Towson University seeks to improve downtown through stronger bonds with neighbors

Towson Times

Last January, former Howard County Executive Ken Ulman paid a visit to Tim Bojanowski's small social media marketing company, Zest Social Media Solutions, in downtown Towson. Bojanowski is also the vice president of the Towson Chamber of Commerce.

Ulman was visiting Bojanowski on a paid mission for Towson University to gather information to help the university connect the campus with the broader community surrounding the state school. Indeed, over the previous three months Ulman had spent much time in Towson on that mission, visiting business leaders, politicians and community members.

As the pair looked out over downtown Towson from Bojanowski's business on the fourth floor of an office building on Chesapeake Avenue, they talked about how to encourage a successful business climate in Towson. One of the subjects they discussed was whether Towson could benefit from a food amenity similar to the nearby Belvedere Square Market, just south of the Baltimore City line that includes a variety of restaurants.

Ulman posed the questions: "Where do we do that?" "Should we do it here?"

Ulman asked those and many other such questions about Towson's future on behalf of Towson University officials, who hired his consulting firm, Margrave Strategies, last fall to assist them in discovering how the university can form a stronger partnership with the surrounding community that, at the same time, will help to ensure the university's continued growth.

The outcome university officials are hoping for is a vibrant, walkable and engaging environment surrounding the college that would be an attraction for students and faculty, and a benefit to neighboring residents. Forging stronger partnerships with the community will help officials create the best possible university experience for students, which is their goal, university spokesman Ray Feldmann said.

Officials intend to use Ulman's findings to develop what they call a comprehensive "anchor placemaking" strategy for the university "that will guide future growth and cement the university's role as an anchor institution for decades to come," according to a news release on the strategy.

As the university seeks to expand its student population by an additional 2,700 students in the coming years — from a current 22,300 — officials also are looking at how the university might expand off-campus, which will be a part of the strategy, according to University President Kim Schaztel.

Officials also are looking at how the college might forge stronger connections with local businesses, thereby showing its value as an economic driver to the state officials who approve its government funding. Those connections will also allow the school to better advocate for the type of growth that adds arts, entertainment and other attractions that will turn Towson into a place where people — and students — will want to live and work, according to Feldmann.

The university's growth is mandated by the University System of Maryland. However, the school is running out of academic space on campus, said Schatzel. In the past, the university has found opportunities to move some of its facilities off campus, such as the school's Institute for Well-Being, which is in the 1 Olympic Place building in Towson's core, or its business incubator, located to the south of campus on York Road.

When Schatzel took the university's reins in January 2016, she didn't want to handle the challenge connected with the university's growth as they arose, she said.

"Instead of waiting for the opportunities, what we want to be able to say is, 'This is what we think we should have and where,' " Schatzel said.

Later, Schatzel announced that the university has a 2,000 to 2,500 bed shortage in its demand for student housing that must be addressed.

To that end, Schatzel also announced earlier this month that the university will convert the Towson University Marriott Hotel into student housing once the hotel's contract expires in June 2018. The building would be converted to student housing by fall of 2018.

Converting the hotel into student housing was something the school was already considering, Feldmann said, adding that the findings the school received from Margrave reaffirmed for the university that converting the Marriott to student housing was a good idea.

Why Ulman?

Last September university officials hired Ulman's Columbia-based placemaking and economic development strategy consulting firm under a four-month, $90,000 contract that ran from October, 2016 to February.

Officials chose Ulman for the job in part, they said, because of his experience crafting a similar strategy for the University of Maryland, College Park in 2014.

Before that Ulman spent 12 years in politics in Howard County, four as a county councilman and eight as county executive. He ran for lieutenant governor in 2014, on the ticket with Anthony Brown, but lost to Gov. Larry Hogan and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford.

Ulman collaborated with Philadelphia-based U3 Advisors, real estate and economic development consultants, who compiled existing information about where university students and staff live that will help the school identify gaps in the housing market near its campus, Ulman said.

U3 Advisors Vice President Alex Feldman said the team learned that many students and faculty members commute to Towson, which drives the need for parking spaces.

"That creates a land use that is not necessarily desirable; it ends up taking up space that could be used by housing or retail, or other uses that ultimately could make the place more vibrant," Feldman said.

Ulman also conducted more than 50 meetings with on-campus and off-campus stakeholders, such as Bojanowski, through which he gathered input about what businesses owners and residents want from Towson University. Those included County Councilman David Marks, who represents Towson, representatives of Goucher College, business owners and community leaders.

Nancy Hafford, executive director of the Towson Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber encourages the university's effort to forge closer ties to the community. When the university has, in the past, moved its facilities off-campus to the core part of town, the move has led to success, Hafford said, pointing to a health center and radio station tied to the university. The radio station offers events for the community, while its staff members support local restaurants with their patronage, Hafford said.

Marks said he believes that Ulman's work has been helpful.

"I'm very happy that Towson University is engaging a lot of key stakeholders," he said. "I don't quite think Towson wants to become another College Park, but I do think there are some success stories we should look at."

Anxieties about growth

Ulman also met with members of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations, who expressed some anxiety about how the college's continued growth might affect neighboring residential communities.

Such anxiety exists in part because past growth in the area has not been well thought out, Ulman said he believes. Although stresses such as parking and traffic problems, and issues from students who live off campus, will arise, Ulman said, they should go hand-in-hand with advantages of having a major university in the community, such as access to its artistic and intellectual resources.

"We're missing that piece," Ulman said, citing the school's performing arts center, which is "buried" inside the campus, as an example.

Part of Ulman's vision is for residents to come onto campus for events such as book signings and sporting events. Crafting such a vision means that the university must examine what of its assets are available to the community now, if the buildings that house those assets are welcoming, and how to choose locations for future buildings.

The GTCCA's Mike Ertel said he is concerned about the university's growth.

"If we get much bigger, we're going to lose neighborhoods," said Ertel, who added that he believed that Ulman genuinely listened to the residents concerns about growth.

"I think most of us want to see the school thrive, obviously, but we also want to make sure the community thrives as well," said Ertel, a Towson University alumni. "I'm optimistic that this exercise has helped."

University officials are weighing and analyzing the information Ulman provided them, Feldmann said.

Earlier this month, they released some preliminary findings based on Ulman's work that provides some insight into the university's housing needs surrounding campus, including that the vast majority of juniors, seniors, transfer students and graduate students live off-campus. Apartment-style living is in high demand and the majority of off-campus students live in apartments, though some still share single-family homes, according to the findings.

Higher-quality restaurants, performance spaces and an independent coffee shop are among the features that students and others most desire.

Though university officials have not hired Ulman's firm to create its "anchor and placemaking" strategy, Ulman has discussed what he believes a potential strategy should include, including an attempt to make York Road feel more like a "main street."

"A focus on York Road absolutely has to be part of the strategy," Ulman said. "It's a delicate balance because there are some wonderful neighborhoods on York Road and we want to be incredibly respectful."

An example of a missed opportunity in Towson is the school's existing business incubator, which is situated in a building owned by the school at 7400 York Road, just north of Rodgers Forge, Ulman said.

The brick building doesn't have a sign on it that says "Towson," Ulman noted, adding that students who use the incubator prefer to drive to it instead of walk. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Towson University, which provides programs for students older than 50, is also located in that building.

Though those university services are important and impressive, Ulman said, the building feels isolated and doesn't "inject life" into the surrounding community.

Ulman also said that Towson could benefit from more business start-ups, which could bolster the economy and give Towson graduates jobs in the community.

"I think it's incumbent on us to really drive that business creation, start-up ecosystem in Towson," he said. "I think Towson has a shot to be a hub of that activity in the region."

Ellen Kobler, a spokeswoman for County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, said Kamenetz also has supported "connecting the campus edges to the community," building on "significant private investment in Towson over the past six years."

"It's exciting to know that the university is continuing its dialogue with stakeholders examining community connections," Kobler said in an email.

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