Towson drops the ball

The Baltimore Sun

It doesn't take an architect to uncover the biggest design flaw in Towson University's plan to build a new basketball arena on the edge of campus: It's the school's failure to seek community input or even keep local residents adequately informed. This misstep could prove costly - and not only in terms of the lost trust and goodwill from the residents of nearby Rodgers Forge.

Tempers flared at Wednesday's community meeting, and small wonder. The community feels betrayed. Last May, school officials decided that a 5,000-seat addition to Towson Center would be built not on the campus side, as originally envisioned, but on the Rodgers Forge side of the existing building. The community found out about it one month later, but only after reading about it in the newspaper.

To be fair, Towson's $45 million proposal is not yet cast in stone, and it may be the best way to address a glaring need. For a school that competes in Division I of the NCAA, the existing 32-year-old gym is barely above high school standards. The quality of such facilities can make a huge difference in recruiting players and, more important, prospective students who consider attending intercollegiate athletics like basketball an important part of campus life.

The project would feature no expansion of seating (and therefore, at least in theory, attract no more traffic) and is to be located over what is now a parking lot, and officials have pledged to plant rows of buffering cypress trees before construction even begins. The addition would come no closer than 238 feet from the nearest house in Rodgers Forge, the length of nearly three basketball courts, while the existing building is already much closer.

But all that has little relevance to neighbors left largely out from the planning process to date. The level of distrust is understandably high. Opponents would prefer the project be built somewhere else entirely or, better yet, the money be spent on dormitories to house the growing number of students, some of whom might otherwise rent and share homes in Rodgers Forge.

"We dropped the ball," admitted Towson University Vice President James P. Sheehan at one point during the meeting, and he was right. The school may have had no legal obligation to more actively involve local residents in the planning process, but the failure to do so has put the project in jeopardy. Right now, elected leaders including Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. are calling for the school to share more with neighbors. The next step could involve intervention by certain members of the General Assembly.

It's time Towson officials go back to the drawing board and fully explore all the possibilities for the arena's future with neighborhood representatives at the table. That's the best hope for moving the project forward - and restoring a bruised town-gown relationship.

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