Towson U. health components, radio station eye space in Towson City Center project

Eight months before the developers of Towson City Center expect their building to be open for business, the list of tenants for the site is growing.

Yet also growing is the controversy regarding a new set of signage guidelines that will apply to the City Center project.

Arsh Mirmiran, director of development for Caves Valley Partners, said this week that five tenants have already signed leases to occupy the former Investment Building on York Road.

Among those are Towson University's College of Health Professions, and Cunningham Kitchen, a restaurant run by the Bagby Restaurant Group.

Also signed on to occupy the space is the Mile One Automotive group and BusinesSuites, a shared office space company. Caves Valley Partners, developer for the project, will also have office space in the building.

In addition, another element from Towson University — the campus' radio station, WTMD — is also in negotiations to occupy part of the development.

The lineup of tenants is good news for those who see Towson City Center as a potential office mecca to boost foot traffic in downtown Towson.

In a press release on Nov. 1, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said, "Towson City Center is bringing together the elements that make a downtown fresh and vibrant."

The county release stated that, "With the glass building facade now complete, the $27 million Towson City Center literally reflects downtown Towson."

Amie Voith, special assistant to the vice president of administration and finance at Towson University, said the university will be moving all of its offices in the College of Health Professions to the Towson City Center building.

Presently, that includes four clinics: a wellness center; the Speech, Language and Hearing Center; the Center for Adults with Autism; and their Occupational Therapy Center.

The Wellness Center and Speech, Language and Hearing Center are both currently located on campus, while the Center for Adults with Autism is a new clinic, which the university received federal grant to create. The Occupational Therapy Center is also a new offering from the university.

At an Oct. 19 meeting of the Greater Towson Committee, Towson University's Interim President Marcia Welsh also hinted at the radio station leasing space, saying WTMD plans to move into Towson City Center. She said the university's business incubator facility would eventually move into the building as well.

Voith said the different university entities in the building are on separate leases, and that the radio station will be in the annex just off to the side of the larger tower, but that the university fully anticipates a deal to be agreed upon, with an eye toward moving in August 2012.

City Center a sign of change?

With Towson University signed on as a tenant, Towson City Center qualifies for amendments to the county's existing signage laws — approved by the County Council this month at the behest of 5th District Councilman David Marks.

The bill stipulates that buildings with more than 150,000 square feet of office space or floor areas, and which are used by state-run agencies, can have certain types of rooftop and movable type signs.

Towson City Center will have an estimated 168,000 square feet of space.

Such signs could be requested through the county's variance process prior to the bill's passage, but during the council's deliberations, Marks said developers had requested the bill to avoid the one- to two-year legal battle that a variance request could bring.

"I have a long record of opposing electronic signage in residential neighborhoods, but downtown Towson has urban qualities and a density not found in most of Baltimore County," Marks said.

"Most people, I think, are tired of blighted buildings and empty storefronts in downtown Towson," Marks said. "The Towson City Center project would bring hundreds of new customers to businesses along Allegheny Avenue and York Road, and that's a key step in the revitalization process."

Greater Towson Council of Community Associations opposed the sign measure, and this week appealed to County Executive Kevin Kamenetz to veto the bill.

In an email to Kamenetz forwarded to the Towson Times on Oct. 27, GTCCA President David Kosak said, "our delegation, comprised of individuals elected from neighborhoods within the greater Towson community, has voted unanimously and requests that you (Kamenetz) immediately veto this piece of legislation.

"(T)his bill could have the unintended consequence of similar signage on buildings throughout Towson," Kosak said in the letter, "We understand that the impetus for this bill was the need for zoning relief by one specific project and we are uncomfortable with wide-ranging legislation being enacted to benefit one project.

Kosak wrote to Kamenetz that, "If you are to sign this bill into law, you have effectively disenfranchised the very people that will patronize a revitalized downtown Towson."

Having heard of the constituent concerns, Marks said this week he'll take an unusual step and amend his own bill.

"I'm trying to respond to the concerns I've heard and appear flexible," Marks said on Monday. "Within that area defined in the other bill, I will prohibit electronic changeable copy above a certain elevation."

According to Marks, the new bill, which will be introduced at the Nov. 7 Council meeting, will set a height limit of 55 feet.

"I think that addresses most of the concerns," he said. "Most people seem to be concerned about having electronic signage on top of buildings that they can see from miles away."

Mirmiran would not comment on the signage bill, calling the point "moot" after its passage.

He declined to release conceptual drawings that the company has made to show some of the signage aspects of the building, responding to an email request from the Towson Times that, "Any signage renderings are purely conceptual drafts and not actual designs at this point."

But Voith confirmed that aspects of the rooftop signage permitted by the new bill will be utilized by the university.

"There's a south-facing sign that looks toward our campus, and another east-facing sign shared by Towson University and Mile One," Voith said. "That's the side of the building that looks toward the mall."

First-floor food

Meanwhile, the restaurant, Cunningham Kitchen, will be run by the Bagby Restaurant Group, which operates the Bagby Pizza Company in downtown Baltimore.

Carmel Gambacorta, marketing director for the Bagby Restaurant Group, said they just finished designing the restaurant's logo and are working on the design of the space, which will be on the first floor of the building, but haven't made any announcements about the concept or menu of the restaurant.

"It's in the development stage right now, in terms of concept and everything that goes along with that," Gambacorta said.

Gambacorta echoed the developers sentiments in hoping to be open by late spring or early summer 2012.

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