Food served by smiling carhops on roller skates is a feature of the new Sonic Drive-In restaurant in Towson. While the mobile waitresses bring an interesting touch to the busy corridor of East Joppa Road, where the fast-food restaurant opened quietly last week, it is a far cry from the staid longtime business that inhabited the site, Baynesville Electronics, which closed its doors in December 2016 after 61 years.
As much as anything, the roller-skating carhops are symbolic of changes coming not only to the Baynesville site, but to two other locations once inhabited by local institutions.
Sonic franchise owner Tom Behrle, of Entourage Development and owner of two other Baltimore County Sonic franchises, said he chose to open in Towson because he liked the neighborhood and its proximity to the Beltway.
“It’s quick access that’s easy on and easy off,” Behrle said. “That’s key to all of [the new] businesses. When you can turn three blocks right off the Beltway it’s the perfect location [for Sonic.]” While Joppa Road is heavily trafficked by vehicles, the area is also surrounded by residential neighborhoods with “a lot of people to feed and a lot of customers,” he said.
“Loch Raven Village is right behind us, “ Behrle said. “We’re known for ice cream and shakes and in summer these people can walk over on a nice Saturday night and get their ice cream. That’s what summer’s made for.”
Sonic soon will be joined by a nearby Starbucks, at 1700 E. Joppa Road in Parkville, which will take over the space occupied by the popular Bel-Loc Diner. The eatery closed to a standing-room only crowd last March after 53 years in business.
Meanwhile, the former Raytheon site down the street is set to become a mixed-use development called Loch Raven Commons at 1300 E. Joppa Road, in Towson.
The center’s only announced tenant so far is Wawa, a Pennsylvania-based chain of gas stations and convenience stores; it remains under construction but it is expected to open in April, according to a company spokeswoman.
Residents of nearby neighborhoods said they have mixed reactions about what the developments mean for the area.
Loch Raven Village resident Peter Moulder, who has lived in the area for almost 30 years, said most people in the community miss Baynesville Electronics because it had become a part of the landscape. However, he’s happy with the Sonic that replaced it because it means the property is no longer vacant.
“It was a fixture in the community kind of like the Bel-Loc [Diner] which people were sad to see go, but I think everyone understands when a family business like that is just not viable anymore,” Moulder said. “I think we got fairly good results out of all three locations.”
Moulder, who is also the Loch Raven Village Association vice president, said he is not surprised that businesses are interested in what he called a “transitioning” area of Joppa Road because the community has increasingly attracted new young families.
Residents who have lived in their homes for as many as 50 years are selling to couples in their 30s, including both his son and daughter, 31 and 34 respectively, who now live within half a mile of his home, he said.
Loch Raven Village is close to downtown Towson without the price tag, he added.
“If I were a business person that’s the way I’d be looking at this area too—as a future market that might be worth investing in,” Moulder said.
Others aren’t entirely sold.
Janice Krach said the exterior of the new Sonic is “lovely” and fits in with the neighborhood, but she’s worried about the potential increase in traffic that a restaurant, gas station and apartment complex may create.
Krach, 76, is the Knettishall Community Association president and has lived in the neighborhood just south of Joppa Road for more than 60 years.
“This is a really nice area and you start complicating that with more traffic — I don’t know. It’s not a happy thing,” Krach said.
Additionally, the Wawa will need delivery and the Starbucks will have a drive-thru, both of which might lead to more cars at the nearby intersection, she said.
Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration spokeswoman Shantee Felix said the intersection of Loch Raven Boulevard and Joppa Road is managed by the department. Its officials work with counties to approve development projects when a state road is potentially impacted, and developers typically perform a traffic impact study, which in turn SHA engineers review and have the option to require improvements, she said.
Felix denied a request for the impact study, saying a reporter would have to file a formal public information request.
Starbucks officials did not return repeated requests for comment, however, a building permit to construct the Parkville location was issued to the company by Baltimore County on Sept. 18, according to Baltimore County spokeswoman Ellen Kobler.
Meanwhile, at Wawa’s construction site last week, the foundation of the gas station, its canopy and the building for the convenience store is mostly finished.
The store is expected to open in April and employ about 40 to 50 workers, according to Wawa spokeswoman Lori Bruce.
Though a building permit for the construction of the Wawa was issued June 15, tenants for the the rest of the Loch Raven Commons project have yet to be announced.
A rendering released by the project's developer, Wilmington, Del.-based Buccini/Pollin Group, includes a 20,000-square-foot mixed retail and residential complex with three buildings on the roughly 10-acre property, including the Wawa.
The project also features four multi-family buildings with 200 apartments and a clubhouse and is expected to be completed in September, according to the company's construction management company, BPGS.
Though the Wawa is mostly built, as of last week the rest of the project is still ongoing with dirt-filled cranes still laid out around the property.
Company officials did not return requests for comment.
Baltimore County Councilman David Marks said the developments are a welcome addition to a corridor that continues to see improvements.
“Revitalizing the Joppa Road corridor has been a top priority for me since I was first elected,” Marks said in a Feb. 22 email. “Not only did I introduce the legislation that allowed for the redevelopment of the Raytheon site, but I sponsored a bill that requires better architectural review of anything that is built in this corridor.”
The council in 2013 passed legislation introduced by Marks making any new building in the Loch Raven Commercial Revitalization District subject to review by the Baltimore County Design Review Panel, which evaluates landscaping, parking and other features of new construction.
“Each of these projects rehabilitates a distressed location, and I have been careful to block rezoning requests that I thought would take us in a different direction,” Marks said.
In 2015, Gavigan's furniture store, based in Linthicum Heights, announced plans to build on a vacant property at 1750 E. Joppa Road, in Parkville.
The store is still under construction and is expected to open in the first quarter of 2018. The company also has stores in Westminster, Forest Hill, Dundalk, Glen Burnie and Catonsville.
The vacant Joppa Road site was once home to the Salvation Army Thrift Store and Harold’s Fruit Market, a local institution for 40 years. Both stores were torn down at least six years ago.
Moulder, of Loch Raven Village, said he would like to see a comprehensive plan from Baltimore County for future development along the Joppa Road corridor. It is an ongoing conversation he said he has had with Marks.
“By and large the developments have been positive,” Moulder said. “We’d like green space and more upscale stuff, but I think we did pretty well with what we ended up with.”