Billion-dollar boom is designed to lure thousands to live, work and play in an urbanized county seat

August 31, 2008|By Kevin Rector | Kevin Rector,

The old houses on Washington Avenue have been knocked down, and the digging is about to begin for the 18-story Palisades apartment building. Already, condos are rising across from the mall, and more apartments are planned near the university.

In Towson, a change is coming that rivals the makeover pulled off in Silver Spring.

In all, an estimated 2,500 new residences will be built within the next few years - a key component in a billion-dollar development boom designed to transform the Baltimore County seat into a regional hub for entertainment, shopping, dining and night life.

"We want Towson to be a more vibrant place, and that requires additional people living in the core," said Ed Kilcullen, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations.

A new wave of townies in Towson, he said, will change a "business atmosphere that empties out at about 5 o'clock."

Some raise questions about traffic, parking and the potential effect on schools. Kilcullen asks whether apartments will sell during a real estate slump. And Beulah Young, a resident of the area for more than a half-century, laments the gradual loss of a slower and quieter Towson.

"They keep building and building, and they've lost Towson," said Young, who moved from Rodgers Forge to the Edenwald retirement community three years ago. "We like Towson as it was. And I realize it sounds old-fashioned, but I think they've overdone the building."

But many seem to welcome the growth.

Brian Recher, co-owner of the Rec Room on York Road, has already started building an outdoor bar that will provide an entrance from Shealy and Delaware avenues - right on the doorstep of the Towson Circle III project.

"When you get that amount of people 50 feet from you, that's going to be awesome," said Recher, who hopes to have the new area open by December. "The more people here the better."

Southern Management Corp., which has built in Montgomery County, has broken ground on the Palisades building in downtown Towson. The company's marketing director, John Cohan, said: "Towson, I think, will be very similar to Silver Spring."

Some $700 million in downtown Towson retail, commercial and residential projects is planned for the next five years, and that doesn't include $500 million in development planned at nearby Towson University.

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., who has worked in Towson for most of his professional career, said the area is finally reaching the potential seen for it as long as a half-century ago, and has done so "consistent with the vision that the Towson community had."

That vision is perhaps most clearly articulated in the Walkable Towson Plan, which calls for pedestrian-friendly development. Silver Spring and Bethesda are models "in terms of what they've done, how they've laid [development] out and how they've addressed walkability," said Pat Keller, director of the county's office of planning.

In short, creating more of an urban center.

Jody Sanfilippo, a manager at the Razorbacks Raw Bar & Grill in a shopping center across from where the Towson Town Center mall is expanding, said she expects the growth will benefit area businesses, "but if it's too congested, it'll be bad."

Kilcullen worries about the housing market, "which is a big concern because there's going to be a lot of residential projects and not a lot of people buying," he said. "We don't want to have a lot of projects that are not successful sitting empty or rented out to college students ... and not attracting the type of people who we want in Towson."

Developers and merchants are drawn to Towson by its affluent, educated and growing population. A 2007 study commissioned by the county economic development department found that more than 40 percent of people age 25 and older living within a three-mile radius of downtown Towson have a bachelor's degree or higher, compared with 27 percent nationally according to 2006 U.S. census data.

The estimated annual median household income in the area was $73,750, the county study said. According to census statistics released recently, the median household income is $68,080 statewide - Maryland is first in the country -and $50,740 nationwide.

More than 20 percent of households in the area made more than $100,000, according to the county study, which said about 151,000 people now live in the area.

Stuart Sirota, one of the principal planners behind the Walkable Towson Plan, said residential development and the expectation of an "actual, built-in market" are motivating growth in existing shopping areas.

One example is the Towson Circle III project, he said, which is scheduled by 2011 to envelop all 4 acres of prime downtown real estate bounded by Joppa Road, Delaware Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue and Virginia Avenue.

The area now is mostly parking lots.

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