Towson looks to more open, walkable design to hold visitors

New program adopted by council seeks to keep those who work, shop in the county seat

  • Lunchtime diners sit outside Di Pasquale's/Strapazza on Allegheny Avenue.
Lunchtime diners sit outside Di Pasquale's/Strapazza… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
July 10, 2011|By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore County has a plan for the heart of Towson, and it looks like Allegheny Avenue.

In good weather Souris' Saloon can count on serving customers at tables under a black awning on the wide sidewalk where Allegheny meets the traffic circle at York Road. Down the block, Strapazza opens its sidewalk umbrellas for patrons. There's more seating out front at DiPasquale's and Ridgely & Ferrens, finer dining at Cafe Troia, a mix of small stores and the Penthouse high-rise condominium at the intersection of Washington Avenue.

Allegheny isn't burdened by empty storefronts common on streets elsewhere in the town center. And those involved in development efforts say there's also something working nicely in the block itself — in the mix of businesses and details of windows, sidewalk layout, size of buildings and the way they appear to people walking on the street.

"This is the success story," County Councilman David Marks said, standing on the wide sidewalk outside Souris', where the outdoor tables are often busy long after the work day is over.

Last week the County Council adopted a Marks-sponsored revitalization measure that is designed to help make Towson's core into more than a place where people work and drive home, or shop at the mall and drive home. Developers can put projects on a fast track for approval by following a set of design standards meant to make the area more inviting for walkers, shoppers, restaurant patrons and entertainment-seekers.

"There is no urban place in Baltimore County; this is it," said Cynthia W. Bledsoe, the executive director of the Greater Towson Committee Inc., who worked on the project. She said the area should be improved to compete with Baltimore City for visitors.

The so-called "urban design standards" in the bill have become a customary "component of best practices" for downtown revitalization districts, Bledsoe wrote in a report on the project. Such standards, for instance, were part of the work on the redevelopment of downtown Bethesda, said Stephanie Coppula, the communications director for the business district that Marks said he considers a worthy model.

Towson is no Bethesda — with its own Washington Metro station, some 45,000 people working downtown and about 100,000 people living in Bethesda and Chevy Chase — but it is Baltimore County's seat and one of its largest employment centers.

About 12,000 people work in downtown Towson, and Towson University, with more than 25,000 students, is scarcely a half-mile away. Some 33,000 people live within a mile of downtown, and apartment construction within a half-mile has created more than 1,200 new units since 2008, according to a county spokeswoman.

Towson continues to struggle, though, in the aftermath of the foreclosure and sale of Towson Commons, a retail and office complex that dominates several blocks downtown. An eight-screen movie theater there closed in May, and street-level store spaces remain empty along York Road, Pennsylvania Avenue and Chesapeake Avenue. Other retail vacancies are scattered around downtown.

The legislation is meant to help create a setting where people want to stick around after work, and visit on nights and weekends. The new code could influence development in properties that are now rows of vacant stores, or parking lots between the streets.

Marks, a Republican who represents the 5th Council District, said he'd like to see high-rise buildings mixing residential and commercial uses replace some of those parking lots, which he considers a poor use of the space.

The new standards are not mandatory and will not compel owners of existing buildings to make changes, but the people involved hope that the incentive of saving time and money will be enough to encourage developers to participate.

The standards apply only to the very center of Towson, not to Towson Town Center Mall on Dulaney Valley Road or the proposed site of the Towson Circle III movie, shopping and office complex off East Joppa Road. The area of roughly 50 blocks is bordered by Joppa Road to the north and West Burke Avenue and Towsontown Boulevard to the south, Bosley Avenue on the west and Virginia Avenue to the east.

C. William "Bud" Clark, president of Tomorrow's Towson, a coalition of community and business groups that adopted the design standards four years ago, said the builder who chooses the new approach could save "easily six months to a year" or longer getting a project approved, depending on appeals. The new procedure bypasses the community comment meeting and the hearing before an administrative law judge, who would normally have the final say before appeals.

In this case, final decisions would be made by a volunteer panel of architects and designers called the Design Review Panel. Marks said the community would retain the right to appeal, but the developer would give that up.

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