University in talks on Towson Commons complex

Former shopping center eyed as classrooms, faculty offices

March 16, 2011|By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun

Towson University is negotiating to lease a third of the main building at the struggling Towson Commons complex, including storefront space that has been vacant for years, a school official said.

James Sheehan, the university's vice president of administration and finance and the chief financial officer, said Wednesday that the school has been talking for more than a month with Towson Commons' owners, Capmark Finance, Inc., about leasing 115,000 square feet for classrooms and faculty offices for the College of Health Professions.

"We've been looking at that particular space because of its proximity to the campus," said Sheehan.

The campus where some 20,000 undergraduate and graduate students are enrolled is about a half-mile south of Towson Commons. The main building of the development includes an eight-screen AMC movie theater, offices and storefronts on York Road and Pennsylvania Avenue.

According to the website of the management company, Jones Lang LaSalle, the three-story shopping mall and 10-story office building includes 100,000 square feet of retail space and 220,000 square feet of offices, as well as a parking garage with 882 spots. The Towson Commons complex owned by Capmark also includes the Lafayette Building, a six-story office tower with storefronts on York Road and Chesapeake Avenue, said Nancy Hafford, executive director of the Towson Chamber of Commerce.

Sheehan said his last contact with representatives of Capmark was last week. Thomas Fairfield, listed as a media contact on Capmark's site, could not be reached for this article. Reached Wednesday at his office in Manhattan, Capmark Senior Vice President Jonathan B. Kohan declined to comment

Hafford said the negotiations between Capmark and the university were potentially good news for the downtown area of the county seat, where one storefront after another has emptied in the past six years, mostly at Towson Commons.

"We'd be thrilled, absolutely thrilled" to have university classrooms and offices move to Towson Commons, Hafford said Wednesday. "We want to bring the university into the town. We want the students here, we want the teachers here."

County Councilman David Marks, who represents the Towson area, said this week that area residents would not want to see student dormitories in the center of town, but he said he expected that classrooms and offices would be welcome.

Marks said he had not talked with representatives of Capmark, adding that he considers Towson Commons one of the "linchpins for the development of Towson."

Sheehan said the negotiations were focused on the space along York Road. Much of that space was once occupied by Borders Books and Music, which moved out in 2005. A year later, the Ruby Tuesday restaurant at York and Chesapeake closed, as did the Fells Point Surf Company.

Since then, two restaurants have closed on the Pennsylvania Avenue side, leaving the Kyodai Rotating Sushi Bar on Pennsylvania Avenue and the movie theater as the only retail tenants in the main building. The Lafayette Building's storefronts on Chesapeake Avenue are vacant.

Hafford said the offices at the Lafayette Building and the Towson Commons main building have always done well and continue to show low vacancy rates, but she could not provide a specific number. Genny Hardesty, the general manager of Towson Commons for Jones Lang LaSalle, declined to answer questions.

Capmark's plans for the complex have been unclear since the company bought the property at a foreclosure auction last September from Western Development Inc., which had two loans with Capmark totaling nearly $59 million due in principal, interest and fees. Capmark paid $28.5 million at the auction, but the sale was held up until last month by a Baltimore County circuit judge who ruled that Capmark had failed to put down a $500,000 deposit on the sale.

Judge Susan Souder approved the sale in February after hearing arguments that Capmark was not required by law to put down the deposit.

Shortly after the judge's ruling, Kohan, the Capmark senior vice president, came to Baltimore to meet briefly with County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, said Donald I Mohler III, Kamenetz's chief of staff. Mohler said the meeting in Kamenetz's office lasted about 30 minutes, and Kohan stressed Capmark's "commitment to Towson."

The movie theater continues to operate on a month-to-month lease, Hafford said. She and county economic development officials said they assume that the AMC theater will not be part of Towson Commons' future because the proposed Towson Circle III development, just a few blocks away on East Joppa Road, includes a multiscreen movie complex.

With Towson Commons now operating with less debt, Hafford said, she hoped the complex owners would be able to offer prospective tenants more appealing terms.

"I'm feeling very, very hopeful they will adjust their leasing prices and that will make Towson more attractive," Hafford said.

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