With a wave of new high-rise housing and growth in retail, night life and entertainment offerings, Towson is becoming an urban area different than anything Baltimore County has ever seen.
The evolution is so dramatic that some boosters contend Towson needs its own rules governing development.
"Towson stands apart," said Councilman David Marks, a Republican who represents the area. "In most counties, [Towson] would be its own city. We need to start treating it that way."
Projects must comply with traditional zoning rules that critics say don't jibe with what the county is trying to achieve in Towson: a bustling, walkable, urban community. As a result, developers get bogged down in seeking exceptions to requirements that dictate a certain number of parking spaces, for instance, or that limit housing density.
"We've had situations where we have to change the law to make it happen," Marks said. He added that a specific zone for Towson could make the process more predictable for developers as well as residents.
The County Council on Monday will consider a measure instructing the planning board to recommend how such a zone would work. Marks would then move to codify those recommendations into law.
Baltimore County officials have high hopes for Towson. Citing a number of projects on the horizon and $600 million in private development, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz last year predicted the county seat would become a "destination ... even better than Bethesda, even better than Silver Spring."
But getting to that destination has involved a few roadblocks.
When L.A. Fitness opened in a long-vacant space in Towson Commons on York Road in May, it was heralded by the business community and residents. Still, Marks had to sponsor a bill to ease parking requirements to make it work.
When the 12-story, $27 million Towson City Center became the new home for Towson University's radio station, another bill was needed to address signage.
And as downtown sites are redeveloped, renovated and expanded, issues such as setbacks, lot sizes and allowance of mixed uses continue to pop up. Approvals can add another layer to the process, and if legislation is needed, that can take weeks and even months.
Some say allowing the public to weigh in is part of the price of development. Towson resident Josh Glikin cautioned that neighbors will still want a process that's open and inclusive. If a new zoning category results in fewer opportunities for public input, he said, residents would object.
"It's a voice we community associations hold very dear," said Glikin, who is on the board of governors of the West Towson Neighborhood Association.
Kamenetz said in a statement he'd be "interested to hear what recommendations the Planning Board will have."
Arthur H. Adler of Caves Valley Partners, one of the key players in Towson's resurgence and developer of the mixed-use Towson Row project off York Road, said he'll be interested as well.
"We believe, like the county executive believes and Councilman Marks believes, that Towson can be this vibrant urban core for Baltimore County — our Harbor East, our Bethesda," Adler said.
Adler said reducing the need for special hearings and legislation to get projects approved would be good, though he said his company would follow whatever process is in place.
"Give us the rules and we'll play by them," he said.
The Towson Row proposal includes 350 apartments and condominium units, 300 housing units to be marketed to college students, 200 hotel rooms and 100,000 square feet of restaurants and shops anchored by a Whole Foods. Caves Valley plans to submit its concept plan to the county early next year.
A number of other projects have been completed in recent years, including the Towson City Center project, a Cinemark movie theater and restaurants at Towson Square on Joppa Road, and hundreds of new residential units.
A $75 million student housing project called 101 York Road is expected to start construction next summer, though that project has faced opposition from some residents, mainly over parking concerns.
By comparison, Bethesda doesn't have its own zoning category, said Pamela Dunn, Montgomery County's acting chief of functional planning. But in that county, zoning for urban districts such as Bethesda, Silver Spring and Kensington allow for different levels of intensity.
The district in Bethesda has rules that allow for more housing units and taller buildings than in a residential community, and requires fewer parking spaces than some commercial spaces, Dunn said.
Marks said a new zone for Towson could address parking, which currently must follow a "1950s-style" model, he said. He said large stretches of asphalt lots don't make sense in Towson, where the idea is for residents and visitors to park in garages and walk around town.
A new zone also could allow greater density — more apartment units than what is currently allowed, for example — and make it easier to mix uses, such as apartments above ground-floor retail shops or offices.
Marks, who also has advocated for a bus "circulator" system to serve the downtown area, said a new zone would help create a line in the sand separating downtown Towson from the surrounding residential neighborhoods. In the past, residents have been concerned about traffic, noise, parking, student rentals and other effects from growth spilling into neighborhoods.
"I'm trying to give some assurances to the surrounding neighborhoods that there's going to be a specific district where there's more intense development than other areas, and draw distinct boundaries for downtown Towson," he said.
Paul Hartman, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations, is willing to consider a new zone for Towson, although he noted his group has not yet taken a position. He said it's a "painful process" for residents to attend meetings and track legislation every time a development proposal is changed.
A special zone, he said, could "streamline development in the Towson area."
At a council work session on the proposal last week, Towson resident Brenda Ames-Ledbetter suggested the time is right to create a new vision for the area, and said a zone could address the lack of open space and the need for more sidewalks.
"You're at a critical time to incorporate these things that would make [Towson] a real gem," she told council members.