Anything but common


It's big. It's bright. It's bold. It's Towson Commons, the 10-story office tower, retail and theater complex with the distinctive glass-capped rotunda at the center of the Baltimore County seat. And its near-completion begs the question: Why were so many people picking on this undertaking?

This isn't just a compilation of granite and green glass, marble floors and mahogany walls, teal and lavender paint. It's a $70 million shout of confidence in Towson by a national firm that's responsible for, among other projects, the acclaimed restoration of Washington's Union Station.

Baltimore County officials are determined to woo more business here. Now they don't have to depend on glossy brochures as enticements: They can take corporate chieftains to the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and York Road and say, "Here's Towson Commons, the gamble somebody else was willing to take on us."

Chicago-based LaSalle Partners, the developer, still has its work cut out. The 190,000 square feet of offices at One West Pennsylvania are only 7 percent leased. The 140,000 square feet of retail space, including a food court and high-class, artsy shops, are 65 percent leased.

"You'd like to open the doors and have it 100 percent full, but that's not real estate," acknowledged Gregory J. Arnold, the on-site general manager. The company hopes to have the complex half-full by year's end and full within 2 to 3 years.

General Cinemas unveiled its state-of-the-art, 8-screen theater to about 700 people last Thursday -- a better opening than at its Beverly Hills theater last week, manager Charles Myers said. Between the theaters and the nearby Towson Town Center, Baltimore County will also grab some retail dollars from Harford County.

Critics of the project either hold up the present recession as proof the complex can't succeed, or harken back to the past, wishing to freeze the Towson they remember in a sepia photograph. But this dramatic project, and some others, are setting an upbeat tone for Towson's future.

The trepidation Towson Commons inspired has been heard before -- by people who predicted the Inner Harbor would be the worst thing ever visited upon Baltimore and by those who were convinced that attending an Orioles game downtown would be horrid. No project is perfect, and parking and congestion problems could harm the revitalization of the central business district. But from atop Towson Commons, looking down onto the sparkling glass domes of Towson Town Center, the green-capped cupolas of Court Towers and other new offices, beyond to the verdant Cromwell Valley, Towson's potential looks bright.

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