John DiMenna isn't exactly overwhelmed in his role as chairman of Baltimore County's Design Review Panel.
The nine-member panel of professional architects and engineers meets monthly and is charged only with reviewing design elements of planned commercial development projects in downtown Towson.
"This month, we reviewed one case," said DiMenna, an architect and a partner in Towson-based Rubeling & Associates. "Some months, we have zero. It's rare that we have more than three."
Now, County Councilman David Marks wants to give the Design Review Panel something more to do. Next month, Marks plans to introduce a council resolution calling for the panel to review the look of residential as well as commercial projects in the downtown core.
Marks said that planned high-rise apartment buildings are as "critical" to Towson's growth as retail and office projects are. Reviewing and tweaking housing project as deemed necessary is important to area residents because, "These buildings are going to be with us for 60 to 70 years. The community cares a lot about this."
It's important to Mike Ertel, new president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations.
"We're supportive of that," Ertel said, adding that Marks has talked to GTCCA about his plans to introduce the legislation. "Basically, any building that's being built in the core should have to go through the design review process. Why would you exclude residential development?"
Ertel said purely residential projects already planned include 101 York, a student housing development near Towson University with 248 apartments, housing more than 600 students; a project at 703 Washington Ave., with 105 apartments; and Towson Mews at Jefferson and Washington avenues, with 35 apartments.
Then, there are mixed-use projects like Towson Row, the biggest proposed development in Towson, which, Marks said, is being reviewed by the panel. That project calls for 350 apartments and condominium units and 300 housing units to be marketed to college students, as well as 200 hotel rooms and 100,000 square feet of restaurants and shops anchored by a Whole Foods supermarket.
DiMenna is also supportive of the resolution.
"From a personal standpoint, I think it would be a good thing" to review residential development designs, too. "The new residential projects are going to be larger buildings that are going to impact the street skyline and are appropriate for this panel to review."
As for the extra caseload, "I don't think it matters," DiMenna said. "These projects are too important (not) to review."
Planned unit developments would not be reviewable under the planned resolution, Marks said. PUDs usually include a mix of residential, recreation and commercial space and require a zoning change. The council determines if the project will be of higher quality than a conventional development and if it will provide additional public benefit to the surrounding community.
"There is a presumption that a planned unit development has higher quality and more input than traditional development," Marks said.
That means projects such as Towson Mews and the $75 million 101 York that is expected to start construction next summer would not be reviewed by the panel, Marks said, adding that they needn't be reviewed.
"Both projects have had extensive public input — three community input meetings for 101 York and two for Towson Mews," he said. "101 York was altered significantly, and Towson Mews is in the process of being changed.I am mostly concerned about projects built based on conventional zoning."
According to the county government's website, the goal of the Design Review Panel is to is to "encourage design excellence through the application of design guidelines contained in the Master Plan (and) adopted community plans," among other criteria. "The (panel's) general charge is to assess the overall quality of a project."
The site also states that the panel acts in a technical consulting capacity and that its recommendations are binding to the county's hearing officer and county agencies.
Marks said he wants the review process to include residential development because of recent inconsistency as to whether review by the panel is required.
"I believe there should be professional review of the look of the projects proposed in downtown Towson," he said."I want there to be no confusion about this."
In a recent case, attorneys representing Federal Realty Investment Trust, the developer of the proposed 105-unit apartment building at York Road and Washington Avenue, sparred with attorneys for the county over whether the project was subject to panel review.