Towson as college town?

The proposed $60 million apartment-and-retail development proposed for the Towson Triangle is dredging up an old ambivalence about the character of the Baltimore County seat. Is it a college town? A community for families and children? A commercial downtown? A shopping and entertainment district? A home for empty-nesters?

It is, and long has been, all of the above, coexisting in what is at times an uneasy balance that grows more uneasy periodically when any one segment of the community seeks to expand its presence. In recent years, that has most frequently manifested itself in community opposition to incursion from the rapidly growing Towson University campus into the surrounding neighborhoods.

A plan several years ago to put university housing at what was then called the Towson Circle III development led to a massive community uproar and an eventual rethinking of the entire project. More recently, a disturbance outside the Recher Theatre in September resulted in a shooting and three arrests. Although the college students who spilled out of the theater and onto the streets that night were largely not from Towson, the incident still raised concerns about the profusion of young people in the area.

At the same time, business leaders have long seen a greater connection between the Towson University campus and downtown Towson as being key to creating 24-hour-a-day vitality in a downtown that has historically emptied out when the courthouses and surrounding law firms and banks close for the night. Indeed, the downtown area has seen a slow but steady increase in the number of student-oriented businesses in recent years.

But getting from campus to the business core has always required a trek through an uninviting no-man's-land on York Road between Bosley Avenue and Towsontown Boulevard. The construction of a Starbucks nearly a decade ago at the corner of York and Bosley was heralded as a breakthrough that would finally get students to cross the street. It did, but the relatively barren stretch beyond it discouraged them from going any further.

Into that void comes 101 YORK, a proposal by Towson-based DMS Development for 200 apartments with parking and ground-level retail, with a target clientele of Towson University students. And despite the strained history, there is reason to hope that this development will be welcomed by the wider community.

There is a school of thought in Towson that no development of student housing should occur off of campus and that in any case, the school's northern edge is a line that should not be crossed. But the truth of the matter is that the university has nowhere near enough dorm space to house all of its students — and never will. Moreover, some of the biggest problems in town-gown relations over the years have come from students renting houses or apartments in the residential neighborhoods around campus. An apartment building in this location could be an improvement.

(Aesthetically speaking, it certainly is. The building would replace a ragged set of commercial buildings and vacant lots.)

Community members are bound to raise some legitimate concerns about traffic and parking, and that's why County Councilman David Marks' decision to reject a rezoning request for the parcel appears wise. Now the project will have to move forward as a planned unit development, which, thanks to some recent reforms, will involve opportunity for community input early in the process. If the designation is granted, it will also require that the project include substantial community benefit.

The Towson proposal comes at a time when Baltimore County appears to be shaking off the lingering effects of the recession. The real estate market is heating up, and a number of significant development projects are under way or on the horizon. However, not all of them are unalloyed success stories.

On Wednesday, developers announced plans for a large, new mixed-use community in the White Marsh area. The project is promising — a combination of 1,700 housing units, retail and office space in the "new urbanist" mold. But it also represents the county giving up on a vision of creating a major employment center in what was once billed as one of the best undeveloped industrial sites on the East Coast. The county and state spent $76 million to extend Route 43 to open the site to development, but it's doubtful that they would have done so for a residential/retail/office community, no matter how nice it may be.

That said, extensive efforts to market the parcel had not been successful. The county faced a choice between accepting a proposal like this one and leaving it empty — or, more likely, allowing low-quality flex space industrial parks to sprout up. It made the right call, but the celebration of a $100 million investment in Eastern Baltimore County is at best bittersweet.

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