Towson Row, a $350 million mixed-use project proposed for the heart of Towson's York Road corridor, is scheduled to take its first step Tuesday in Baltimore County's development approval process.
The roughly 1 million-square-foot project — a size similar to Towson Town Center mall — has been called "transformational" by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.
Representatives from developer Caves Valley Partners are to appear before county officials Tuesday to go over the concept: a mix of office, retail and student housing aimed at nearby Towson University. County agencies will offer preliminary comments on the proposal.
At the same time, County Council member David Marks, who represents Towson, is pushing a bill that would seek exemptions for the project from some requirements for parking, height and signage. Marks, a Republican, said the breaks are needed to accommodate a project that means a lot to Towson's redevelopment.
"That is a very important project for Towson, and it is definitely the heart of the commercial core," Marks said. "I think that we should try to be flexible so the project can get built."
Towson Row will span 5 acres bounded by York Road, Towsontown Boulevard, Washington Avenue and Chesapeake Avenue. Caves Valley's plan calls for 374 apartments, 225 student housing units to accommodate four students each, a 150-room hotel, a 1,500-space parking garage and 200,000 square feet of offices, restaurants and retail shops anchored by a Whole Foods grocery store.
Arthur H. Adler, a partner with Towson-based Caves Valley, said plans submitted to the county match what the company has been promoting since the project was announced in June 2013.
"The concept plan filed is the plan we have repeatedly disclosed to the public in numerous meetings and as represented on our website," Adler said. "There should be no surprises for anyone."
Caves Valley's website for Towson Row advertises leasing opportunities and includes a video that takes viewers through an animated model of the site, showing multiple high-rise buildings, a central courtyard and entrances marked with gateway signs similar to those at the Towson traffic circle.
Following Tuesday's meeting, the next step is for Caves Valley to schedule a community input session, which Adler said will be held in January at the county library's Towson branch, across York Road from the Towson Row site.
Adler declined to speculateon how long the review process would take, or when Caves Valley could begin construction.
Meanwhile, Marks' bill — if approved — would allow the county's planning director to exempt Towson Row from regulations for height, signage and parking, though the project would still face development and community reviews.
Marks said his bill will give the county and Towson Row design flexibility not possible under the current zoning code. The councilman has sponsored bills to exempt other Towson projects from certain zoning requirements, and said earlier this month that downtown Towson needs its own zoning category altogether because the county's vision to create an urban center there isn't possible under the current code.
"For every project that comes in, it seems I have to do a separate bill to change it," Marks said.
The council has requested that the county's planning board develop recommendations for a new zone for downtown Towson by March.
Marks' Towson Row bill also would require the open-space fees Caves Valley will need to pay for the project to be used within two miles of the site. The bill is scheduled for a vote in January, and Marks doesn't expect difficulty getting it approved by the council.
"Most people recognize it's critical that this project gets done," he said.
The Greater Towson Committee, a group that promotes redevelopment, is among those supporting the project.
"Right now, Towson is definitely bustling during the week, but not so much on the weekends. … Towson Row will help Towson become the place where you can really work and live and play," said Katie Chasney Pinheiro, executive director of the Greater Towson Committee.
Michael P. Ertel, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations, said many Towson residents have "cautious optimism" about Towson Row, but are concerned about its size, effects on traffic and lack of open space.
Ertel said members of the community council haven't closely reviewed the Towson Row plans or Marks' bill, which was introduced last week. He said the council has no official position on the bill, though the group would oppose it if it reduces public input in the Towson Row review process.
Towson has experienced significant growth in recent years, including hundreds of new residential units, the Towson Square movie theater project on Joppa Road and the redeveloped 12-story Towson City Center building, another Caves Valley project.
While Towson Row has been championed by elected officials and economic development officials, it has sparked some controversy.
Last December, the County Council approved a no-bid lease for Caves Valley to rent a former government office building on Washington Avenue that will now be redeveloped as part of Towson Row. The deal was criticized by Councilwoman Vicki Almond, who said the deal wasn't transparent, and also by a real estate company that had bid to buy the building two years earlier but was rejected.