This week another piece of the redevelopment of downtown Towson falls into place as a 90,000-square-foot, 15-screen Cinemark theater ushers in its first moviegoers Thursday.
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said Towson Square and the theater are part of an estimated $800 million in private investment that is revitalizing Towson, including the new 52,000-square-foot LA Fitness facility that replaced the old eight-screen AMC theater in Towson Commons.
The $20 million theater — the anchor of the 150,00-square-foot Towson Square development — is less than a quarter-mile from one of the region's largest malls, Towson Town Center. Another nearby development, Towson Row, which includes 100,000 square feet of retail space and 350 apartment and condominium units, is set to break ground next year.
"The fact that Cinemark chose to locate in Towson reaffirms the area's strengths that already existed," Kamenetz said. "The key for us now is to learn from past experience so we can build up not only what is already there, but to attract new developers and projects."
The theater's opening and other developments also have stoked worries about more congestion and crime as the college town rapidly becomes more urban. Paul Hartman, president of the Greater Towson Community Association, said, "Safety is the biggest concern."
But, Hartman said, the exposure the projects bring is worth the potential pitfalls.
"It's increasing the visibility of Towson as a whole," Hartman said. "It's making it more desirable as a destination. Perhaps people who wouldn't consider moving here might consider moving here now that they have an amenity like that that's close by."
The Cinemark will compete with amenity-rich multiplexes in White Marsh and Hunt Valley; Kamenetz and others say the failure to do so doomed Towson's last movie theater, which closed in 2011. Kamenetz said the old AMC theater was "outdated" when it opened, missing the draw of stadium seating.
Thomas Maddux, a principal with KLNB Retail who tracks local development, said Cinemark's "latest and greatest" features should position the theater ahead of the curve.
"Unless you're providing what is considered to be modern and current in the market, then you're probably not competitive, which was the primary reason why that facility become obsolete over time," Maddux said.
The theater has been billed an "entertainment destination" by James Meredith, vice president of marketing and communications for Cinemark USA, who said the multiplex will employ 125 people.
Featuring 40-to-70-foot screens, an arcade, stadium seating and a VIP lounge serving food and alcohol, the theater will become a flagship location of the company's 486 theaters. It also features one Extreme Digital Cinema, which is similar to IMAX technology and features more than 70 speakers spread throughout the walls and ceiling.
Towson Square also will have eight restaurants, including Bonefish Grill, BJ's Restaurant and Brewhouse, Bobby's Best Burger Palace, Hanabi Japanese Restaurant and La Tagliatella. They're set to open through the fall.
Traffic remains a concern of Councilman David Marks, a Republican who represents the area, who says gridlock is his constituents' "number-one concern." He has proposed a circulator system to connect area businesses to surrounding colleges and residential neighborhoods.
"The improvements we've seen with Towson Square will help in the short term," Marks said. "It's the longer-term development that I'm worried about, the traffic that will bring."
Baltimore-Based Cordish Cos., Towson Square's developer, said its 850-car parking garage will help.
"Towson Square is ideally situated and enjoys incredible access both from major road arteries and thousands of parking spaces," Cordish spokeswoman Candice Coolahan said in a statement.
Maddux, with KLNB Retail, pointed out it's easier to get in and out of Towson Square than Towson Commons, citing the "proximity to the mall and the road pattern around it that just makes it easier to access."
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Marks said Towson has to "make do with what's there" in terms of highways and roads. He said adding additional infrastructure would cut into homes and businesses, leading the councilman to push for a circulator bus similar to the Charm City Circulator.
"A lot of the congestion is generated by students driving from neighborhoods into the downtown core," he said, adding that the circulator plan needs to be implemented before construction starts on Towson Row in 2015. "I'm very concerned about it. I think we have to be very proactive, and the circulator is a means to do that."
To address worries about crime, five additional plainclothes police officers have been assigned to the area, according to Kamenetz, and public lighting in the area has been improved.
Though traffic, parking and crime remain concerns, Towson Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Nancy Hafford said it's important for investment to keep growing.
"You can never make everybody happy, but we're doing things," she said. "A lot of places would give their right arm to be able to have the development and energy we're seeing now in Towson."