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Disagreements over walkability, developer regulations in Towson

Green Towson Alliance image

Green Towson Alliance flier

Update: The vote on David Marks’ bill has been postponed until July. The Kamenetz administration and the Greater Towson Committee want fewer regulations in the bill, while the Green Towson Alliance and the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations want to see more. The Green Towson Alliance is still holding its rally at 5:30 pm on June 6. 

By Kristine Henry

The Towson Flyer

A vote on legislation that would determine how Towson will be developed in the future might be postponed because of disagreements among various constituencies. A local environmental group wants the bill to set stricter guidelines for developers, and Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz also reportedly wants to see changes.

In the bill, Councilman David Marks has proposed an “overlay district” for downtown Towson that he said:

    • Requires the Baltimore County Design Review Panel, a committee of professional architects, to evaluate the aesthetics of new construction.
    • Establishes performance standards for new development that emphasize connectivity between buildings, better landscaping, the preservation of trees and planting of new foliage, and distinctive architectural features.
    • Adopts tougher standards for signage on tall buildings, using those sought by the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations as part of the Towson Row agreement last fall.
    • Requires tougher standards to minimize light pollution.
    • Prioritizes the protection and restoration of the Towson Run in the Towson Triangle, including development of a pedestrian pathway.
    • Incorporates the Towson Design Principles to regulate setbacks and building height.
    • Provides greater flexibility for parking requirements.
    • Mandates bike parking for new buildings.
    • Advances the construction of bridges that connect the Towson Triangle across Towsontown Boulevard and from the Towson Row development to the current library site.

The bill can be viewed here. It would require setback and height restrictions that were approved in 2011. As shown on the map below, buildings in the overlay district will not have height restrictions unless specified in the map.

Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 10.44.46 PM

Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 10.45.08 PM

But the Green Towson Alliance says that while it likes much of the bill’s language, it doesn’t go far enough.

“We think it’s super important to have teeth in this bill.”

“We have high hopes that this legislation is going to be a really great thing for Towson residents and developers and businesses,” said Wendy Jacobs, a founding member of the group. “We think it’s super important to have teeth in this bill.”

The Alliance has planned a rally for Monday that they hope will show lawmakers that residents are concerned about development.

rally image

Flier for Monday rally

Flier for Monday rally

Mike Ertel, head of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations (GTCCA), said his group has “a similar view of the proposed legislation as the Alliance.”

“We are especially concerned that the stream and green space in the Triangle be preserved as envisioned in the [Urban Design Assistance Team] and Walkable Towson plans,” he said.

He was referring to a 2010 plan that laid out principles about how Towson should be designed and developed going forward. The plan can be viewed here.

Screen Shot 2016-06-03 at 7.04.09 AMScreen Shot 2016-06-03 at 7.04.39 AM

The Green Towson Alliance said its key concerns with the legislation that is scheduled for a vote this Monday include:

towson triangle

Towson Triangle

The Towson Triangle
The land bordered by York Road, Towsontown Boulevard and Burke Avenue is now home to the American Legion, a Jiffy Lube and other businesses. (It is also where the 101 York Road development was planned, although that is on hold.) The spot also has a baseball field and a stream. The Alliance, and some other community members, would like to see much of that space set aside for a park that would feature walking and biking paths along the water and eventually lead all the way to Charles Street. Marks’ legislation does call for a “greenway” along the stream, but the Alliance wants more details written into the law.

“Our feeling on the Triangle is we have one chance to get it right”

“David’s language is good, and we were very happy to collaborate with him, but we just want [the legislation] to be more specific,” Jacobs said.

She said their ideal scenario doesn’t mean there can’t be development there, but they don’t want to see most of the land covered in concrete.

“Our feeling on the Triangle is we have one chance to get it right,” said Ertel of the GTCCA. 

The Alliance is also concerned about making the streets of Towson friendly for pedestrians. Along with wide sidewalks, Jacobs said, that also means ground-level businesses that make people feel more visible — and less vulnerable. People feel safer, she said, walking along a street that has sidewalk cafes, busy restaurants and shops with windows that let shoppers see pedestrians and vice versa. Conversely, they don’t feel safe walking along a block-long parking garage that is deserted and desolate, or a block of condos that seems like a fortress.

“It’s the intangible feel of a city,” she said, “and we’re absolutely convinced it can be created.”


This is not the optimal way to plant trees, the GTA says

“Tree-lined streets are always considered desirable, and study after study show the health benefits of working near and living near shade trees,” Jacobs said.

Instead of the current practice of having individual trees in small pits, the Alliance would like to see, say, four trees planted in a row together to create more cover and to provide a healthier system in which the trees can grow.

“It costs a little more money, but you get something that is alive for the public to enjoy, and businesses get to make a good living by drawing traffic,” Jacobs said. “Big shade trees are a very important element.”

They also want the legislation to mandate that developers cut down existing trees only where absolutely necessary, and, when they are cut down, to replace large trees with many smaller trees.

“Towson has a there there, and we want to keep it that way.”

She said none of the Alliance’s goals are detrimental to businesses, and that they will in fact draw more people to Towson. She added that her group feels it’s important to strengthen the legislation now before it’s too late, and badly designed development is approved. That includes re-wording the bill such that environmentally friendly features are required (“this shall happen”) instead of merely suggested (“this should happen”).

“Towson has a there there,” Jacobs said, “and we want to keep it that way.”

Marks said on Thursday that the bill, which is scheduled for a vote Monday, is in “flux” because of all the changes that various entities have sought.

He said that the “planning department believes that the Design Review Panel should have the flexibility to make determination regarding the characteristics of new construction and that these should not be mandated in the legislation.”

Don Mohler, chief of staff for County Executive Kamenetz, declined to comment on the discussions about the legislation.

“I will likely reintroduce the bill in June so there is a vote in July,” Marks said. “It just gives us more time.”

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3 Comments on "Disagreements over walkability, developer regulations in Towson"

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I think the Greater Towson Committee is the problem. Google their membership and see who has had control over Towson’s planning all these years. It hasn’t gone well for our live ability has it? Developers crunch numbers. More money can be made without best practice rules, no parkland and narrow sidewalks. Our county executive paves the way for developers by weakening sediment control enforcement, using antiquated traffic manuals to prove we don’t have a traffic problem and also allowing development in overcrowded school zones.

Towson resident

Excellent, thorough story. County leaders have often compared Downtown Towson to Bethesda, Md. For a resource, here’s a link to community-based design planning that seems to work well there. Great to see David Marks pulling this together. It would indeed be nice to have Towson truly offer its own style of Bethesda, which is a gem of the D.C. Area:

From a recent Montgomery County master plan update:

“This fresh look at Downtown Bethesda serves as a twenty year checkup, to assess with the community what is great about Downtown Bethesda and what could be better. This is an opportunity for the community, property owners and business owners to refine the vision for a successful Downtown Bethesda. This also involves revisiting the current Plan’s recommendations. Plans address land use and density; urban design and character, open space, mobility, as well as environmental quality. The work on the Plan will be organized around three themes: social sustainability, economic sustainability and environmental sustainability. We ask you all to join us in a shared commitment to: collaboration, creativity and integrity as we move forward together in our work. The forthcoming Bethesda Downtown Plan will update the 1994 Bethesda Central Business District Sector Plan and the 2006 Woodmont Triangle Amendment to that Sector Plan.”


Hoping for a better Towson
Hoping for a better Towson

So much of the late 20th century building in Towson is bad. I certainly hope we don’t repeat those mistakes with this frenzy in development