The joke in Towson is that its town bird is the construction crane. More than a half dozen of them are part of the skyline, as Towson transforms into what one developer said will rival College Park as Maryland’s best college town.
There is excitement about what Towson is becoming, as well as concern about what all of those changes will mean for Baltimore County’s county seat.
Greenberg Gibbons is developing Towson Row, which will be a mix of stores, restaurants and apartments at the center of town. Chief Executive Officer Brian Gibbons recently gave a tour of the construction site.
“The hotel is right there,” Gibbons said, pointing to cleared land near Towsontown Boulevard. “The retail is here. Student housing here. And literally Whole Foods is where that truck is.”
Apartments for nearly 700 college students are slated to open in time for them to move in next August. On the other side of the street, housing for several hundred more students is expected to open in 2021, along with 200 additional apartments for non-students and Whole Foods. Throw in some other stores, restaurants, two hotels, offices, and a parking garage, and you have a lot of new construction on five acres. Gibbons said that’s the idea: To make it dense and walkable.
Gibbons said Towson will rival his alma mater for Maryland’s best college town.
“I love College Park but it doesn’t have the walkable amenities that Towson University is going to have,” Gibbons said.
The Towson Chamber of Commerce estimates in the last 10 years, more than $1 billion in private money has been invested in efforts to redevelop Towson’s aging core. A big chunk of that is Towson Row, which is expected to cost up to $450 million.
Gibbons said Towson Row would not have happened without $43 million in tax credits and grants from the county.
“And this clearly is one of the opportunities to have a transformational project,” Gibbons said. “Urban, walkable. This is really the development business today.”
The tax deal was contentious at the Baltimore County Council. It was ultimately approved in a 4 to 3 vote nearly two years ago.
But Towson Row isn’t the only thing going up. Just north of it, a different developer is building Circle East, which is slated to open in the spring. It is expected to offer apartments for more than 500 people, as well as more shops and restaurants. County Councilman David Marks said Circle East will radically change how things look along Joppa Road at the traffic circle. Before, there was what Marks called a hollowed out canyon, a parking lot below the street.
“You will have people eating outside on benches and tables. It will be a really inviting presence here,” Marks said.
Then there’s 101 York, between Towson Row and Towson University. It promises housing for more than 600 college students.
So add it all up, you could have more than 2,000 people, mostly students, living in what has been almost exclusively a business district that in the past shut down at nights and on weekends, save a few college bars.
The potential for increased foot traffic has not gone unnoticed by the owners of The Bun Shop, a coffee shop and bakery which opened in March, across the street from Towson Row on Chesapeake Avenue.
Lam Bui is one of the owners. He said they opened in Towson because of the growth to come, particularly the influx of students.
“Students are our main source of income because we have these long tables and places for them to sit down and get work done,” Bui said.
Nancy Hafford, executive director of the Towson Chamber of Commerce, said there are more than 100 restaurants within a one-mile radius of downtown Towson, with more to come. That’s proving to be a draw for people concerned about both crime and parking in the city.
“I feel bad for the city, but I know we have people that are coming here more frequently,” Hafford said. They would have typically gone downtown on a Friday or Saturday night.”
But some community members are worried that once the construction is finished, all the new people living, shopping and eating in the area will mean more cars on the roads.
Towson rush hour is already no fun. For instance, the intersection of Burke Avenue and York Road is rated a failure because of how long it takes cars to get through it during rush hour. And the 101 York project is close by. The gamble is that the 600 students living there either won’t have cars or will keep them parked and walk instead.
There are plans in the works for Towson to get a circulator bus in a couple of years and the county wants to add some bike lanes. But none of that will be ready in the short term.
Hafford prefers a glass half full view of the congestion.
“I would much prefer having traffic be an issue than where we were 15, 12 years ago where nobody was coming here,” Hafford said.
Councilman Marks said that in the 90s, Towson fell on hard times, partly because of competition from the newly built Avenue at White Marsh.
“When I was elected in 2010, there were whole areas of Towson that were derelict,” Marks said.
Marks and others credit Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who died last year, with pushing the effort to transform Towson.
Towson has three hospitals and two colleges. So along with the students, they want the employees of those institutions to live there. Marks said that should give it protection from future economic downturns.
“We have a lot of employers here that are relatively resistant to recessions, and that’s good,” Marks said.
Who else will be renting the new apartments in the Towson of the near future? Nancy Hofmann has been selling real estate in town for more than 30 years. Hofmann predicts it will be mostly young, affluent professionals.
“Most of our buyers in the Towson area, they’re coming from downtown,” Hofmann said. “They’re in Canton. They’re in Fed Hill.”
Hofmann said the average household income in Towson is around $109,000.
It remains to be seen whether there will be enough affordable housing for people who want to live in Towson but aren’t making anywhere close to six figures.
Under the terms of a legal settlement, Baltimore County is required to offer incentives for developers to build or rehabilitate 1,000 affordable housing units countywide by 2027.
A proposed 56-unit affordable housing project in East Towson is facing objections from nearby residents. It has not yet been approved by the county.
At Towson Row, Gibbons said the project will have some small, affordable apartments for non-students, but they don’t have specifics.
Gibbons said within the next six weeks, construction will begin on the two hotels at Towson Row, which are expected to open late next year.
“It will have a shared lobby entrance with a restaurant that’s accessible from the street at the hotel,” Gibbons said.
For now, Towson feels like one big construction site, as crews rumble down York Road.