The first pieces of concrete were broken Wednesday for the renovation of downtown Towson's Patriot Plaza.
Concrete and pavers in the downtown Towson plaza will be replaced with 1.8 acres of green space over the next year.
About 50 people, ranging from county and elected officials to police and fire department workers, gathered for an afternoon "concrete breaking ceremony."
Using a hydraulic hammer on a large backhoe, and some help from trained workers, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz broke through a section of the stone fountain in the plaza's center to mark the official start of the renovations.
The new design for Patriot Plaza features pavers, sidewalks, seating walls, lighting and furnishings designed to be more inviting and better showcase the existing memorials to fallen police officers and firefighters. It also includes landscape and greenery and replaces a non-functioning fountain with a grassy center plaza.
"Towson is evolving into more of a 21st century vibrant urban center and beautiful public spaces are an important element in offering that lifestyle for people," Kamenetz said.
The space between the Historic Courthouse and Circuit Courthouse buildings has played host to Baltimore Ravens rallies, festivals and other community events.
In August, Towson's National Night Out used the plaza for the annual crime prevention awareness event for the first time in more than 16 years.
However the space is not often busy throughout the day, aside from the occasional county worker or downtown Towson lawyer, and empty at night.
The redesigned plaza would be an easy place to hold events, Towson Chamber of Commerce executive director Nancy Hafford said.
"We could hold so many more events if not for the need to close streets," Hafford said.
After living on the "outskirts of Towson" for 30 years, Hafford recently moved downtown. She now lives a half block from Patriot Plaza and said she sees more people in Towson's core than she ever has before.
Kamenetz said Baltimore County has spent more than $57 million on open space and recreational projects since 2010.
The $5.5 million renovation set for completion by June will expand the plaza's uses, Kamenetz said.
Baltimore County originally announced its intention to redesign Patriot Plaza in April 2015. Officials initially said the project would cost $3 million, but the figure grew as officials realized the cost of improvements and needed infrastructure fixes would be more than expected.
"With this project, Baltimore County is replacing a deteriorating concrete slab with a lush new park in the heart of Downtown Towson," Baltimore County Councilman David Marks, a Republican who represents Towson, said in a statement. "The funding for this project was tough to get through the Council, but I believe it is an important investment as we work to improve Downtown Towson."
Department of Planning Director Andrea Van Arsdale said the new green space will replace a fountain in the center of the concrete and paver courtyard that has not worked for several years.
The fountain leaked into county offices below its surface and requires immediate attention to avoid additional damage to office spaces and technology systems below the plaza, she said.
"By this time next summer this should be completely redone," Van Arsdale said.
In addition to solving the "leaking problem," the redevelopment will add green space in Towson's core and create a new destination for downtown visitors.
Potential uses for the space could include yoga, a more pleasant space for lunch breaks and movie nights, Van Arsdale said.
State Del. Steve Lafferty, who lives in and represents Towson, said he often sees his Stoneleigh neighbors practicing yoga in a nearby parking lot.
The new park could be a more inviting space for them to practice, he said.
"People don't think it's a communal environment yet," Lafferty said of Patriot Plaza. "By creating green space, people will want to go."Lafferty said of Patriot Plaza.
The renovations will keep two existing police and fire memorials in place at either end of the plaza.
"We're happy that it features prominently in these plans," Baltimore County Police Capt. Jay Landsman, commander of Towson's Precinct 6, said. "It is 'Patriot' Plaza and the fire department and police are a big part of this."