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Towson looks anew at goals


Towson should have more parking. Something has to be done about the traffic on York Road. The building facades and the landscaping should be spruced up to draw shoppers and diners to the core of the county seat.

Those ideas are part of a sweeping plan put together last week by a team of designers from across the country.

They were also part of a study conducted more than four decades ago - when Spiro T. Agnew was county executive.

The latest report - by an Urban Design Assistance Team, or UDAT - includes new suggestions such as a festival "canyon" with a Times Square-type sign on the side of Towson Town Center's parking garage. But it's another in a long line of efforts to draw up a blueprint for Towson.

At least five studies have been conducted since 1992. County officials and community leaders say the latest attempt to define the future of Towson is different from the rest.

"You see the same issues coming back again and again," said Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. "But what's different about the UDAT report is that it looks at how you solve these issues, how you go about accomplishing something. It won't just say, 'We need additional parking.'"

Smith asked the team of architects and engineers to help draw a new plan for Towson, using ideas from residents and business leaders. These out-of-town teams also have created plans for Randallstown, Dundalk and Essex-Middle River.

After a series of meetings beginning June 8, the team unveiled its drawings last week. Among the suggestions: York Road in the heart of Towson would be narrowed to a single lane in each direction with on-street parking. Traffic lights would be replaced by four-way stop signs. A cable car, or maybe a trolley, would loop through the district.

The parking lot near Trader Joe's below Joppa Road might be used on weekends as a "canyon" for festivals. New networks of sidewalks and crosswalks, beautified alleys and bike lanes would be built. And the team recommended forming a zoning district that would set standards for building heights and facades.

"Other plans have created expectations and hope," said Baltimore County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Towson-Perry Hall Democrat. "But we never had the assurance that we have from the county that these things will happen."

Not every idea will become a priority, or find its way into the county's budget, he and other officials quickly add. But, they say, residents can expect changes - and fairly fast.

A final UDAT report based on the draft unveiled Tuesday will be released in six to 12 months. Meanwhile, a traffic engineer has started looking into some of the ideas, such as the four-way stop signs on York Road, said Mary L. Harvey, director of Baltimore County's Office of Community Conservation.

Cost estimates for various projects should be available in the fall, she said.

The UDAT committee will begin listing what projects can be done in the short, mid- and long term so that some projects can be included in the 2007 budget, Harvey said. And, she said, county officials also will meet with private developers about various suggestions.

Charles Crerand, manager of Towson Town Center, said he had heard about the idea of projecting Times Square-type graphics on the side of one of the mall's parking garages. But, he said, "I still need time to digest it. I guess something creative could be done there."

Crerand was among the business leaders who participated in the planning process. "I thought the ideas were interesting," he said.

Various groups have tried over the years to come up with blueprints for development in Towson, home to Towson University, Goucher College and three sizable hospitals.

In 1964, county staff, local residents and business people who made up the Redevelopment and Rehabilitation Commission created a 44-page, spiral-bound plan for Towson, calling it "A New Urban Center," with site plans and drawings of people shopping and dining.

The plan, created before Agnew became a Maryland governor and then vice president, suggested tearing down businesses along the east side of York Road to create a complex of department stores and shops, with a theater and an ice rink.

The commission also recommended building a tunnel under York Road south of Pennsylvania Avenue to a point north on Dulaney Valley Road.

Mike Ertel, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations, who had read the 1964 plan, said a resident proposed the tunnel idea again during a UDAT meeting. "If it wouldn't cost so much, it wouldn't be such a crazy idea," Ertel said. "It would take care of traffic."

Other ideas in the 1964 vision of Towson were pursued, such as the Towson Bypass around York Road.

In the early 1990s, the county planning board developed a 60-page plan, which again called for called for improving traffic flow through the center of town.

Other partnerships of business leaders, residents and government officials developed plans in 1996, 2001 and 2003.

The plan created in 2003 by a committee of business leaders and county officials, called the Towson Revitalization Partnership, includes several proposals identical to those suggested by the UDAT, such as adding more directional signs and encouraging motorists to use the Towson Bypass to unclog York Road.

"Some of the things we found are frustrating people have been frustrating them for a long time," said Cynthia Bledsoe, director of the Greater Towson Committee.

The earlier plans "weren't as inclusive as this one," Bledsoe said. "It makes me feel like we have a common vision for the first time."

Ertel said a revised idea for a "restaurant-entertainment district" east of York Road near the traffic roundabout is one of the more realistic and welcomed ideas to come from the team.

"Towson should be a place where people want to go and spend time," Ertel said. "So far, regardless of the plans, it hasn't happened. It's time now. Let's get it done."

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