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Development


Baltimore's suburban downtowns emerge as more urban

Bethesda, Silver Spring, and Arlington are some of the best suburban downtowns in America. Baltimore's suburbs, by comparison, have lagged behind. But with large infill projects coming to Towson and Columbia, Baltimore's most walkable suburbs may soon catch up with DC's.


Towson Row. Image from Baltimore County.

In Towson, 1500 new residential units have opened in the past 4 years, with the largest redevelopment, Towson Row, announced just last week. The change has been enough that the Maryland Transportation Administration is now considering a Towson circulator bus network.

Columbia has further to go. Towson at least has a traditional grid of streets around which to build. Columbia, by comparison, was planned in the mid-20th Century around a mall. All Towson really needs is more buildings; Columbia must be reworked from the ground up.


Downtown Columbia master plan. Image from Howard County.

But they are getting there, slowly. In 2010 Howard County adopted a master plan to make downtown Columbia more urban. And now, actual projects are in the works.

Developers are moving forward with a 9-story infill project after plans for a 22-story one on the same property fell through. The shorter project is actually denser. It will have 160 apartments, 12,000 square feet of retail, and 130,000 square feet of office space, compared to 160 apartments, 11,000 square feet of retail, and no office space in the 22-story version. The 22-story tower was proposed nearly 10 years ago, and was a more suburban design.

Unfortunately, for the foreseeable future both Towson and Columbia will continue to lack an important piece of the urban puzzle: regional transit. DC's suburban downtowns have the advantage of Metro, but Baltimore's Metro is smaller, and serves neither Towson nor Columbia. Long range plans call for an eventual light rail connection to both places, but that's decades away.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Development


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.

Arts


Music venues can and should engage the public realm

Music clubs can help revitalize neighborhoods, but too often, they do little to nothing to activate or engage street life, and instead wall themselves off from the activity around them.


Photo by Alan Bowser on Flickr.

The Fillmore Silver Spring opened last month, and local music venues are voicing concern that the Live Nation-owned music hall could threaten promoters in the District and even Baltimore. Already, the venue has beaten most local rock clubs on one aspect: it actually embraces the street, with big windows, bright lights, and even a couple of sidewalk benches.

Music halls don't necessarily need windows. They have shows at night and audiences come to watch the band, not the street. But these venues still are still part of their community fabric during the day, when the neighborhoods they reside in play host to other activities.

The 930 Club!
The 9:30 Club in Shaw. Photo by the author.

Having blank, featureless façades discourage street life and can send the wrong message. Last year, the Black Cat, which anchors the shopping and entertainment district along 14th Street NW, painted a mural of a cat on their boarded-up second-floor windows.

2010 07 01 - 1319 - Washington DC - Black Cat
The Black Cat in 2010. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Nonetheless, it doesn't look much different from the outside than it did as an abandoned shell in 1988. Clubs like the Black Cat and the 9:30 Club a few blocks away have helped revitalize their neighborhoods, but by looking like abandoned bunkers, their aesthetics can perpetuate a run-down image.

Venues outside of the District are no better. While in Baltimore last weekend, I took my friends to The Ottobar, a tiny club in the emerging Station North neighborhood. Judging from its completely blacked-out storefront, they thought it was abandoned. I can imagine someone walking up North Howard Street, assuming there's nothing there, and turning around, missing out on a wonderful coffee shop just a block away.


Left: Baltimore's Ottobar. Right: The Birchmere in Alexandria.

In Alexandria, the venerable Birchmere Music Hall is largely invisible from the street, despite being in a fairly dense, urban neighborhood. If it weren't for the murals on the side, this club would just look like a warehouse behind a parking lot.

One exception would be the Recher Theatre, located in the center of downtown Towson. I drove through Towson last weekend and was impressed at how busy the downtown is, despite being home to one of Maryland's largest shopping malls. With a big marquee left over from the theatre's days as a movie palace and an adjacent bar that's open every day, the Recher keeps the streets active in a way that other area clubs don't.


The Recher Theatre. Image from Google Streetview.

Of course, rock clubs thrive on an aura of obscurity, while windows suggest openness and transparency. But perhaps venues can create window displays that affirm their image while creating a more interesting streetscape. For example, the Trocadero, a rock club in Philadelphia, has engaging, albeit suggestive, Barbie Doll dioramas in their windows.

Great streets require the participation of all the buildings that front them, even rock clubs. By creating storefronts that are visually interesting, or by providing uses like cafes or bars that are visibly open when shows aren't going on, clubs can create safer, more vibrant neighborhoods.

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