Towson merchants wonder what comes next after theater closing

The window washer was out Friday morning at Towson Commons, hanging by straps before the big glass panes out front above the entrance to the AMC movie theater, which will go dark in a week. There's a big red-white-and-blue "FOR LEASE" sign hanging up on the building facade now, and those who do business around the center of the county seat are waiting for the owner's next move.

After years of declining crowds, the owner's agent, Cushman & Wakefield, has made official the widely held expectation that the movie theater at York Road and Pennsylvania Avenue will be closing, and soon. The last shows of "Fast Five," "Scream 4," "Hoodwinked" and other offerings at the eight-screen theater will be Sunday, May 15. In months, crews will arrive to begin demolishing the interior of the theater, which once formed a vibrant heart of the county seat's downtown neighborhood.

David Baird of Cushman & Wakefield couldn't provide details Friday about what might be next, only that he expected work on the inside to start this summer, with the particulars of the renovations dependent on the tenants who sign up. He said discussions with Towson University about a possible lease for offices and classrooms were still going on, but he could not provide further details.

Many merchants and restaurateurs around the theater, which opened as part of the Towson Commons shopping/office complex in 1992, said the closing would have little if any impact on their livelihoods. They were not seeing much spillover with the small crowds of mostly young people who formed the theater's audience.

Ciro Scotto, a managing partner of the Strapazza restaurant a couple of blocks away on Allegheny Avenue, said that "sometimes when there were new movies" he might get some benefit from the theater, but for the most part he did not think the theater closing would hurt his business.

"We didn't really see a whole lot of impact from it," said John Zungailia, a managing partner at the Greene Turtle bar and restaurant across York Road from the theater. He said he'd like to see "some kind of retail that would draw people in. The thing that would help us would be increased foot traffic."

Nancy Hafford, executive director of the Towson Chamber of Commerce, said Towson Commons' owner, New York-based Capmark Finance Inc., has kept her in the dark about their plans, but she hopes that not renewing the lease for the theater means it has tenants lined up. She considered word of the theater closing good news, a sign that a large, long-vacant space in the heart of downtown was on the verge of new life.

"There's so much potential there," said Hafford, adding that there's been a lot of development going on all around the key intersection, with new condominiums and rental apartments, new national chain restaurants and retail stores catering to an affluent crowd opening near Towson Town Center. Across East Joppa Road from Towson Town Center, Heritage Properties and Cordish Cos. are pursuing plans to build Towson Circle III, a complex with a multi-screen movie theater, stores, restaurants and an underground parking garage.

The block of York Road between Pennsylvania and Chesapeake, and a stretch of Pennsylvania, however, have been nearly vacant for a few years after the last restaurants moved out of Towson Commons.

Brian Truax of Towson Framing Gallery on York Road across from Towson Commons, said he could see signs of "some sort of renaissance in the area," and would like to see it continue at the vacant shopping complex with new stores, restaurants or entertainment spots that would bring people in. Naturally, he'd like to see businesses that would be more likely to draw customers to his door, such as a home decorating store, but anything "where people would be shopping, anything that would promote the viability" of the neighborhood.

Zungailia said the theater's presence in recent years has been seen in some quarters as a mixed blessing, as it "may have brought an element out on Saturday night that wasn't very good."

Indeed, police were called to the intersection from time to time in response to complaints about young people massing out front, making noise, cursing, occasionally harassing passers-by. There were complaints about rowdy crowds inside the theater as well.

Jimmy Jamal, who owns the Towson Market across York from the theater, took a different view of those patrons and the theater itself. The theater, he said was "quite a blessing to for every business in Towson."

He said youngsters need some place to go and a way to blow off steam, though he added that his store window and others along the street had been broken more than once.

"You have to know you're talking to a guy who's pro-youngster. I'm in favor of the youngsters shouting and going crazy," said Jamal. "It takes all kinds of things to make a colorful world."

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