To those whose impression of Towson is stuck in its days as the capital of white belts and white shoes, the idea that it could be to Baltimore what Bethesda is to Washington probably sounds hilarious. But the announcement Wednesday that developers plan a $300 million, 5-acre complex of offices, apartments, retail, restaurants and a hotel at downtown Towson's southern edge may finally push the community beyond the tipping point between its past as a sleepy county seat and the urban future that boosters have been promising for years.
The Towson Row project planned by Caves Valley Partners is hardly the first major investment in downtown Towson in recent years, nor will it be the last. The area has seen a flurry of new residential projects, including the high-rise Palisades apartment building and a planned apartment complex in what is known as the Towson Triangle. The long-awaited Towson Square development on Joppa Road just east of the traffic circle is now under construction and will bring a multiplex and several restaurants. And the long-shuttered Investment Building — whose name became increasingly inapt after an outbreak of Legionnaire's disease there more than a decade ago — has been completely gutted and rebuilt as Towson City Center. In all, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz says that some $600 million in private development has come to the county seat in the last three years.
In that context, the Towson Row project provides some missing pieces that could help make the area a self-contained, walkable community. It promises to bring student housing into the heart of downtown Towson — something the community has resisted before — along with other apartments, an extended-stay hotel, a grocery store and other amenities that will make it more attractive for empty-nesters. If all goes according to plan, the development now under way will create an environment where people can live, work, run errands and find entertainment without getting into a car, and that makes the comparisons to places like Bethesda and Harbor East apt.
Even so, the Towson community hasn't completely warmed to Baltimore's Bethesda idea — Mr. Kamenetz joked at an event Wednesday night that he had been ordered to stop using the "B-word" — largely out of a concern that the transformation under way may turn out to be too much, too fast. The thinking is that Bethesda, with access to the Washington Metro, can handle a degree of urbanization that traffic-clogged Towson cannot. Indeed, it may soon be possible to live a car-free, urban existence in Towson, but that doesn't mean that most people who move there will choose it.
That's why it's crucial that County Councilman David Marks, a Republican who represents the area and who previously worked in the federal and state transportation departments, succeed in his efforts to improve public transportation, biking and pedestrian options. Mr. Marks is working with members of the county's legislative delegation to build support for a neighborhood circulator bus system that would, ideally, connect Towson University and the residential neighborhoods to the south with the downtown, and the senior high rises to the east with downtown and the hospitals to the south and west. The Maryland Transit Administration studied the idea in 2005 but found insufficient economic activity in downtown Towson to support such a service. That calculation should be very different today. It probably also doesn't hurt that Maryland's new transportation secretary, James T. Smith Jr., supported the idea of a more urban Towson when he was Baltimore County executive.
Mr. Marks has already introduced legislation to require new construction in Towson to include bicycle parking — a first for the county — and a resolution asking the county's Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee to study the feasibility of a bike-sharing program in Towson. Both are excellent ideas. The move of student housing into Towson's core has the potential to reduce traffic (and other issues) now created by university students driving from farther-flung apartment complexes and residential neighborhoods onto campus — but only if the environment is conducive to car-free living.
Mr. Kamenetz has aggressively promoted the development of Towson as Baltimore County's downtown, and he has taken steps to try to minimize any problems that may come about as a result. He has committed more police officers to the area and is working with business owners to prevent the kind of unruly crowds that have sometimes made Towson an unappealing destination for families and older adults in the past. He is also supportive of the circulator idea.
Regardless, there will no doubt be some who will resist development on this scale. But they need to consider what is to be gained: a boost to the county's tax base, investment that shores up an inside-the-Beltway community, new options for living and entertainment, and development that doesn't pave over farmland. It is the very definition of smart growth.