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WYPR's Fraser Smith toured Baltimore with M.J. "Jay" Brodie, former Baltimore Housing Commissioner and former President of the Baltimore Development Corporation. Brodie--and other voices--provide perspective on Baltimore's efforts to rebuild and re-energize.

Towson: The Next Bethesda?

Here’s Baltimore County’s vision thing for Towson in five or ten years, after several big development projects are built: you buy or rent a nice place downtown. You walk to work in a nearby shop or office so you don’t need a car. Or maybe you use a bike. There will be bike racks everywhere. Or, you take a bus.

David Marks, Towson’s county councilman, wants a commuter bus for Towson like the Charm City Circulator in downtown Baltimore. “We can’t build any more roads,” Marks says. We’ve got to embrace biking, pedestrian activities and we absolutely have to have a transit circulator in place.”

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz says the hundreds of millions of dollars in development planned for the county seat could turn it into “a Bethesda or a Silver Spring in the sense of having attractions, a night life as well as a reason for people to live here and walk to work.”

But Paul Hartman, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations, worries about that. He wants residents in on talks with the county and developers so they can work out the problems that come with development, like increased traffic, crime and noise. And there’s one project Hartman wants scrapped. It’s called 101 York .

It would be wedged between the Starbucks and the Jiffy Lube on York Road, just north of the Towson University campus. Hartman says the plan to provide housing for 571 students, with only 367 parking spaces doesn’t add up. He says student parking will spill into the neighborhoods. “Student lifestyle and the hours of operation are slightly different than working folks,” he says. “So, two or three in the morning there could be quite a disturbance.”

Baltimore County Planning Director Andrea Van Arsdale denies the parking plan would create a conflict. She says students who live at 101 York could park in the library parking garage up the street. The project, she says, would link the university and downtown. Van Arsdale says Towson’s expected wave of new development will really get going Memorial Day weekend, when a new theater called Towson Square opens, with 16 screens and 8 restaurants.

“Towson’s becoming a real city,” she says. “And healthy cities are like healthy ecosystems. You have a diversity of uses that are interconnected.”

The big fish planned for the Towson ecosystem is Towson Row, a $300 million development on the west side of York Road between Towsontown Boulevard and Chesapeake Avenue. Construction is still a couple of years away. It’s to include hundreds of high-end apartments and hotel rooms; offices, shops, a grocery store and student housing.

Councilman Marks says he views it as “kind of what Manhattan is to New York City.” “It’s going to be of a scale that is going to be much larger and more distinct than the rest of the community,” he says.

Despite some of the concerns, county officials say Towson’s development is inevitable and that it will broaden the tax base, keeping the property tax rate down.

But what if many of those people living and working in the Towson of the future say "no thanks" to the walkable town idea and stick with their cars? Katie Gucer, who came into town from Lutherville and was sitting in the Towson Starbucks, says the roads are already clogged. “If you come in rush hour it’s awful,” she says. “York Road is terrible; very, very congested.”

Van Arsdale promises the county will be flexible when it comes to dealing with increased traffic in the years ahead. For instance, officials may eliminate parking on York Road in downtown Towson so those lanes are opened to traffic. But one thing will not change, she says. Towson’s traffic circle has been a success and is here to stay.

Click below to view a Baltimore County government promotional video. A bird's-eye view of Towson Row is at 3:17: