The once-vacant AMC movie theater space inside Towson Commons that symbolized the downtown building's slide into deterioration a few years ago re-opened Thursday as a glistening, 52,000-square-foot LA Fitness facility.
"This building getting refilled is symbolic of what's happening in downtown Towson," County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said Thursday morning after a tour of the new facility ahead of the fitness club's scheduled opening at 3 p.m. that day.
Towson Commons, a 3-story shopping center and 10-story office building at York Road and Pennsylvania Avenue, opened in 1992 and once housed the movie theater, a Borders Books & Music, a craft gallery and several restaurants, and included an 882-space parking garage.
While the office building thrived, the shopping center struggled and was later vacant except for the movie theater, which then closed in May 2011.
Garrison Investment Group bought Towson Commons in June from Capmark, which bought the property at a bankruptcy auction in 2011 for $28.5 million. Capmark had been the lender for the previous owner, Western Development Corp., and claimed Western defaulted on a $66 million loan.
LA Fitness was announced as the anchor tenant in March 2013 for the planned renovations at Towson Commons. Councilman David Marks, who represents Towson, said a lease was finalized in January 2013 after legislation sponsored by Marks lowering parking requirements for fitness centers in downtown Towson was passed.
"The redevelopment of Towson Commons has been a top priority for me, and I'm glad we were able to amend the parking and signage regulations to attract a quality business like LA Fitness," Marks said.
Kamenetz joined officials from LA Fitness, Towson Commons and local business leaders for a private tour of the fitness center Thursday morning. At nearly every stop on the tour of the two-floor facility, the officials gathered around the building's new, floor-to-ceiling windows. The windows, primarily on the east side of the building along York Road and the south side along Chesapeake Avenue, look out over the downtown area and surrounding neighborhoods.
"You can't really appreciate the windows from the street level, but when you're up here, you really do because it gives great viewpoints of the growth of downtown Towson," Kamenetz said.
The space within the building's rotunda that once opened to the movie theater's box office now opens to a spacious front reception area for LA Fitness. A large childcare center abuts the atrium, and the open floor plan on the first level features treadmills, ellipticals and stationary bikes. The first level also features a set of three racquetball courts, and the locker rooms with wood-paneled lockers serve as a passage to the three-lane lap pool at the southeast corner of the building.
A floating staircase leads to the second floor, which has a row of treadmills and stationary machines along the York Road side and a floor full of strength training equipment. The second level also features a basketball court, spin cycles and an aerobics studio.
"The rooms that you see are prototypical of nearly all of our clubs," Andy Bragg, director of development for LA Fitness, said. "That's what we usually try to put into our clubs besides our circuit training and free weights. Our prototypical LA Fitness is not quite as large as this one, so we got to add some more equipment in this one. "
Construction on the building was arduous, Bragg said.
"When we first got here, it was an abandoned theater," Bragg said. "It was pretty much trashed out, so when we decided to lease it and evaluate for the architectural aspect of it, we thought of the good possibilities of what we could do. We loved it."
The layout of the building, with its sloped stadium-style seating and different levels for theater floors and projectors, made creating a level, two-story fitness center within the building challenging as well, Bragg said.
"The structural integrity of this building — we had to change to make our stuff work, to make the swimming pool work, the stairs work, even the locker rooms work," Bragg said. "The locker rooms are sitting on top of the old sloped stadium where the theater was."
Now that construction on LA Fitness is completed, officials anticipate leasing of the street level restaurants to begin soon. Katie Chasney Pinheiro, executive director of the Greater Towson Committee, said the eye-level improvements expected will only help the area.
"I think from the renderings that I've seen of the exterior of Towson Commons along York Road, I think it's really exciting," Pinheiro said after the tour. "York Road needs to be freshened up, so I think Towson Commons will be the start of the York Road transformation."
"We're looking forward to this kicking off a wave of new retail tenants in Towson Commons," Nancy Hafford, executive director of the Towson Chamber of Commerce, said.