Greater Greater Washington

Towson can't beat Bethesda or Silver Spring without housing

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.


Downtown Towson. Photo by pauledely on Flickr.

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.

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 

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I'm unclear with what is wrong with the development or why it doesn't further Towson's goals.

by selxic on Jan 18, 2013 11:40 am • linkreport

Having lived near Towson for 4 years, it is the best "edge city" Baltimore has to offer, but will never rival the edge cities of the DC area because of the missing transit link. For what it's worth, there has been a lot of new housing built recently, including a luxury highrise near the university, and multiple expensive mid rise complexes south of Fairmount Ave and north of the circle, with more planned. The state also spent a little extra money to put a nice finish on the two beltway interchanges with York Rd and Dulaney Valley Rd, and the County has spent time improving the 'circle bypass' for traffic. I'm unsure the local transportation could handle much more additional trip generation from high rise development, although that's no excuse for not putting 2-3 floors of use above the retail uses. There is also a bit of a disconnect between the university and the downtown. The downtown is urban, the university a "campus", I never felt the two meshed well, which is a big problem if you consider the impact 20,000 students could have on the area if they were better integrated.

by Gull on Jan 18, 2013 11:45 am • linkreport

Selxic,

I think its the lack of housing. Not necessarily specific to this development (though its apparent) but throughout downtown Towson in general. Otherwise you're basically building an outdoor mall. Which is nice but it is only part of what also makes Bethesda and Silver Spring successful (the other part is transit like Gull mentioned).

by drumz on Jan 18, 2013 11:58 am • linkreport

drumz, what confused me is the first line though. It seems like Towson is building exactly what they want to make that region an "'even better' destination." I'm not saying more housing or taller development would be bad, but that doesn't appear to be the goal right now.

by selxic on Jan 18, 2013 12:11 pm • linkreport

Well Dan says that it is nice the building will go up to the street and it its design looks ok from what I could see on the developer's website. But if they're goal is to "beat" Silver Spring or Towson then developments like this won't cut it.

by drumz on Jan 18, 2013 12:17 pm • linkreport

Silver Spring has really started to take off the last few years because of more housing and more residents spending their money locally. It's hard to support businesses with just weekend destination visitors. You can support a much more vibrant range of shopping, eating and entertainment options if you have people spending money Monday-Friday as well.

In fact, I've heard planners say that had they known that Downtown Silver Spring would be so popular, they would have built apartments/condos above the shops on Ellsworth. This is exactly the kind of mistake that Towson should be looking to avoid, not replicate.

Some of my favorite places in Silver Spring are now really packed and hard to find a table on popular nights. But that's okay. This is leading to more businesses and restaurants coming into the area.

Even look at something like the Fillmore. They have local artist series shows for $5. Not huge money makers, but a way to bring in revenue in-between bigger acts. The Fillmore also has shows on week nights, not just weekends. Could Towson support something like the Fillmore without more people within walking distance of it? How about AFI, which is right next to a huge standard cinema?

If Towson wants to became a true destination, it needs to become a destination for people to live first.

by Patrick Thornton on Jan 18, 2013 1:27 pm • linkreport

Gull, sorry to be pedantic, but none of the places you mentioned are edge cities. Two are pre-war streetcar suburbs and the other was originally a farming crossroads. They all have organic human-scale street grids rather than culs-de-sac, large suburban arterials with inadequate or no sidewalks, and massive surface parking lots like Tysons Corner or Rockville Pike.

Your other comments about Towson's strengths and weaknesses are very solid.

by Cavan on Jan 18, 2013 2:12 pm • linkreport

I also find it odd that Baltimore County is openly talking besting the two flagship downtowns in Montgomery. They should be focusing on making Towson into the best Towson it could be. I applaud that they want to increase activity there, and we all have plenty to learn from each other, but wanting to do something to best a neighbor sounds like a recipe for failure. Wanting to do something because it's simply a good idea has a better chance of having good results.

If they try to imitate Silver Spring, there is a higher chance of missing how and why Silver Spring evolved into its current success story. The real lessons to be learned are in how we got to where we are, not the details of how other downtowns look and feel.

by Cavan on Jan 18, 2013 2:16 pm • linkreport

Dan -- with all due respect, it's a lot more complicated than "housing." It's about urbanity.

Cavan -- wrt the comparison, it's puffery. Unfortunately, the County Exec. doesn't really understand urbanism, but that's what County Executives do, say they're going to be better than X or Y.

Actually, Towson has the ability in theory to be better than either Bethesda and Silver Spring, because it has better retail (Towson Town Center is comparable to Montgomery Mall but with even more upscale stores). It has a bookstore, like Bethesda--SS no longer does. It has a trader joes. Like B and SS, it has a pretty damn good farmers market, but with way better prices than either of the bourgeois oriented farmers markets in B and SS.

It doesn't have a bike trail. AND IT DOESN'T HAVE HIGH QUALITY FIXED RAIL TRANSIT.

And the urban design is pretty f*ed. I worked there for 6 weeks before I inadvertently discovered that the mall was there, even though I had been regularly patronizing Trader Joes (I miss the convenience) and Barnes and Noble--an awesome store.

And it has both Towson University (only a few thousand students live on campus) and Goucher College.

I say in theory because it doesn't have the kind of access to transit possessed by both B and SS. I won't bore people with my past writings about this as it relates to Baltimore County. Needless to say, all my recommendations never made it into the County Transportation Element (any recommendation that called for spending money was excised by the budget office, but my reccs. still wouldn't have made it in anyway) although I almost got a community plan to make the recommendation about looping the light rail from Falls Road to Towson and then back to Lutherville. They couldn't quite make the jump though.

(On the other hand most all of my trailblazing bike and ped planning recommendations made it into law, an adopted plan, or both.)

More importantly, the top officials in the Executive Branch of the Baltimore County Government don't appreciate urbanism, walkability, urban design, etc. It's not in their DNA.

A lot of the people who were proponents of such a paradigm are out of the govt. now, post- the results of the 2010 election. (It's also indirectly why I wasn't able to burrow in and get a repeat gig at the Balt. County Office of Planning.)

Towson could be awesome (if it could add transit). And without transit it's much harder to get the economic multiplier effect of transit proximity on real estate values and opportunity costs which allows you to build taller and more expensively.

Yes, without more housing it doesn't have the immediate density, although unlike B and SS it does have a university and a college. Without Towson University, there would be significantlly less foot traffic on Towson's streets. In other words, without TU it would be bleak--just alleged criminals walking from the bus to the county court building for trials.

Although like Bethesda, Towson is a restaurant destination for people in the retail trade area who are most likely to arrive by car. (and with regard to comparisons to the Fillmore, they have Recher Theatre, which I think is still managed by IMP.)

But the big thing is that Towson is to Baltimore and Baltimore is not to DC as DC is to Bethesda and Silver Spring.

In other words, DC is a strong real estate market and Greater Baltimore is not. So ultimately Bethesda and Silver Spring (and Rockville) have a lot more opportunity to expand and extend and intensify. Plus the increasing returns that come from transit proximity, and that just isn't any old transit, it's a transit network. DC has five transit lines, Baltimore has two relatively truncated lines, one is light rail and the other is subway.

2. Getting back to the DNA thing and puffery, like a lot of elected officials, they don't really understand what are the key elements of success for Bethesda and Silver Spring and now Rockville and how to learn from that and apply it to other locations. And you can't really appreciate how much they are imprinted by automobility. (One of the top transportation priorities for the previous county executive was providing cars to low income residents.)

3. and how they set their reference/comparison groups. Baltimore County has done some of the US's most innovative planning initiatives over the past 45 years. But each is almost like an outlier, disconnected, and the individual efforts rarely connect with other initiatives to the point where the sum is greater than the parts. E.g., Balt. County is one of the first, in 1967, to have created an urban-rural growth boundary. Or one of the best county level environmental units of any govt. across the US. Or an urban design unit in the planning dept. (Now semi dissolved.) and so forth.

But for the most part, they define success in terms of not being Baltimore City. As long as that's how they define success, they will always succeed, but in fact will still be falling behind, significantly, compared to other jurisdictions in the state and region that are more appropriate peers. (Balt. County is the 3rd largest jurisdiction in terms of population in Maryland, significantly ahead of Baltimore City and somewhat behind PG.)

I also think that their industrial heritage has shaped them too (Sparrows Point) in ways that might shape their views of ec. dev. in ways that don't work as well for the 21st century. (They have a lot more industrially zoned land than can ever be used now that manufacturing plant footprints are so much smaller.)

3. Patrick Thornton -- you might be right about your assertion about "planners" regretting they didn't recommend vertical mixed use for Silver Spring.

However, even if they did, the likelihood of Foulger-Pratt ever building it was infinitesimal. F-P doesn't believe in vertical mixed use. They belive in horizontal mixed use.

wrt the Walmart debacle on GA Ave. I sat in a meeting with them and discussed this point specifically, because we were arguing for vertical mixed use on GA Ave. They explained why they didn't like working that way, using Silver Spring as an example.

You and I would (and I sure did) disagree, but they had the control...

by Richard Layman on Jan 18, 2013 3:34 pm • linkreport

Having been to Silver Spring occasionally over the past 20 years, remind me what the draw to that community is. Bethesda I get.

by Karl on Jan 18, 2013 3:37 pm • linkreport

@Richard

I'm not trying to provoke another 1000-word response to a 500-word post, but I will say that "urbanity" includes housing, as I originally wrote. And Baltimore isn't DC, but Towson on its own is a high-value location within Greater Baltimore, and if there's anywhere with untapped demand for housing (particularly high-end housing in a walkable urban setting), it would be in Towson.

by dan reed! on Jan 18, 2013 3:39 pm • linkreport

Having been to Silver Spring occasionally over the past 20 years, remind me what the draw to that community is. Bethesda I get.

That's precisely the problem with the Towson plan: you don't want to do anything in downtown Silver Spring unless you live near there. That's what sustains downtown Silver Spring's activity-- the fact that there is such a density of locals willing to stay nearby to get what they need rather than going to Bethesda or downtown DC. But not that many people will go to Silver Spring if they don't already live there. Without a density of local residents, Towson will never "happen" in the same way that Silver Spring has.

by JustMe on Jan 18, 2013 4:57 pm • linkreport

@JustMe

I live 7 miles from downtown Silver Spring, and I go there. It has a built-in local customer base, but it still is a regional draw, partially because the county saw it as the downtown for East County, but also because there are no other big employment/shopping areas in East County (or abutting areas of Prince George's, for that matter). Of course, this might change as Wheaton, White Oak and Hyattsville build up.

by dan reed! on Jan 18, 2013 5:10 pm • linkreport

People from all over the DC region tell me about going to The Fillmore, AFI and some of the restaurants in the area. Heck most of my friends from other jurisdictions made it to The Fillmore before me. One only has to look at the parking lots and garages by DTSS to see how popular a destination the area is.

Silver Spring isn't a draw like DC, but it does draw people, and it is very easy to get to for people from DC. It is correct, however, to say that the people who live and work in the DTSS area sustain it and help make it a better place. There is a lot of food variety in the DTSS area, and without a density of people living here, that wouldn't be possible.

Mixed use will bring more vibrancy to Towson and help sustain it longer. It is possible to make it into a regional destination like a lot of malls became, but those come and go.

by Patrick Thornton on Jan 18, 2013 5:24 pm • linkreport

My biggest draws to Silver Spring?

-The AFI.

-The theaters in City Place.

-First Night (sadly defunct).

-The Indian/Ethiopian grocer on Fenton Street. Among other things, best place to get gram flour, and cardamom at a reasonable price.

-Crisfield's.

-Velati's Candies.

-Ethiopian restaurants.

by Frank IBC on Jan 19, 2013 12:37 am • linkreport

The point of my response wasn't its length, but the detail and context it provided. That way when housing is added and Towson still hasn't "improved," you'll be able to figure out why. It's like saying that PG's problem is that "they don't do TOD at their transit stations." That is the problem, but why they don't do it is much more complicated, and you have to deal with those underlying factors.

There can be a lot of crappy TOD and as have most of the BART related projects proved, just because you build something at a transit station doesn't mean that it automatically does anything or everything that you intended.

The other way you could have looked at this is, Towson as you or someone said, is Baltimore's leading edge city. In the DC metro at equivalent locations, in Tysons they are doing X, in White Flint they are doing Y. By comparison, in Towson they are doing "zero" as it relates to leveraging transit, changing the urban design, etc.

Again this demonstrates the value of high quality transit as a lever for significantly changing the urban design and spatial organization and intensity of a community.

You could "add housing" to Tysons, but without transit, it won't have the impact you intend.

Etc.

by Richard Layman on Jan 19, 2013 5:08 am • linkreport

Towson would be much better off if it were incorporated as a city. Instead, its local government functions are performed by a vast county government primarily made up of intentional sprawl dwellers who hate diversity, transit, and non-motorized travel, and have no concept of how a downtown or urban space is supposed to function. Even the county council member who represents most of Towson (and, in fairness, has made some efforts to propose things like modest bike infrastructure and slight reductions to some of the exhorbitant minimum parking requirements in downtown Towson) lives several miles away in sprawling Perry Hall. Cities can't be governed by anti-urbanists.

by Darlene on Jan 23, 2013 9:34 am • linkreport

Towson has everything it needs to be great. Higher education, hospitals, decent retail ... but it just doesn't work. I haven't been able to put my finger on it, but I don't think it's limited to lack of public transit. I do suggest, however, that you look at the Towson U campus. The sidewalks are all blocked by telephone polls, meaning all the Towson families with strollers can't use them. The primary Starbucks is at a 4-6 lane interchange. York Road is scary/awful for pedestrians. It just doesn't work.

by @JayRickey on Jan 23, 2013 4:01 pm • linkreport

@jayrickey -- umm, urban design is the key missing element. See www.urbandesigncompendium.com. Of course, transit is an element of that, and the right kind of transit would make a huge difference, but again, needs to be complemented by the right kind of urban design, which is almost totally nonexistent.

by Richard Layman on Jan 23, 2013 6:55 pm • linkreport

This is a great article to lead into the Greater Towson Committee's Town Hall Meeting with Steve Mouzon on Tuesday, 1/29/13 at Goucher - Open to the public, sponsored by the GTC, Curry Architects and other GTC members.

by Andrew P Kulp, AIA on Jan 24, 2013 11:33 am • linkreport

JayRickey, one of the reasons that Towson "doesn't work" is the Towson Triangle:

http://www.baltimoresun.com/explore/baltimorecounty/neighborhoods/towson/ph-tt-towson-triangle-0201-20120130,0,3074640.story

It's the missing link between the college campus and downtown Towson.

by PhilR8 on Jan 24, 2013 1:12 pm • linkreport

Darlene, I appreciate your comments but don't consider myself anti-urbanist. I agree very much with the need for density in the core and have said so publicly. As someone with a background in transportation and planning, I believe there is an opportunity to make Towson a showcase for Baltimore County. And while I am proud of Perry Hall - a much different community - you can represent Towson well and not necessarily live there. David Marks, Baltimore County Councilman

by David Marks on Jan 24, 2013 2:11 pm • linkreport

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