Transforming Towson into a regional destination

Towson Square among projects changing the face of county seat

  • Shown is a vacant lot next to Joppa Road near the heart of Towson, where the Towson Square project will be built.
Shown is a vacant lot next to Joppa Road near the heart of Towson,… (Baltimore Sun photo by Karl…)
January 16, 2013|By Alison Knezevich and Jon Meoli

Officials announced on Tuesday a trio of new restaurants and a VIP section for the 15-screen movie theater planned for the Towson Square project — an $85 million development seen as a key element in attracting more shoppers and visitors to the county seat.

"We are going to make Towson a regional destination, even better than Bethesda, even better than Silver Spring," Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said at a news conference Tuesday announcing the restaurants.

Such hopes have long hovered over Towson. Now, a series of new development, renovation and revitalization projects indicates that the goal — or something like it — may well be taking shape in 2013. One project aims to rejuvenate long-dormant Towson Commons. Another is bringing new offices and restaurants to a once-vacant tower. Yet another could produce what one official called a "transformational" development to the southern edge of downtown.

While many community leaders have embraced the projects, concerns over growing pains — like the traffic congestion that plagued the two Washington suburbs — have tempered their optimism.

Paul Hartman, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations, called the Towson Square announcements exciting, and a sign that "obviously people feel it's worth investing in this community."

But he added that as Towson grows, the county needs to consider traffic, security and "walkability."

"We've already got a traffic problem without [the new developments]," he said, "so we're going to need to discuss some sort of public transit," such as a circulator or shuttle bus.

Towson Square, being built on four acres bounded by East Joppa Road and Delaware, Pennsylvania and Virginia avenues, is slated to open in 2014.

Joining Kamenetz on Tuesday, officials of developers Cordish Cos. and Heritage Properties said three restaurants have committed to the "entertainment center," which will be anchored by a Cinemark movie theater: Nando's Peri-Peri, a South African restaurant; La Tagliatella, a Europe-based chain serving northern Italian cuisine; and On the Border Mexican Grill & Cantina. Officials said the complex will eventually house eight restaurants, with more tenant announcements planned in the coming months.

They also said Cinemark has expanded its initial plan for the theater, with the addition of a VIP level featuring a full bar and "premium food choices" for patrons ages 21 and older. The theater is expected to have 3,400 stadium-style seats — 200 more than initially announced — and 15 screens.

"You'll see a lot of construction over the next 18 months," said Blake Cordish, vice president of Cordish Cos.

The downturn in the economy slowed Towson Square, formerly called Towson Circle III, but the project is a "textbook" public-private partnership, said Mike Batza, chairman and CEO of Heritage. The county Revenue Authority is spending $6.2 million on the 850-space underground garage at Towson Square, and the Maryland Department of Transportation will add $2 million in infrastructure improvements in that area.

Robert E. Latshaw Jr., president of Latshaw Real Estate Advisors, in Towson, and a former member of the county planning board, said Towson Square and others projects indicate that "Towson's on its way back."

"The new restaurants at Towson Square certainly take it up another level, and add some amenities that we need on the east side of York Road," he said.

County Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican whose district includes Towson, said he feels a "real sense of optimism and energy."

"There is tremendous momentum here in Towson," Marks said. "Even in a difficult economy, big projects are advancing."

One of those other projects could bring life to Towson Commons, which occupies a large stretch of York Road in the center of town. At its Jan. 22 meeting, the County Council is expected to approve a parking-related measure that will pave the way for a fitness center to be built there. Marks declined to name the "nationally known" club negotiating for the lease, but said it would fill much of the vacant 50,000-square-foot space.

Hartman called Towson Commons — a once-bustling center that lost its retail tenants, then an eight-screen AMC movie theater in March 2011 — a "ghost town." But he believes the fitness center "will bring people back to the building and make it a productive building."

Nancy Hafford, executive director of the Towson Chamber of Commerce, agreed.

"It's the first time in — I can't say how many years — we've finally had something start at Towson Commons," she said. "To have a business come in taking 50,000 square-feet, bringing bodies not just in the daytime between 9 and 5, but early in the morning that can support our breakfast places [and] at nighttime that will support our local eateries, we couldn't be happier."

Other projects have reinforced that sense of optimism.

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