'A changed place': How Kamenetz altered downtown Towson's landscape

In January 2013, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz declared that he wanted to put Towson on the map.

“We are going to make Towson a regional destination, even better than Bethesda, even better than Silver Spring,” Kamenetz, a Democrat, said during an announcement about Towson Square, an $85 million development of a cineplex and restaurants in downtown.

As the county reacts to news that Kamenetz died Thursday of cardiac arrest, some Towson residents look at the changing skyline of Towson’s core and see Kamenetz’s handiwork — and can recall the mix of support and controversy that often accompanied it.

“I’ve been here for 30 years,” said Towson Chamber of Commerce director Nancy Hafford. “And because of Kevin’s commitment to our community, this town totally changed. It went from a dead town, an old tired town, to a young, vibrant [town] where people are on the street day and night.”

“It’s definitely a changed place from when he took office,” said County Councilman David Marks, a Republican who represents Towson.

Marks said that in the course of Kamenetz’s administration, downtown Towson has been reinvigorated from an area that was once stagnant and decaying.

“Hundreds of homes are being built, cranes are in the air, and businesses are coming back,” Marks said.

Revitalization and development projects sprung up by the handfuls around Towson’s core during Kamenetz’s seven years as county executive. Today, to walk around Towson is to be surrounded by bulldozers, jackhammers and hard hats, signs of things to come.

The Towson Square development brought a movie theater and restaurants. New apartment complexes and town home communities gave people a reason to be in town after 5 p.m., Hafford said. Towson Row, a massive mixed-use development similar in size to Towson Town Center mall, was announced in 2013. A new fire station was dedicated in 2016.

Still, the focus on development has rankled some community members, particularly those advocating more open and green space in the area.

The county executive’s first proposal in 2012 to build a new fire station at Towson Manor Park drew fierce backlash from community members worried about losing green space. The station was later built on a county-owned parcel on Bosley Avenue.

Then the site of the old fire station — for a time known as Towson Gateway — drew controversy as residents protested its sale to developer Caves Valley Partners, which planned to build a gas station on the property. In April, residents marked the one-year anniversary of the Kamenetz administration’s decision to remove 30 trees from the site with a protest, dubbing the event “Tree-Gate.”

Kamenetz’s advocacy for a $43 million financial aid package for the developers of Towson Row, which stalled in 2015 and has not yet been constructed, prompted skepticism from Towson residents who accused the county of bailing out developers on the taxpayer’s dime.

And Marks said he was disappointed when the county executive shot down a proposal to create a Towson circulator bus system similar to the Charm City Circulator in Baltimore.

But Hafford credited Kamenetz for supporting development by championing county tax incentives offered to developers in Towson, which is a revitalization district.

“He has a wonderful economic development department that would go after developers with smart projects, share these incentives and encourage them to build here,” Hafford said.

“County Executive Kamenetz and I were of different political parties, but we both took office in 2010 with a similar goal of revitalizing Downtown Towson,” Marks said. “I did not always agree with him on how we might get there, but he set a positive tone and Downtown Towson's redevelopment is clearly a major part of his legacy.”

In addition to business development in the downtown area, Kamenetz was “supportive and excited” about new development on Towson University’s campus, said university president Kim Schatzel.

“He was candid and would get to the point really quickly,” she said. “I found a great partner in Kevin.”

She said Kamenetz was supportive of the university’s plan to establish a larger footprint in central Towson in addition to its space at 1 Olympic Place, an off-campus facility that houses the university’s Institute for Well-Being.

As other development projects, such as Towson Row and 101 York, aim to introduce more student housing off campus, Schatzel said, the university and the community could become more integrated. She said Kamenetz understood that would mean “a far more vibrant Towson.”

Paul Hartman, a past president of the Towson Communities Alliance, formerly known as the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations, said he often disagreed with Kamenetz in his role representing Towson’s neighborhoods on issues such as Towson Manor Park and the Towson Gateway site.

“There were times when I disagreed about how to proceed,” Hartman said. “But I think in the end we all want the same thing, which is to improve Baltimore County and Towson in particular, and make it a better place to live, work and raise a family.”

Though Marks and Kamenetz often butted heads, Marks said he credits the county executive for making Towson’s revitalization a priority.

“The county executive sets the tone for Baltimore County,” Marks said. “And I do think his very positive approach to redevelopment encouraged entrepreneurs and helped put Towson on the map.”

Before Kamenetz took office, Hafford described downtown Towson as a “ghost town” in the evenings.

“Now you see people walking around the streets. … It’s energized, it’s a place where people want to be,” Hafford said. “And in large part it was due to Kevin.”

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Cody Boteler contributed to this story.

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