Baltimore County

Not coming soon: a new movie complex in Towson

Developers of a planned multi-screen movie theater, restaurants, offices and a store complex in central Towson have cleared the most difficult planning hurdles, completed a years-long process of securing the necessary land, and just this month won voters' endorsement for a $6.2 million county contribution to a new parking garage — yet the Towson Circle III project appears stuck in neutral.

Baltimore County officials have said the project — across Joppa Road from the Towson Town Center — is crucial to an effort to remake the county seat into a bustling center of apartments, condominiums and nightlife, but the project seems mired in the continuing effects of a national economic slump.

"Nobody's signing any leases right now, and that's the stall," said Andrea J. Van Arsdale, director of the commercial revitalization program for the county's Department of Economic Development.

Van Arsdale said the developers — Heritage Properties Inc. of Towson and the Baltimore-based Cordish Cos. — have asked to delay the construction start date written in their agreement with the Baltimore County Revenue Authority, a quasi-public agency that is putting up about $12 million for the Towson Circle III garage. The developers have asked to move the date back from Dec. 31, 2009 to Dec. 31, 2012.

Because the project is in a specially designated "revitalization" district, developers would have been entitled to a $6.2 million property tax break. The county's contribution to the garage will come in lieu of that tax break, Van Arsdale said. The garage is to be built by the developers and turned over to the Revenue Authority, which expects to recoup its $12 million contribution through parking receipts.

Leslie M. Pittler, a member of the authority board, said the delay gives the agency the opportunity to back out of the deal, but he said that's unlikely.

"I think we have an obligation to try to work this out," he said, and attributed the delay to the poor economy, not to any fault of the developers.

While those negotiations continue, Heritage Properties' vice president for design and construction, Jack Cannella, is waiting for word from Cordish on a lease for the anchor tenant, the movie theater, which is proposed to include 12 to 14 screens and about 2,500 seats arrayed stadium-style. He said the developers have most of the approvals they need from the county, and getting building permits would take about another two months — once he hears about the key tenant.

"With the theater in hand, we can probably get started," said Cannella, referring further questions about prospective tenants to Blake Cordish, son of the company chairman, David Cordish, who he said is handling leasing for Towson Circle III.

Blake Cordish referred e-mailed questions to a Cordish Cos. spokeswoman, Danielle Babcock, who declined to respond with specifics about leasing arrangements. In an e-mail, she said "Towson Circle's expansion is on target and schedule. We are in a fortunate position to have more tenants than we have space including from multiple major national theater companies."

Whether any agreements have been signed is not clear, but county economic development officials were not aware of any.

Towson Circle III would be going up within a couple of blocks of Towson Commons, a complex consisting of a movie theater, stores, restaurants and a 10-story office building that opened in 1992. While the office portion has done well, the retail and movie theater have struggled. In September, the complex — occupied now by the offices and the eight-screen theater — was bought back by its lender, CapMark Finance Inc., at auction for $28.5 million.

Towson Commons had been owned by Western Development Inc., the third owner since the project opened, Van Arsdale said. She said the retail leases were not being renewed and Western had planned to rebuild the retail part of the project, without the movie theater. The theater lost business soon after it opened to new theaters at White Marsh and Hunt Valley that have stadium seating, while the Towson Commons theater does not.

The county's decision to support the Towson Circle project was based on an understanding that the Towson Commons was no longer suitable for a movie theater with up-to-date amenities.

Now it's not clear who will be the next owner there or whether they will want to run a theater to compete with Towson Circle III. If they do, local retail analysts said, they'd be fighting a losing battle.

"Customers will go to the newest, the cleanest," said Rene Daniel, president of the Daniel Group, a retail consulting firm based in Timonium. "And where it's easiest to park."

The county has been working for years with the developers on what they consider a key part of a broad plan to reshape the center of Towson into a place that doesn't shut down when courthouses and government offices close. Towson Circle III — the last phase of an effort by the developers to rebuild areas along Joppa Road near the Towson Town Center — presents a "clear economic benefit to the county to support this project," Van Arsdale said, for both the revenue expected to be generated by Towson Circle III itself, and the potential effect on surrounding businesses.

Towson Circle I reconstructed the old Hutzler's department store into a complex that includes Barnes & Noble, Trader Joe's, Pier 1 Imports, and Extra Space Storage. Towson Circle II consists of a parking deck next to Towson Town Center and Bahama Breeze, a national restaurant chain with a Caribbean theme, which Van Arsdale argues is what encouraged other national restaurant chains — P.F. Chang's, Stoney River and the Cheesecake Factory — to locate nearby along Dulaney Valley Road.

What Towson Circle III will bring and when is not clear.

In June 2009, the county approved the tenth refinement of the development plan, calling for three main buildings set back from Joppa Road and surrounding a plaza, encompassing about four acres bounded by Joppa Road and Delaware, Virginia and Pennsylvania avenues. The largest of the three buildings is to anchor the project with a movie theater atop a four-deck parking garage. The two other large buildings in the plan would be leased for restaurants, offices and stores.