As Towson University celebrates its 150th anniversary, the former teachers college continues to grow, adding programs and students.
But that growth is sparking conflict in surrounding Baltimore County neighborhoods. Even as campus leaders fine-tune a campus master plan and determine where to house and teach students — including an extra 2,700 expected over the next 10 years — neighbors are complaining about problems with traffic, parking and rowdy students.
"As the university gets larger and larger, every year there are one or two or three issues that come up," said Jerry Truelove, who heads a university relations committee for Rodgers Forge, a neighborhood abutting the campus.
For many Towson residents, tension is heightened because the university's expansion comes at the same time Baltimore County is pushing redevelopment along Towson's York Road corridor, with hundreds of residential units, high-rise office towers and stores planned in the next few years — many designed to lure and accommodate college students.
There's no denying Towson University has expanded rapidly: The student body grew from 14,551 in 1994 to 22,285 last year. School officials expect enrollment to top out at 25,000 to 26,000 over the next 10 to 12 years.
But campus housing has not kept pace, and as students have pushed into neighborhoods, conflicts with residents have increased.
Michael Ertel, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations — and a 1989 graduate of the university — has heard countless stories of drunken young people causing trouble in neighborhoods, or of rental properties that frequently host loud parties.
Ertel, who lives in West Towson, has his own tale: a student who banged on his back door in the middle of the night last summer. The student was so intoxicated he thought he was at an apartment complex a mile away.
"It was a spectacle," Ertel recalled.
Towson residents are concerned about the university's ambitions in the draft master plan, which is scheduled to be released this month. In addition to proposing on-campus improvements — such as new academic buildings and a new or renovated student union building — the plan will look at factors that affect the community.
In recent months school officials have hosted community briefings to discuss the plan and enrollment projections. After public meetings and revisions, the plan will go to the University System of Maryland Board of Regents for approval this fall.
County Councilman David Marks, a Republican whose district includes the university and surrounding neighborhoods, said it's clear that "Towson University grew far too fast."
He hopes the master plan process presents an opportunity "to correct mistakes that were made."
Timothy J.L. Chandler, the university's interim president, agrees that the university must strike a balance, growing without alienating neighbors.
He said as the university adds about 270 students a year for the next 10 to 12 years, it will be a challenge to find classroom space, dorm space, parking and recreational amenities for those students.
"It doesn't seem like a huge number when you do it once. But when you do it every year … that's a lot of students," Chandler said.
And he acknowledges that if growth isn't managed properly, it will have a ripple effect on neighborhoods.
"We very much want students to understand what it's like to live in a community and be a part of a community, and benefit from what is going on in a community," he said, "but without being intrusive and overwhelming to a community because there are 22,000 of them."
Living in the midst of a community is one of Towson University's draws for students, who frequent the York Road corridor in Towson's commercial center for shopping, dining — and partying.
"What's cool about Towson," Ertel said, "when you come into the town — they call it 'uptown' — there are real people there. There's little kids getting ice cream and moms with babies and a guy walking his lab. They say, 'It reminds me of the town where I came from.'"
But Ertel fears clashes between students and residents — from partying and noise to parking woes — will drive families away.
"It has put a lot of pressure on the surrounding communities," he said.
Ertel acknowledges that university officials have become more responsive to concerns — in part because of a growing number of complaints. For instance, in the past, the university would not take action when students caused trouble off campus, but now students involved in such incidents can face disciplinary action, Ertel said.
University officials "have come a long way in helping us with off-campus behavior," he said.
In Rodgers Forge, Truelove agrees relations have improved, namely because of community pressure.
In the past, he said, school officials had the attitude that "'this is the business of the university, and we'll do what we want.' Lately, we've tried to create a constant pressure point and say to them: 'We're here, these are our homes. We want to stay here and we want you to take into consideration that what you do can have an impact on the other side of the fence.'"
Last year Rodgers Forge residents battled the university over a softball field built close to a fence that separates the neighborhood from the campus — they're still hoping the university won't add lights to the field. They also want to the university to agree to a 100-yard "no-building" buffer along the campus border.
Residents and university officials say they want more students living on campus. Students who reside on campus do better in class, attend more sports and recreational activities and have stronger ties to the school — leading to more donations when they graduate — said Kris Phillips, the university's director of facilities planning.
Currently, about 28 percent of full-time undergraduates live on campus; the university's goal is 40 percent, and officials note that new campus dorms for 700 students are scheduled to open in 2016.
Still, at least two developments planned for Towson's commercial core include student housing.
The 101 York project, proposed for a site practically across the street from the campus, would include apartments housing up to 600 students. Towson Row, a mixed-use project anchored by a Whole Foods on York Road, would house 900 students in 225 apartments.
The university's master plan is expected to also look at downtown Towson as a place to expand university programs. Towson City Center, a large building on the north end of Towson, already houses the university's Institute for Well-Being and public radio station WTMD.
Marks doesn't object to extending university programs into the town — as long as undergraduate housing remains on campus. "Most people welcome the sprinkling of administration and classroom spaces in Towson," he said.
The county government has designated downtown Towson for growth as an urban "destination," and much of that will be fueled by the university.
"Towson University lends economic vitality to the development and growth of Towson's urban core," said Jeff Mayhew, deputy director of planning for the county. He said the school's cultural and athletic programs "generate excitement for the businesses and residents of Towson."
Nancy Hafford, director of the Towson Chamber of Commerce, agrees. Not so long ago, she said, downtown Towson was a ghost town with little traffic on York Road.
The university, she said, is "a huge financial resource for our community.
"As the school's grown, the faculty and staff have grown, so it's more people shopping and dining in Towson."