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Towson looks to more open, walkable design to hold visitors

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.

"The new process is designed to be collaborative, not adversarial," said Clark, a lawyer whose clients include several land developers. He said the new rules include the specifics and predictability that builders want, while incorporating standards agreed to by representatives of dozens of community groups.

"This is sort of the compromise middle," said Clark. "If you build it this way, then the community at large will be willing to accept it."

While the use of the words "fast track" and "development" in the same sentence can raise community protest, Ed Kilcullen, past president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations, said objections were worked out in meetings that began in 2006.

"The concept of the [design] principles is these are things the community wants to see," said Kilcullen, whose organization represents 30 neighborhood associations.

These "principles" unfold in page after page of building design, height and streetscape details that will become part of the county code.

They include standards for three types of thoroughfares: main street retail, town center and boulevard, each with its own specifications on building heights, position in relation to the curb, street landscape, lighting, awnings, windows.

Three roads are designated as boulevards, or streets meant to carry the most traffic: Bosley, Burke and Towsontown. The town center streets surround the main street core that's home to most of the restaurants and stores.

The "main street" standards, for example, require that buildings stand at least two stories high, and the first floor be designed to accommodate a store, even if it has some other use, and the sidewalks stretch 20 to 22 feet from curb to building face. There's no building height limit in the main street section, but to avoid what Marks calls the "canyon" or "shadowing" effect, stories above the fourth have to be set back from the street. Building heights are limited in the boulevard and town center sections of the plan.

In the main street section, glass windows with no tinting are required to cover 75 percent to 95 percent of the street-level storefront. Tinting is not allowed because it blocks the view of activity inside, and can make the street look desolate. The rules discourage driveway curb cuts for driveways, and blocks longer than 400 feet — both recommendations meant to make the area better suited for walking.

The stretches of Chesapeake Avenue and York Road unbroken by a door or storefront represent the sort of street scene Marks and Bledsoe say they hope to discourage. There's more hope in a cluster of restaurants with outdoor seating on the north side of Pennsylvania and, of course, on Allegheny.

"Allegheny's hopping," said Nancy Hafford, executive director of the Towson Chamber of Commerce, who launched the "Feet on the Street" Friday night block party on Allegheny five years ago. She's working on another afternoon food festival on the newly completed plaza out front of the old courthouse on Washington Avenue, and welcomes the new code of building standards.

"If it can help bring new development to Towson, I'm thrilled to death," she said.

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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