November 01, 2008

Towson Rising

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 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 nightlife.

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

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

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," says Recher, who hopes to have the new area open by December. "The more people here the better."

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, says 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," says Pat Keller, director of the county's office of planning.

Jody Sanfilippo, a manager at the Razorbacks Raw Bar & Grill in a shopping center across from where the Towson Town Center mall is expanding, says she expects the growth will benefit area businesses.

The estimated annual median household income in the area was $73,750, the county study says. 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 says about 151,000 people now live in the area. Stuart Sirota, one of the principal planners behind the Walkable Towson Plan, says residential development and the expectation of an "actual, built-in market" are motivating growth in existing shopping areas.

With a 2,500-seat multiplex cinema sitting atop a four-story parking garage, a T-shaped promenade for outdoor dining, about 60,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space and another 60,000 square feet of office space above that, the project will help link York Road businesses with the mall, says David S. Cordish, whose Cordish Co. is handling leasing for the project.

"They're basically taking what was an inward-facing mall that did-n't have any presence on the street, and they're turning it inside out and creating streetfacing shops," Sirota says.

A new wing will open this fall that will eventually include retail stores and P.F. Chang's China Bistro, the Cheesecake Factory and Stoney River Legendary Steaks, says Charles Crerand, the mall's senior general manager.

Towson has already been identified as the county's downtown, and development in and around the core will solidify that role, says Mary Harvey, director of the county's Office of Community Conservation.

"It's that urban feel, that urban vitality," she says, "that we're trying to create in Towson.