As Towson business owners struggle to revive an aging downtown district, a seemingly simple change in already scarce parking has become a lightning rod for angry business people.
The plan -- under consideration by the State Highway Administration -- would eliminate on-street parking at night on a critical portion of York Road, Towson's main artery, from Chesapeake to Pennsylvania avenues, home to a number of restaurants and stores.
While the ban would eliminate only 15 to 20 spaces, restaurant and tavern owners argue that it could hurt their ability to attract foot traffic to an area littered with empty storefronts.
"If there's one thing people are screaming about in Towson, it's parking," said Charlie Heintzelman, manager at Angel's Grotto in the 400 block of York Road. "There isn't enough. I don't see the traffic congestion problem at all, particularly during the nighttime."
SHA officials say they are studying the parking ban after years of complaints about congestion in the highly traveled corridor.
Business owners say Towson's central district could become a speedway for commuters zipping through the Baltimore County seat -- without stopping to shop.
"We should be worried instead about getting people to slow down, or stop and get out of their car," said Heintzelman.
In recent years, Towson business and county officials have been working toward revitalizing the business district. Sidewalks were built, a traffic roundabout was constructed and the old Hutzler's building was renovated with new shops. Millions of dollars have been pumped into the area to attract customers back to the downtown area.
Bring up the issue of parking and people shrug their shoulders, roll their eyes and say, "What parking?"
"Sometimes I say to my wife, 'Let's go see a movie,' " said John Dietrich, a retired banker from Carney who worked in Towson. "She says, "No way.' She doesn't want to deal with parking. Why pay for parking in Towson when you can go to Pikesville or White Marsh and park for free?"
Whether in garages or at meters along the streets, motorists usually must pay for parking. Most meters run until 7 p.m. or 9 p.m. On York Road, free parking is allowed in a northbound lane after 7 p.m. -- a convenience used by many pub and restaurant patrons.
That is why losing even 15 or 20 free parking spaces is a bad idea, some business owners say.
"We need more parking spaces," said David Huang, who owns the Orient Restaurant on York Road. "We do OK here; we're not doing great. But business is not that good because there is no parking."
Other Towson business leaders support the parking ban, including groups such as Towson Development Corp. and Towson Business Association.
"It would be beneficial to the area to eliminate nighttime parking due to the congestion in the area," said Susan K. DiLonardo, executive director of the Towson Business Association, which supports the parking-elimination proposal.
"We did receive a number of complaints from people who said they had extreme difficulty getting through town," DiLonardo said. "They were customers of Towson."
Some business owners also support a ban.
"It's a very, very crowded road," said Pearl Branamen, owner of Flowers by Brittany on York Road. "My shop closes at 5, but I can appreciate why they'd want to close it to parking. Sometimes I can hardly cross the street it's so busy. It's difficult even turning onto York because of the traffic."
Several issues remain
State officials also are studying whether SHA and the county should swap ownership of state-maintained York Road and county-owned Bosley Avenue.
The state has a number of issues to consider before it makes a decision, said Randall Scott, SHA assistant district engineer for traffic.
"We want to relieve congestion, but in doing so, would we help drivers go even faster and drive right through Towson without even realizing what's there?" Scott said. "One reason to keep parking is it gives the downtown a calming effect and it shows people there is business downtown."
County Councilman Wayne M. Skinner, a Towson Republican, said he is not persuaded that there is a congestion problem.
"I have not received one complaint about congestion," Skinner said. "I don't know where this congestion complaint is coming from. It's not from my office. I always thought cars parked in an area showed signs of life."
State highway officials said the traffic study should be completed by the end of May.
In the meantime, restaurant owners like Steve Fox plan to continue fighting the plan.
"They want these quaint antique shops and cafes in town, but they've got the monster that is York Road running right through it," said Fox, a co-owner of the Kent Lounge.
"You get rid of parking on York, and then it's really going to be a nightmare speedway."
Pub Date: 2/21/99