County Councilman fights proposed conversion of Towson office to dorms

Baltimore County Council member David Marks is opposing a rezoning proposal to potentially convert an office building to dormitories in downtown Towson, shown here in a file photo.
Baltimore County Council member David Marks is opposing a rezoning proposal to potentially convert an office building to dormitories in downtown Towson, shown here in a file photo.

A property management company wants to rezone its office building in downtown Towson for possible conversion to dormitories, but a Baltimore County Councilman said he is opposing the request.

Councilman David Marks, who represents the Towson area, said last week that he considers the proposal a non-starter.


Towson Associates, LLC, which manages office buildings in the region, has filed a petition with the Baltimore County Department of Planning, seeking a zoning reclassification of its building at 305 W. Chesapeake Ave., which sits on a nearly two-acre property, from Residential Office to Business Local, Business Major or Business Roadside, all of which are more intensive zoning uses that allow higher density.

The developer of the controversial 101 York student housing/retail project is offering as much as $750,000 to the Greater Towson Council of Community Association in exchange for approval to increase the size of the project. But so far, the GTCCA is unwilling to do so. Meanwhile, two Baltimore County council members are preparing to introduce legislation that would increase open space waiver fees for developers.

Business Local zoning permits small-scale commercial projects, while Business Major permits large-scale commercial projects, and Business Roadside is "the most permissive commercial classification," according to a description of zoning classifications on the Baltimore County website.

The goal of the proposal, which Towson Associates pre-filed last October as part of the county's comprehensive rezoning process, is "to allow the continued use of the property for office purposes, and to support a possible conversion to university dormitories," according to the filing. "The need for additional student housing is great, given the continuing growth of local universities such as Towson University."

The letter goes on to say, "The proposed conversion of the existing building to a dormitory is in keeping with the combined residential and commercial character of the neighborhood, and is not expected to adversely affect the value or use of the surrounding properties, which include residences that have been converted into apartments. Proposed use of the property as a dormitory is not dissimilar from the property's long-standing use as a large office building and therefore is not likely to interfere with existing traffic patterns, create additional congestion in the surrounding roads, or otherwise be detrimental to the welfare of the neighborhood."

Marks said that Towson Associates' request caught him by surprise.

"I normally do not make zoning decisions before the public has had the opportunity to comment before the Planning Board, but in this case I am announcing that I will reject this zoning proposal," he said, adding that he already has a policy of opposing "commercial encroachment" west of Bosley Avenue, and doesn't support the proposed dormitory use, anyway.

The county is already halfway through the comprehensive rezoning process, Marks said, adding that no one from Towson Associates ever contacted his office about the proposal. If he had known about the proposal before it was pre-filed, "I would have told the petitioner to save the money he or she might spend in a filing fee," he said. "I will not break the Bosley Avenue boundary that separates Southland Hills and West Towson from downtown Towson," he added. noting that, in 2012, his office downzoned the Southland Hill mini-park to prevent future development.

The proposal will be discussed at a 6 p.m. public hearing before the planning board on March 22, Marks said. "Rest assured that I will oppose this rezoning request."

Officials of Towson Associates referred a reporter to the law firm of Coon and Cole. Attorney Curtis Coon would not comment.

With more than $1 billion in private investment in Towson's redevelopment since 2009 -- which includes 2,700 completed and proposed townhomes and apartments -- many are looking for the funding necessary to provide more open space in Towson to accommodate that growth.

The issue is coming to light at a time when the county is in the middle of a year-long Comprehensive Zoning Map Process to determine the development potential of properties countywide, as the county does every four years. The council will vote in September 2016 on what properties to rezone.

Marks served notice in June, before the start of the rezoning process, that he was prepared for such battles if they arose, as he expected. Protecting Towson from perceived overdevelopment and creating more open space were major considerations as the process began, he said.

"I respect property rights and the need for landowners to sell or develop their land if they choose to do so — but we need to consider impacts on the surrounding neighborhood, as well as the cost of paying for road and schools," he wrote in his July newsletter to his constituents, alerting them that the rezoning effort would soon begin. "People want to make sure the development in downtown Towson doesn't spill over into established neighborhoods."