Footloose and fancy town

The Baltimore Sun

Landscape architect Roland Oehme's dream is modest: He wants to be able to bike from his home in West Towson to the center of the Baltimore County seat without risking his life. So far, it's easier said than done.

On a recent bike ride into the heart of town, he said, he barely avoided a wreck on Bosley Avenue -- a "treacherous" mix of six lanes of cars whizzing past at 50 mph, impatient drivers and traffic lights that don't allow walkers or bikers enough time to cross.

Over the past week, Oehme's cautionary tale mingled with concerns and suggestions from about 150 residents and business owners, spawning a series of recommendations that would make Towson more pedestrian- and bike-friendly -- and more attractive for shops and outdoor dining.

More than 100 residents, business owners and county government officials gathered at Trinity Episcopal Church yesterday to hear the proposals prepared by a team of engineers, urban planners and architects.

Their ideas for a downtown facelift include:

Slimming York Road, downtown's main thoroughfare, from four lanes to two, with extra room for parallel parking to entice visitors to linger in front of shops and restaurants.

Converting two key east-west routes -- Chesapeake and Pennsylvania avenues -- into two-way streets.

Redesigning the much-debated Towson roundabout to make it easier for drivers to enter and exit the traffic circle.

Establishing crosswalks and islands, along with open, park-like spaces for festivals and outdoor events.

Rhoda Dorsey, retired president of Goucher College and a longtime Towson resident, said the plans would transform a downtown designed in the 1960s with broad boulevards and narrow sidewalks to accommodate cars but not the walkers, shoppers and diners who want to linger rather than rush through.

"Many of the ideas shared [yesterday] fell on very receptive ears," she said.

Towson's renewal and redevelopment efforts have intensified over the past two years, with major construction projects under way and more in the works.

Yesterday's recommendations capped a year of public meetings and work with two firms studying ways to make downtown Towson more walkable. The county has paid $296,000 for the studies.

The recommendations come as business leaders consider the possibility of a special taxing district, where property owners would pay for extra services such as street cleaning or landscape maintenance that the county doesn't ordinarily provide.

The latest proposals won't become reality soon, though. A final report isn't expected until early fall, said Mary Harvey, director of Baltimore County's Office of Community Conservation.

Once that's done, Harvey said, county departments, including public works, planning and parks will look at their budgets to see what to tackle first. The plan would also require cooperation from the State Highway Administration because York Road is a state highway.

"We're looking at some of these things happening over the next five to 10 years," she said.

West Towson's Oehme says he might not be able to wait that long.

"I want to live in a place where I can walk or bike around to restaurants, to stores," he said. "I feel more alive as a person when I bike. I grew up here, but I won't keep living here if I can't have that kind of lifestyle."

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