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Local residents had a chance Monday night to voice their opinions about Towson Row, a proposed $350 million mixed-use redevelopment project on York Road.
Local residents had a chance Monday night to voice their opinions about Towson Row, a proposed $350 million mixed-use redevelopment project on York Road. (Rendering courtesy Baltimore County)

A lot of people say the massive Towson Row project is committing a cardinal sin of development — a lack of open space, recreational opportunities or even a place to walk a dog amid the more than 1 1/2 million square feet of restaurants, retail stores, offices, apartments, student housing and a large hotel that Caves Valley Partners proposes to build on five acres in the downtown core.

"For a project of this magnitude, there doesn't seem to be a sense of urban design," said Fred Hiser, an architect and planner who lives in West Towson. "I can't imagine it being a pleasant place to live."

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Hiser was one of about 60 area residents who spoke their minds about the project at a community input meeting led by Caves and Baltimore County representatives in the Sheppard Pratt conference center auditorium Monday night. Questions about open space dominated the discussion.

"There needs to be somewhere for someone to play," said Josh Glikin, of West Towson. "There's no accounting for that" by Caves Valley Partners.

Glikin said there is only one park and one recreational field in the neighborhood.

"It's just something that we as a neighborhood would really like somebody to take into consideration," he said.

Towson Row, a $350 million mixed-use project proposed for the heart of Towson's York Road corridor, would be similar in size to the Towson Town Center mall. Bounded by York Road, Towsontown Boulevard, Washington Avenue and Chesapeake Avenue, the project calls for 374 apartments, 225 student housing units to accommodate four students each, a 150-room hotel and a 1,500-space parking garage, as well as 200,000 square feet of offices, restaurants and retail shops anchored by a Whole Foods grocery store.

Two of Towson Row's buildings, the student housing and the market-rate apartments, would be as high as 24 stories. Stephanie Keene, of West Towson, questioned the height of the buildings.

"Is there really a need for two 24-story buildings in the middle of Towson?" Keene asked. "We already have a white elephant in Towson Commons."

But more than that, she said, "It's suburbia," and for a suburban development, there's not a lot of appeal for families with young children, either recreational or in terms of open space and landscaping.

"There's just not an awful lot of kid stuff going on," she said. "No trees, no shade, no canopy."

Frank Griffin, of West Towson, questioned whether the project's execution would match its ambitions.

"The execution is really important in these projects," said Griffin, executive vice president of construction and engineering for Gro Solar, a solar energy provider with offices in Howard County and Vermont. "I'm all for development here, something fairly dense, if it's done right."

Arthur Adler, a Caves Valley partner, and Chris Mudd, an attorney representing the developer, stressed that Caves Valley is the "master developer," and that sub-developers would be building individual components of Towson Row. The housing components would have amenities such as in-house game rooms, they said, adding that the complex would also include a one-quarter-acre plaza.

Mudd also said that with only concept plans submitted so far and the project a long way from its completion timetable of 2018, there is plenty of time for tweaking and that Caves Valley officials have been talking to community groups, such as the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations, about the project.

"We plan to keep the lines of communication open," Mudd said.

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Outside in the conference center lobby, Mike Ertel, president of the GTCCA, vented similar frustrations about Towson Row, including that it is "nondescript."

"My personal concern is, there's really no compelling public space in the project," he said. "There's no reason to go up there and walk around. There's not going to be anything that draws you in. They have a plaza, but did you get any (sense of) pizazz out of that?"

Caves Valley "better have some pizazz in that public space, (otherwise) in 20 years, they'll be sitting there with vacant space."

The approval process by the county must include a review by the Design Review Panel, but Ertel said he doubts that the DRP would press for significant design changes to Towson Row.

County Councilman David Marks, who represents Towson, was at a County Council meeting Monday, and said council members are not supposed to go to community input meetings on pending legislation. But he said earlier in the day that he has been hearing a lot of complaints about the lack of open space from his constituents.

"I am 100 percent in agreement with the community about the need to acquire more open space," Marks said in an email. "We passed legislation last month that requires open space fees from new Towson development to be spent locally, and I expect the council will act soon to adjust the actual amount of the fees.Towson Row is nowhere near the point of the process when the fees would be paid."

The council has passed a bill, promoted by Marks, that exempts the project from some requirements for parking, height and signage. Marks, a Republican, said the breaks are needed to accommodate a project that means a lot to Towson's redevelopment.

For Ertel, the biggest frustration is that residents want to support the project, despite misgivings about traffic (a traffic impact study is required), density and the effect on home property values

"People are here tonight because they want to see a great project," Ertel said. "What we have now is a hodgepodge of mess."

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