Below the surface, a vexing problem for Towson Row

Towson Row project hits a stone wall: Rock under the site surface will require plans to be revised.

More than a year after a ceremony touting the massive Towson Row development, the downtown project seen by Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz as an "urban centerpiece" has been stalled by an immovable object.

Officials with developer Caves Valley Partners say they must reconfigure the project after discovery of a geological issue — solid rock under the surface — that makes it cost-prohibitive to build an underground parking garage for the $350 million project.

The garage, slated to be built under a Whole Foods grocery that will anchor the retail portion of Towson Row, "became too costly due to the rock presence as well as other construction costs," said company principal Arthur Adler in an email.

Adler said the company is redesigning the project to accommodate parking elsewhere, but new plans will need to be approved by county officials.

Towson Row will include 1 million square feet of developed space — as much as the nearby Towson Town Center mall — with an office tower, hundreds of apartments and student housing units, a 150-room hotel and 100,000 square feet of restaurants and shops, including Whole Foods.

When it was first announced in 2013, Kamenetz described it as a transformational project that fit into his goals to increase housing density and dining and entertainment options in Towson.

But since Caves Valley hosted a "site preparation" event in October 2015, residents have begun to grumble about the lack of progress.

Paul Hartman, vice president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations, described the 5-acre site near the corner of York Road and Towsontown Boulevard as "a rubble pile."

"There was a lot of flurry of activity when the buildings were demolished, and people realize that was more than a year ago and nothing's happened," said Hartman. "No one knows what the situation is."

Baltimore County Councilman David Marks, a Republican who represents Towson and who has advocated for the project, said he often gets an earful from constituents about Towson Row.

"People are very angry over the lack of attention," Marks said. "It's a great project and we want it to happen — and it's just stalled."

Adler insists Caves Valley is moving ahead on the mixed-use project. He said although the company "knew a great deal about the geological condition of the site" and did "very elaborate testing," the geological issues made the 1,500-space underground garage too difficult.

He said the company will reduce the size of the office tower and apartment buildings and move them elsewhere on the site to make room for the garage, which will now be entirely above-ground.

Caves Valley is also in discussion with the Baltimore County Revenue Authority over the garage. The authority — a quasi-government agency that operates county garages and parking meters, as well as county golf courses — could end up helping to finance, build or operate the garage, Adler said.

A deal hasn't yet been worked out, said Kenneth F. Mills Jr., chief executive of the revenue authority.

Adler wouldn't speculate on when construction might start at Towson Row, or when it might be completed. The company recently finished relocating utilities on the site, work that was needed before any development could proceed.

He also declined to name potential tenants other than Whole Foods, or say who might operate the hotel and apartments.

He said the company is working to secure financing for the remainder of the project, but rejected concerns that Towson Row might be in trouble. He said delays are inevitable for big developments.

"This project will be one of the most complicated projects ever contemplated for Towson, and there are numerous issues we're working on daily," Adler said. "That is just part of our industry."

Towson Row has faced challenges in the past, primarily from the community. Some neighbors appealed the county's approval of the development over concerns that it would exacerbate traffic problems.

Residents also complained that Caves Valley would pay too little in fees to compensate for a lack of open space at Towson Row. Then, the company struck a deal last December with neighbors and the county to pay a greater fee and contribute $200,000 toward new artificial turf fields at local schools.

Adler said the neighbors' appeals delayed Towson Row by one year.

Josh Glikin, a member of the West Towson Neighborhood Association, said neighbors are wondering if Towson Row will ever happen.

"Our county councilman and the county executive's office made it a top priority and pressured the communities to reach an agreement to get this project under way," Glikin said. "Now that it's stalled, they're stone-cold silent."

He said Caves Valley officials haven't kept the community notified about the garage issue or the redesign. "If you have no communication, then rumors and questions start to fill the void," he said. "That's a problem."

The project has been the subject of several county actions. A bill approved in January 2015 by the Baltimore County Council allows Towson Row to be bigger and taller than county rules typically allow.

Also, the county struck deals with Caves Valley for two parcels that will be part of Towson Row. In 2013, the council approved a no-bid lease allowing Caves Valley to rent the site of a former county building on the corner of Washington and Susquehanna avenues for about $2 million over 20 years, though the company can subtract demolition costs. And in 2014, the county sold an undeveloped lot on Susquehanna Avenue to Caves Valley for $820,000.

Business boosters in the area remain confident that Towson Row will happen and will be a benefit to the region.

"Sometimes projects run into issues that they have to address. That does not mean in any way that the project is dead in the water. I have full faith in the world with this project," said Nancy Hafford, executive director of the Towson Chamber of Commerce.

Katie Chasney Pinheiro, executive director of the Greater Towson Committee, acknowledged the Towson Row site is "not the most pleasant thing to walk by or drive by every day." But she said the payoff will be worth it.

"This development will truly make Towson the place to be in the county, there's no question about it," she said.

Towson Row is the largest project in the redevelopment of downtown Towson, but it's not the only one involving Caves Valley.

The company previously renovated an office tower at the north end of downtown on Olympic Place known as Towson City Center, and it is buying an old fire station and public works yard at the corner of York Road and Bosley Avenue from the county with plans to build a gas station and retail center.

And just west of downtown, Caves Valley is under contract to buy the historic Presbyterian Home of Maryland. Neighbors have petitioned the county to give the property a landmark designation that would limit exterior changes to the building.

pwood@baltsun.com

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