The Baltimore Sun

The old houses on Washington Avenue have been knocked down, and the digging is about to begin for the 18-story Palisades apartment building. Already, condos are rising across from the mall, and more apartments are planned near the university.

In Towson, a change is coming that rivals the makeover pulled off in Silver Spring.

In all, an estimated 2,500 new residences will be built within the next few years - a key component in a billion-dollar development boom designed to transform the Baltimore County seat into a regional hub for entertainment, shopping, dining and night life.

"We want Towson to be a more vibrant place, and that requires additional people living in the core," said Ed Kilcullen, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations.

A new wave of townies in Towson, he said, will change a "business atmosphere that empties out at about 5 o'clock."

Some raise questions about traffic, parking and the potential effect on schools. Kilcullen asks whether apartments will sell during a real estate slump. And Beulah Young, a resident of the area for more than a half-century, laments the gradual loss of a slower and quieter Towson.

"They keep building and building, and they've lost Towson," said Young, who moved from Rodgers Forge to the Edenwald retirement community three years ago. "We like Towson as it was. And I realize it sounds old-fashioned, but I think they've overdone the building."

But many seem to welcome the growth.

Brian Recher, co-owner of the Rec Room on York Road, has already started building an outdoor bar that will provide an entrance from Shealy and Delaware avenues - right on the doorstep of the Towson Circle III project.

"When you get that amount of people 50 feet from you, that's going to be awesome," said Recher, who hopes to have the new area open by December. "The more people here the better."

Southern Management Corp., which has built in Montgomery County, has broken ground on the Palisades building in downtown Towson. The company's marketing director, John Cohan, said: "Towson, I think, will be very similar to Silver Spring."

Some $700 million in downtown Towson retail, commercial and residential projects is planned for the next five years, and that doesn't include $500 million in development planned at nearby Towson University.

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., who has worked in Towson for most of his professional career, said the area is finally reaching the potential seen for it as long as a half-century ago, and has done so "consistent with the vision that the Towson community had."

That vision is perhaps most clearly articulated in the Walkable Towson Plan, which calls for pedestrian-friendly development. Silver Spring and Bethesda are models "in terms of what they've done, how they've laid [development] out and how they've addressed walkability," said Pat Keller, director of the county's office of planning.

In short, creating more of an urban center.

Jody Sanfilippo, a manager at the Razorbacks Raw Bar & Grill in a shopping center across from where the Towson Town Center mall is expanding, said she expects the growth will benefit area businesses, "but if it's too congested, it'll be bad."

Kilcullen worries about the housing market, "which is a big concern because there's going to be a lot of residential projects and not a lot of people buying," he said. "We don't want to have a lot of projects that are not successful sitting empty or rented out to college students ... and not attracting the type of people who we want in Towson."

Developers and merchants are drawn to Towson by its affluent, educated and growing population. A 2007 study commissioned by the county economic development department found that more than 40 percent of people age 25 and older living within a three-mile radius of downtown Towson have a bachelor's degree or higher, compared with 27 percent nationally according to 2006 U.S. census data.

The estimated annual median household income in the area was $73,750, the county study said. According to census statistics released recently, the median household income is $68,080 statewide - Maryland is first in the country -and $50,740 nationwide.

More than 20 percent of households in the area made more than $100,000, according to the county study, which said about 151,000 people now live in the area.

Stuart Sirota, one of the principal planners behind the Walkable Towson Plan, said residential development and the expectation of an "actual, built-in market" are motivating growth in existing shopping areas.

One example is the Towson Circle III project, he said, which is scheduled by 2011 to envelop all 4 acres of prime downtown real estate bounded by Joppa Road, Delaware Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue and Virginia Avenue.

The area now is mostly parking lots.

With a 2,500-seat multiplex cinema sitting atop a four-story parking garage, a T-shaped promenade for outdoor dining, about 60,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space and another 60,000 square feet of office space above that, the project will help link York Road businesses with the mall, said David S. Cordish, whose Cordish Co. is handling leasing for the project. Over the years, the project was opposed by residents disgruntled about plans to include college student housing and about perceived exclusion of citizen input in shaping the site's amenities. But the college housing idea was scrapped, and the project has been praised by planning leaders as being in line with community ideals.

Then there's the expansion of the Towson Town Center along Dulaney Valley Road, Sirota said.

"They're basically taking what was an inward-facing mall that didn't have any presence on the street, and they're turning it inside out and creating street-facing shops," Sirota said.

A new wing will open this fall that will eventually include retail stores and P.F. Chang's China Bistro, the Cheesecake Factory and Stoney River Legendary Steaks, said Charles Crerand, the mall's senior general manager.

Just south of the downtown area, Towson University is embarking on an ambitious five-year development plan, including multiple new dorms, to cater to a ballooning student population approaching 21,000.

A new main entrance to the campus will be constructed on Towsontown Boulevard, and a new pedestrian mall will face downtown Towson, bolstering the university's connection with the town, said President Robert Caret.

"It will provide a much better living and learning environment for the university citizens as well as the city citizens if we can develop Towson into a much better place to hang out and live," Caret said. "Having a town around us that we can be a part of is part of our dream."

Smith, the county executive, said, "I think with the restaurants and the boutiques and retail that are going to come in, the students - the Goucher students and the Towson University students - are going to be drawn in more."

Nicole Schiraldi, a Towson junior, said that when she first visited Towson as a New Jersey high schooler, she saw it as a college town. "Then I got here, and was like, 'OK, maybe not as much as I thought it was going to be,' " said Schiraldi, the director of community outreach for the student government association.

With new development, though, Schiraldi said she sees opportunities to improve the relationship between residents and students and "to bring more spirit into the town - a little more black and gold everywhere."

Towson has already been identified as the county's downtown, and development in and around the core will solidify that role, said Mary Harvey, director of the county's Office of Community Conservation.

"It's that urban feel, that urban vitality," she said, "that we're trying to create in Towson."

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