Downtown Towson. Photo by pauledely on Flickr.
Baltimore County wants to make Towson an “even better” destination than Bethesda or Silver Spring. But allowing single-story, suburban-style development in one of Maryland’s largest and busiest downtowns won’t make it happen.
Few places in Maryland, outside downtown Baltimore, have as many destinations within walking distance as downtown Towson. Towson is home to two colleges, one of which is Maryland’s second-largest public university, one of the state’s biggest and nicest malls, the Baltimore County seat, and a small but thriving Main Street anchored by the Recher Theatre, a music venue where nationally touring acts play.
With that amount of activity comes a lot of potential, which is why I was disappointed by recent comments from Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz about a proposed retail complex for downtown Towson:
Officials announced on Tuesday a trio of new restaurants and a VIP section for the 15-screen movie theater planned for the Towson Square project, an $85 million development seen as a key element in attracting more shoppers and visitors to the county seat.
"We are going to make Towson a regional destination, even better than Bethesda, even better than Silver Spring,” Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said at a news conference Tuesday announcing the restaurants.
Towson is already a regional destination for all of the reasons above, but it’s no Bethesda or Silver Spring, and projects like Towson Square won’t make turn it into one. Even with some high-end chain restaurants, it’s basically a single-story strip mall pushed up to the street. That wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t literally in the center of town.
What makes Bethesda and Silver Spring not just regional draws, but fun and vibrant places to be is their density and mix of uses. Downtown Towson has plenty of jobs: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ County Business Patterns, it has 43,000 workers, fewer than downtown Bethesda (50,000) but more than downtown Silver Spring (32,000).
However, it doesn’t have as many people. According to the 2010 Census (accessed via the New York Times’ Mapping America), the densest parts of downtown Towson have about 8,900 people per square mile, compared to 17,000 people per square mile in downtown Bethesda and 30,000 in downtown Silver Spring, where over 1800 housing units have have opened or broken ground in the past year. The only housing being built in downtown Towson right now is a small townhouse development.
Sure, people come from across Greater Baltimore to work in Towson, and you have 20,000 college students in the area, but they don’t make a neighborhood as active as people who live there after the offices close at 5 pm and when school’s out for summer and winter break. Towson Square would do far more to contribute to the area’s vitality if there were apartments or condominiums on top of it.
Of course, if Towson were to have more housing, it would probably need more transit as well. If Kevin Kamenetz is really serious about creating a rival to Bethesda and Silver Spring, he might want to focus on extending the Baltimore Yellow Line light rail to Towson.