Towson business owners conflicted about proposed overlay district

By Marcus Dieterle
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer

Councilman David Marks

Councilman David Marks

The Baltimore County Council is considering legislation introduced by Councilman David Marks that would develop an overlay district in downtown Towson.

The overlay is a special zoning district that would designate the downtown area as the “Towson Urban Core” (TUC), replacing the current “Commercial-Town Center Center” (CT).

If the legislation passes, urban development projects within the TUC will not have to adhere to certain traditional design regulations that have been required in the past, such as parking setbacks and height limitations.

Developments would have to follow environmental regulations such as “green” rooftops, placement of shade trees, use of recyclable materials, and open space requirements, Marks said.

According to a draft from August 2015 by the Baltimore County Department of Planning, the proposed TUC would be bounded roughly by Bosley Avenue, Fairmount Avenue, East Pennsylvania Avenue, Virginia Avenue, and East Towsontown Boulevard.

However, the final boundaries have yet to be determined, Marks said. He predicted that the council would vote on the overlay district in spring of this year.

Some residents in the Towson community, particularly those in the vicinity of the Towson Triangle, have raised concerns about the TUC. Among those residents is Joe La Bella, the president of the Towson Manor Village Community Association.

After learning about the TUC proposal at a council meeting in December, La Bella had concerns about the impact that development within the Towson Triangle would have on his community as well as the surrounding neighborhood.

On Jan. 30, La Bella created a petition to keep the southern boundary of the TUC at Towsontown Boulevard, which he posted on the Towson Manor Village page. On Feb. 3, he shared it with the surrounding neighborhoods. Since then, the petition has received 180 signatures.

La Bella said that he plans to share the petition with the council during the session prior to voting on the bill. While he does not have a specific goal for the number of signatures he hopes to obtain, he said that ideally he would like to reach the 450 residences in his community.

One of La Bella’s major concerns is the increased traffic that could occur as a result of possible development of student housing, high-rise apartments and commercial buildings in the Triangle.

“The county has classified the corner of York Road and Burke Avenue as a failing intersection,” La Bella said. “There’s not a strong infrastructure to support what this proposal promotes.”

“If I could have my way, I would love to see that triangle be turned into a park,” he added.

Although La Bella would like to see stronger attention paid to the development of open spaces and recreational areas, he explained that for the most part he just doesn’t want to see high-rise buildings right when he sets foot out the door.

“What a lot of people have argued for is a smaller scale development,” he said. “Something that doesn’t tower over everything.”

Among business owners, however, the reactions are a bit more divided.

Lisa Kim, owner of York Cleaners, weighed the costs and benefits of an expanding downtown area.

“In the Towson Triangle, you can experience all different cultures, different nationalities,” Kim said. “Towson is growing, college kids are growing. I’m just worried about the commuter traffic.”

Masoud Athari, owner of Kerb restaurant, said that while he welcomes the increase in business that may occur in the TUC, he is worried that it will become even more difficult to find affordable parking than it already is.

“The price is too high, two dollars,” Athari said. “Sometimes when I have a delivery system going on I have to park here or in the other parking lot which costs too much for a small business.”

Mark Armstrong, owner of Art Frame Print, misses the green areas that are largely absent from Towson.

“Where’s the trees?” Armstrong asked. “Business drives on other business. However, what is more important: the God-almighty dollar or green space and quietude?”

Yet other business owners welcome the change.

Shane Gullivan, owner of the Ten Car Pile Up thrift store, explained that owning a business in a college town can be difficult because his clientele is leaving and returning to the area on a seasonal basis. He hopes that commercial development will spur more business.

“As far as the heights [of buildings] go, it’s more people,” Gullivan said. “More people is going to bring more business.”

Gordon Harden, who co-owns Souris’ Saloon with his wife Kathy, believes that the TUC would actually reduce commuter traffic in the area.

“One of the benefits of a new Towson Urban Center is to have somewhere to live and work,” said Harden, who was also a former member of the Baltimore County Planning Board.

Marks believes that opponents to his proposal are getting ahead of themselves.

“There’s nothing set in stone,” Marks said. “No legislation has been passed yet. Some of the petitions are premature.”

But La Bella disagrees.

“It seems like around here we’re not told until it’s almost too late,” La Bella said.

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