Downtown projects Towson Row and Towson Station each took a step forward in the development process Wednesday night when Baltimore County’s Design Review Panel approved each project under the condition that each developer address its concerns. In particular, the panel wanted Towson Row developers to ensure transformers would not be visible from the street, and that Towson Station install more sidewalks to enourage pedestrian traffic.
The panel’s six members heard presentations from architects and engineers about each project’s landscaping, architectural design and materials, then weighed the aesthetics of each design. More than 30 people were in attendance.
Developer Greenberg Gibbons of Owings Mills presented the design for the first building in the Towson Row $350 million 5-acre mixed-use development, a Hilton-branded hotel attached to a restaurant in the very core of Towson.The panel largely approved the 12-story building, but had concerns about the position of windows on the second level and about whether the building's transformers would be visible from Towsontown Boulevard.
Major projects are underway in Towson’s core, and the coming years are likely to be a series of ribbon-cutting ceremonies. When the buildings currently under construction are complete, downtown Towson will have grown by more than 800 residential units and thousands of square feet of retail space.
Then Towson Station’s developer, Caves Valley Partners, of Towson, presented its plans for a three-building retail development on the corner of York Road and Bosley Avenue anchored by a Chase bank. The panel voted to approve the design, but with a list of reservations so long that Mitchell Kellmann, the panel member who put forward the motion, had to ask the rest of the panel for help naming them all.
Echoing the sentiment of community members who testified about Towson Station, panel member Ed Hord said the design showed a “very nice suburban shopping center” – but that as a “gateway” to an emerging urban district, it was “disappointing.”
“What bothers me is that it’s a nicer strip center that could be something more,” Hord said. “But it’s not.”
The Design Review Panel is made up of engineers, architects and others knowledgeable in design. It reviews projects in Towson’s core as one step in the development review process, but its decisions are not binding and an administrative law judge can decide whether or not to enforce its recommendations, according to the Baltimore County website.
Hank Alinger, of Bohler Engineering, said that he and others working on the design for Towson Row’s hotel focused on the question: “How do we energize the edges?”
The 12-story, 220-room hotel is planned to sit north of Towsontown Boulevard and south of Susquehanna Avenue. The planned attached two-story restaurant, Alinger said, will open to both sides of the building, with terraces on each side, to “activate” the streets.
Pointing to renderings of the streetscape, Alinger highlighted a facade with “warm colors" of brick and wood, with fiber cement used on upper floors. The two-story restaurant and the hotel gym are surrounded by glass walls, while upper hotel rooms have smaller windows.
Other members of the panel, however, were less concerned about the second floor design. A more widespread concern was a number of transformers shown on a diagram of the site. Multiple panel members said they were concerned the large, boxy transformers would be visible from Towsontown Boulevard, and urged Greenberg Gibbons to screen them.
“You’ve heard the concern,” panel Chairman David Martin said. “Screen the daylights out of it.”
Caves Valley attorney Christopher Mudd, of the Washington law firm Venable LLC, told the panel that Chase had been confirmed to anchor Towson Station with a drive-through bank. The location would be the bank’s first in Maryland according to its website.
Other confirmed tenants for the development at the site which formerly held the Towson fire station, include Mission BBQ, Mod Pizza and Men’s Wearhouse.
Engineer Steve Warfield presented the plan to the panel emphasizing the challenges in building on a 4.6-acre site with a 55-foot incline from one end to the other. To address that incline, he said, the developer plans to put a stepped, landscaped retaining wall on the corner of York Road and Bosley Avenue, with the parking lot set higher than the street.
Warfield also highlighted medians with trees and pedestrian access points on each corner of the property from both York and Bosley.
But Mark Lee, who lives on Morningside Drive near the proposed development, spoke on behalf of the community group Save Towson’s Gateway and told the panel the design does not adequately encourage pedestrian traffic.
“Cars, and parking for these cars, seem to be the priority that drives this design,” Lee said.
“I’m torn – I don’t think it’s doing what the [Downtown Towson Overlay District] plan asked for,” Hord said, referring to a zoning overlay that encourages urban, walkable building in Towson’s core. He said he wanted to see more pronounced sidewalk routes.
Still, Hord praised the architecture of the retail buildings, which incorporate stone facades and imitation wood paneling.
Panel member John DiMenna suggested encouraging pedestrian use by eliminating some of the parking to create another landscaped area, making it more inviting to pedestrians. Mudd countered that eliminating parking could risk losing tenants, who have parking requirements.
Martin, the chairman, asked Caves Valley to consider installing a “Welcome to Towson” sign on the corner of York and Bosley along the landscaped retaining wall.
The panel approved the design, on the condition that Caves Valley consider changes discussed at the meeting.
Lee said after the meeting that although the discussed changes are welcomed he was still “disappointed.”
“We expect an urban project that is promised by the county development standards – not a suburban strip shopping center that could be found anywhere on York Road between Towson and Hunt Valley,” Lee said.