Concerned about high-density development in downtown Towson — especially within the so-called Towson Triangle — some residents are circulating a petition asking Baltimore County to limit the geographic area of a proposed special overlay zoning district for the commercial core to north of Towsontown Boulevard.
In August, County Councilman David Marks, who represents Towson, introduced legislation to create an overlay district specifically for downtown Towson as the county's urban center, in keeping with the county's Master Plan 2020, which calls for making the downtown a more walkable commercial center that encourages compatible mixed-use projects and promotes redevelopment opportunities.
According to Marks' resolution, which has not yet been approved by the County Council, legislative efforts to achieve those goals have been enacted in "a piecemeal fashion" through numerous amendments to the county's existing CT (Commercial, Town Center Core) district since 1993, necessitating the creation of an overlay district.
A report by the county Planning Department, which has endorsed a special district, states that the Towson Urban Center (or TUC) overlay district would be design-oriented and aimed at "refining the urban character of Towson," with design guidelines for evaluating new development and redevelopment projects.
The overlay district would exempt downtown development projects from suburban zoning regulations that govern setbacks, height, floor area ratio, density and parking, instead requiring a more intensive design review process, the report states. Developments in the overlay district would be subject to reviews by the county's Design Review Panel and a county administrative law judge. The Design Review Panel's recommendations would be non-binding on the administrative law judge hearing a case.
The new petition seeks to keep the overlay district north of Towsontown Boulevard.
The county government has long considered the downtown core of Towson as being "bound within Towsontown Boulevard," said the author of the petition, Joe La Bella, president of the Towson Manor Village Community Association. "That's where the Towson core has historically ended."
La Bella said he and other residents want to keep the Towson Triangle, bounded by York Road, Towsontown Boulevard and Burke Avenue, out of a special overlay district, and to make the Triangle — the site of a proposed student housing project called 101 York — a transitional area, where density of development would gradually lessen between downtown and residential Towson.
According to the petition, the TUC district as proposed, would expand the downtown area of Towson south of Towsontown Boulevard to Bosley Avenue on the west side of York Road, Burke Avenue on the east side and would include the eastern side of York Road abutting Towson Green.
"This will bring high-density residential development, high-rise buildings and more commercial activity right to the doorstep of Towson Manor Village, Burkleigh Square and Aigburth Manor," La Bella's petition states. "Imagine 20-plus-story buildings with all sorts of commerce at the bottom of Burke Avenue, Linden Terrace and Willow Avenue on both sides of York Road. This proposed overlay zoning district will directly impact the quality and character of our community."
Burkleigh Square resident Tracey Marcantoni is emailing the petition to people she knows.
"I signed it and I believe in it," she said. "We need to protect the integrity of our neighborhood. We don't want to walk out of our neighborhood and look up at 20-story buildings."
Marks suggested that the petition is premature because details of the TUC, including its boundaries, are still being worked out.
But Marcantoni disagreed. "I don't think it's premature," she said. "We're speaking out that we don't want the TUC south of Towsontown Boulevard."
"I am equally concerned with future development east of York and south of Towsontown Boulevard, [including Wilson Lighting, Domino's Pizza, and the buildings at 113 York Road and 40 York Road]," Marcantoni said.
La Bella said he wants to get out ahead of the issue "and let the councilman knows what the community thinks about it."
"The neighborhoods seem to be in agreement that that's the way it should be," said Mike Ertel, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations. "We've never gotten a message from the Planning Board or the councilman, saying, 'You're right.'"
Ertel said the county classifies the corner of York Road and Burke Avenue as a failing intersection, and that adding more "intense" development and traffic there would be unwise.
"We're going to get to a point where it's going to take you 20 minutes to get through that intersection," he said.
This story has been updated.