Towson's life signs erratic; Struggle: Merchants still await ripple effects of projects like Towson Commons.


When a 10-story marble and glass building full of shops, offices and theaters opened on Towson's main thoroughfare seven years ago, local officials took it as a sign that life was returning to the struggling downtown district.

At a whopping $70 million, Towson Commons was a shout of confidence in Baltimore County's aging seat of government, designed to lure moviegoers, diners and shoppers while boosting business on York Road and nearby side streets.

That was then. Now nearly empty of shops and food stands, the once-gleaming hope of Towson's revitalization is the centerpiece of a business district that appears still troubled. Up and down York Road, once-prominent storefronts stand shuttered, from Finkelstein's clothing store to J. P. Henry's restaurant, marring Towson's central artery just blocks from its booming mall.

"We struggled for many years to do business there until we gave up," said Richard Rudolph, 82, who moved his long-established Towson Bootery two years ago from York Road to a nearby mall, The Shops at Kenilworth. "It breaks my heart to see what happened to Towson."

Nationwide, old downtown business districts fight to remain viable in the face of competition from regional malls and mega-retailers even as the population shifts farther out from edge cities like Towson.

In the Baltimore area, local officials have begun revitalizing old-line commercial strips from Dundalk to Pikesville. Towson has enjoyed considerable success opening a five-way roundabout to ease congestion just south of its thriving Towson Town Center mall and spending millions on brick sidewalks, decorative lighting and shrubbery.

The long-vacant Hutzler's building was renovated, converting an eyesore into a sparkling anchor featuring Barnes & Noble Booksellers, Storage USA, Sprint and soon to include Pier One Imports.

Next month, the ornate 1929 Towson Theater -- now a billiard hall -- is to reopen as a live concert hall for 850 people.

"It's not all gloom and doom," says Susan K. DiLonardo, executive director of the Towson Business Association. "The recent $4 million investment by the state and county into the roundabout and streetscape is an indication they believe in Towson."

While that work seems to have jump-started businesses along Allegheny Avenue, the effect appears to have stalled north of the traffic circle and south to Burke Avenue at York Road, where an abandoned service station looms as the gateway to the downtown district.

"Towson, overall, is an underachiever in regards to development," concedes Robert L. Hannon, executive director of the Baltimore County Office of Economic Development, which has offered assistance to businesses through low-interest loan programs, tax credits and free architectural design services.

So long as the buildings remain empty, the struggle to fill them leaves the area ripe for undesirable businesses, says Susan H. Gray, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations.

"A healthy downtown is very important," Gray says. "We would like to see all the stores filled. If they thrive, then the surrounding communities will, too. We do have an interest in this."

Yet Towson seems to be a city competing with itself. Nowhere, perhaps, is the struggle more obvious than in Towson Commons -- sold last year for nearly $25 million less than its construction cost.

Office space filled

Opened in 1992 in a depressed real estate market, the complex has gradually filled its 190,000 square feet of office space. Three large restaurants, Borders Books and Music and the eight-screen General Cinema flourish, despite the recent addition of movie complexes in White Marsh and Hunt Valley.

While the AT&T; Wireless Systems store is expanding, much of the 140,000 square feet of retail space is empty. Stores such as Tomlinson Craft Collection, A People United clothing store and Watson's Gift and Garden have come and gone, replaced by such businesses as a nail salon and a visitors' center.

LaSalle Partners Inc., the Chicago company that leases space for Towson Commons, refused to comment for this article. Nationwide, LaSalle manages more than 200 million square feet of commercial real estate. That includes such high-profile projects as the renovation of Grand Central Terminal in New York, which will feature more than 100 stores and restaurants.

Christopher W. Roscoe, senior director of Los Angeles-based CB Richard Ellis Investors, which bought Towson Commons in 1997 for more than $45 million, says he is convinced that the area is "totally underutilized" and has a "fairly strong urban retail market."

Perceptions blamed

Merchants in the Commons complain that few patrons never venture far from the movie theaters and its anchor store, Borders.

"There wasn't enough traffic to support us and, worse, our customers had to pay for parking in the garage, too," says Barbara Douglas, manager of TomlinsonCraft Collection, the 26-year-old shop of the same name in Baltimore's Rotunda.

County officials concede that the slow pace of Towson's commercial revival is partly due to perceptions. "People don't want to park far, schlep around and then go in and out of stores unless there is a critical mass of stores to attract them," says Andrea Van Arsdale, county director of commercial revitalization.

'A tough sell'

"A lot of people don't hang around after 5. We have to find other things to bring people back at night. Has that happened in Towson? Not yet. It's a tough sell right now."

While there is much optimism that the rebirth along the circle will spread down York Road, that sense of hope is reminiscent of the expected ripple effect Towson Commons was supposed to have.

That thought has not been lost on the Cordish Co., which redeveloped the Hutzler's building.

"We are approached by cities every day to help redevelop areas, but we're very selective," says Allison Parker, a spokeswoman for Cordish. "So the choice for Towson was a calculated one. We want to make Towson a destination. We also realize we can't survive on our own. You've got to get everyone in the community involved to make it work."

But it takes more than physical improvements to provide the image makeover that will increase business, says George Georgiou, a professor and chairman of the economics department at Towson University.

"You can put a building up, you can build a traffic circle, but can you create an atmosphere?" says Georgiou. "If people are not saying, 'Hey, let's go to Towson,' and businesses do not see a vibrant, growing community, that does not bode well for the future."

In many ways, Towson is to Baltimore what Bethesda is to Washington, he says. Both are major, well-to-do suburbs of a bigger city, he says, but the similarities end there.

'Selling the area'

"There is an unbounding amount of activity in Bethesda," says Georgiou, who lives there.

"There are more than 200 restaurants within blocks of each other, new hotels being built and buildings going up. It is booming. Towson is an equally affluent suburb of Baltimore, but it is still on the sleepy side."

That same potential exists in Towson, where 20,000 people work at hospitals, universities and corporations. But county and business officials say revitalization is a slow process.

"It's all about selling the area," says Keith T. Barnett, a commercial real estate broker with KLNB Inc., which has been trying to lease the Finkelstein building for the past two years. "It's about telling people there is more than enough parking down here. It's showing people we're a major retail thoroughfare of Baltimore County."

More is at stake than just a commercial corridor.

"If things are positive in the business district, things will be so in the neighborhoods," says County Councilman Wayne Skinner, a Republican representing the county's 4th District. "If things are negative here, it will be negative there, too. You can't avoid it. There is a direct connection. There is no wall separating the two."

Pub Date: 2/15/99

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