximately $1 million bill is "up in the air."

The State Highway Administration dished out more than $50,000 to help implement the significantly less-costly changes to the state-controlled York Road and Towson roundabout, but it will probably be more frugal when it comes to Chesapeake and Pennsylvania avenues, which are county roads, Fidler said.

"The conversion of one-way to two-way [streets] has been deferred, pending analysis of what we've implemented so far," said Jay Doyle, community revitalization specialist for the Baltimore County Office of Community Conservation. "We want to see how traffic behaves once the school session starts back up."

And after that, there needs to be more discussion of the reasons for two-way traffic, officials said.

"What I really need to find out is what benefit do we really gain by making them two-way," said Councilman Vincent J. Gardina. "How does that improve the walkability?"

For local business owner Doug Marcus, the deliberate approach to the street conversion project is good news.

According to Marcus, owner of the Towson Wines and Spirits on Pennsylvania Avenue, the change would make it difficult to safely unload trucks at the front of his store. Because the store's back entrance is at the bottom of a steep incline, it isn't conducive to heavy deliveries. Marcus fears that county officials will either ban unloading on a two-way street or simply leave it to him to deal with the dangers of getting beer out of trucks that load from the sides.

"They're either going to stop [allowing] loading trucks, which means I'm literally out of business, or they're going to have a fatality," Marcus said.

Sirota said the two-way streets will have a central lane of a non-asphalt material that will provide passing space for lanes blocked by trucks. On-street parking would be allowed to continue.

"Trucks are there for a few minutes and if people need to pull around them, they can," Sirota said.

Both Hall and Sirota say they are confident the street conversion plan will help Towson.

"There are a lot of folks in the county who would like to see it happen at different paces," said Sirota, principal planner for TND Planning Group in Baltimore. "As the planners, we'd like to see it happen sooner than later."

"I'd like to see it go faster, and they feel like they're going at light speed," said Hall, president of Hall Planning & Engineering Inc., in Tallahassee, Fla. "It's like they're putting their toe in the water, from my perspective."

Hall has dropped names such as Madrid, Paris and Rome as cities Towson should emulate. Sirota has said the Towson roundabout "has potential to be one of the most vibrant and exciting public spaces not only in Towson, but in the state of Maryland," comparing it to London's Piccadilly Circus.

Doyle said other changes, including new signs directing visitors around town and refurbished streetscapes, could happen soon. The Walkable Towson Plan is not stalled, he said.

Sirota and Hall said they will work in the next few months to build support for the changes.

Meanwhile, Marcus said he will watch developments carefully. "If there is any intimation that [Pennsylvania Avenue] is going two-way, I'm gonna go ballistic," he said.

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