In downtown Towson, there is new construction - some under way but most of it on the drawing board - as well as empty storefronts and uncertainty. This is a customary circumstance for the Baltimore County seat, but this time there is reason for considerable optimism: Towson appears to be on the cusp of finally embracing its urban identity as well as the commercial and residential redevelopment that requires.
It has not always been a smooth transition. Traffic, particularly on York and Dulaney Valley roads, is a long-standing problem. So is parking. When acres of free blacktop beckon from nearby suburban shopping centers, getting customers to pay to park in a Towson garage has often proved a challenge. And it has never been a pedestrian-friendly area, as anyone attempting to cross Towson Circle near rush hour can tell you.
But what Towson can't avoid is its favorable demographic circumstance. It's surrounded by affluent communities and thriving employers with big payrolls, including a medical triumvirate, Greater Baltimore Medical Center, St. Joseph Medical Center and Sheppard Pratt Health System. Towson's small-town days are past - and its residents now seem to understand that.
On Towson Circle, construction of a Fidelity Investments retail center is under way. Nearby, the county has plans to turn a former gas station into a park. And the developers of the Circle III project - on what is now little more than a parking lot - envision an entertainment complex with a multiscreen movie theater and restaurants.
Towson Town Center is adding a wing that's expected to include several new restaurants, and the owners of Towson Commons are talking about an ambitious makeover to create new residential and retail space. Work is under way to turn the former Dulaney Valley Apartments into a luxury residential development.
The county-sponsored Urban Design Assistance Team that has allowed local residents to help design Towson's future has been helpful in building a consensus over these changes, but local officials will likely have to go further. Ambitious projects such as Circle III and Towson Commons will need affordable parking, and the county may be called upon to subsidize that infrastructure - a sensible investment if it gives Towson the street life that has been so elusive.
Its traffic and pedestrian problems may not yet be solved, but Towson is clearly headed in the right direction. Towson Circle and the success of the former Hutzler's building demonstrate that. The next goal should be to better connect the retail district to Towson University (a mile and a mindset away). Towson is not only a crossroads and an urban center, it is a college town, too.