The Baltimore County Council approved a $43 million assistance package Monday night for the developers of the stalled Towson Row project.
The package was approved 4-3 with Councilman David Marks, who represents Towson, voting against the deal, joined by fellow Republicans Wade Kach and Todd Crandell.
Those voting in favor were council members Vicki Almond, Tom Quirk, Julian Jones and Cathy Bevins, all Democrats.
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz had proposed the $42.9 million assistance package to be paid over five years in hopes of jump-starting Towson Row. The massive, mixed-use development was first announced in 2013 but after demolition of structures on the building site in 2015, the project has since languished.
The vote means that the project can move forward to final design and permitting, said Brian Gibbons, chairman and CEO of Greenberg Gibbons, an Owings Mills-based development company that was brought in by original developer Caves Valley Partners.
“I want to thank the council for their leadership. We will not let you down…,” Gibbons said in brief remarks to the council. “This is a chance for our company to do a major, impactful project that’s going to change the face of Towson.”
Towson Row would include 1.2 million square feet of developed space — as big as the nearby Towson Town Center Mall — on a 5-acre property on York Road at Towsontown Boulevard.
Current plans call for a 220-room hotel, a 905-bed student housing complex, 250 apartments, 140,000 square feet of office space, 140,000 square feet of retail shops and a parking garage. Whole Foods was announced as an anchor tenant, but the developers now say that nothing has been finalized.
Of the $42.9 million county assistance package, $26.5 million is tied to two tax credits the developers would have been eligible to receive once the project was complete. Instead of taking the tax credits later and paying lower property taxes, the developers agreed to pay the full amount of property taxes. The difference — $26.5 million — would be given to the developers up front. The county estimated it would take 10 to 12 years for the property to generate $26.5 million in property taxes.
The rest of the up-front money, $16.4 million, is a grant linked to the county’s hotel tax. Once it’s open, the Towson Row hotel is projected to generate $16.4 million in hotel taxes over 20 years, according to the county.
The developers previously made arrangements to buy two county-owned properties — a former county office building and a pair of vacant lots within the project’s footprint — for a total of $2.3 million. That amount will be subtracted from the $42.9 million total.
More than a dozen county residents spoke against the financial assistance package for Towson Row at a public hearing last week, with some urging council members to take more time to review it and others calling it inappropriate “developer welfare.”
Some opponents who attended Monday’s vote held signs reading “Yay! Advance Us Too!” — suggesting the county should give residents similar up-front advances on tax breaks to those being given to the Towson Row developers.
Others offered support, including the Towson Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Towson Committee.
Towson Chamber of Commerce Director Nancy Hafford thanked council members for their vote. “Sometimes you have to make tough decisions and I appreciate you all for doing it,” she said.
Gibbons has said securing the help from the county is necessary to finalize financing from his investors, including a California-based pension plan that has invested in other Greenberg Gibbons projects.
Anirban Basu of Sage Policy Group, who was hired by the county to analyze the deal, said that while there’s some risk to the county in giving the developer the money up front, it’s likely to pay off.
“There’s a major risk in not moving forward on this,” he said.
Marks, a Perry Hall Republican who represents the Towson area, said his vote was a difficult choice. While he said he thinks Towson Row “will have a transformational impact on downtown Towson,” he expressed concerns that the deal was rushed and that the Kamenetz administration will not talk to the council about the project once the vote was taken.
“I believe some form of financial assistance package is appropriate to jumpstart this project, although I would have preferred a loan than the grant proposed by the Kamenetz administration,” Marks said in a statement.
Kach, meanwhile, raised concerns that the county would be laying out money to a developer that could be spent on roads, schools or other needs.
“It appears that we’re delaying the funding of these needs. It’s of great concern to me,” he said.
Quirk, however, said the project will be a net gain because it will lead to more jobs and residents in Towson. Not only will the county recoup the up-front infusion of cash into the project, but Towson Row will help expand the county’s tax base, he said.
Almond said she trusts Greenberg Gibbons to fulfill its promises. She cited the company’s transformation of the old Solo Cup factory in her district in Owings Mills into Foundry Row, now a busy commercial center.
The same could happen with Towson Row, she said.
“This is an economic boost to Towson,” said Almond, who is also running for county executive.
Kamenetz, a Democrat who is running for governor, championed the assistance package as an investment from taxpayers that will pay dividends for years. He has pushed for redevelopment in Towson to transform it into a more lively and urban-feeling destination.
In supporting the Towson Row package, Kamenetz has said the county has put money toward other developments, such as building a parking garage at the Towson Square movie theater and restaurant complex, as well as building a parking garage and locating branches of the library and community college at the Metro Centre in Owings Mills.
After Monday’s vote, Kamenetz issued a statement saying: “Today is a great day for Baltimore County. We just created 3,500 construction jobs and 2,000 permanent jobs.”