Wednesday, October 5, 2016

A Royal Farms station as Towson's Gateway?

For all those who bemoan downtown Baltimore's sometimes decaying historic treasures a little trip to Towson is always useful: Here it isn't decay that creates the eyesores but a lack of design. Which is a pitty, because Towson is pretty much the only nearby exurban center that has enough oomph to be a real walkable urban place with a thriving university, viable stores, an urban mall, restaurants, government buildings, churches, history and monuments.
The suggested new northern gateway into Towson at York Road (developer's
rendering 2013)

Baltimore City and County should be a region that works together, not two jurisdictions whose residents feud each other as if we still lived in the middle ages with all its parochial fiefdoms.

Both areas need to thrive and it is always sad when an opportunity to be as good as possible is squandered. In this case the opportunity of cleaning up that tangled mess that is today's York Road leading into Towson from the north. (By the way, it is noteworthy that York Road leading from the City into the County is not really a problem, even though the shopping center straddling the jurisdictional line could still be improved and the County permitted a Starbucks right at the edge of downtown Towson to have a drive through).

The northside, though, from the Beltway to where Bosley Avenue intersects (the Towson Bypass)  is unpleasant in terms of  urban design. It is the typical auto-centric American commercial strip with the assortments of gas stations, fast food restaurants and one story shops with the cars parked up front that has become a symbol of suburban sprawl. To get a better grip, the Planning Department in collaboration with stakeholders, came up with a Towson overlay district which was approved this August. It would control everything from Bosley Avenue to the south. At the time Greater Towson Committee Executive Director Katie Pinheiro was pleased that it passed.
"Two keys elements of Towson's success will be improving its walkability and connectivity, which was highlighted in the [bill] as well as in the Master Plan 2020," she said in an email. "Towson's development community will continue to work with the County Council and County Executive to make Towson the most successful it can be with the best possible developments for all to enjoy."
Problem is, major developments going on in Towson were well underway when the new rules with stronger design oversight passed and they are therefore exempted.
The old firehouse site at Bosely Ave

One of the exempted projects is the embattled swap deal that Executive Kamenetz devised in 2013 in which a small downtown pocket park was paved in favor of a relocated modern Towson fire station replacing the one located on Bosley Avenue near York Road. The 5.8 acre site was offered to private developers. The County spent around $ 6million on the new fire station (it was dedicated in January of this year) and is expected to receive $8.3 million for the old site, seemingly a good deal. According to the SUN Executive Kamenetz said in 2013:
"The old way of doing things in the county would be to borrow taxpayer dollars, increase debt and construct replacement facilities on the existing site. We decided that if we want to be consistant with our goals to be innovative, responsive and efficient, we needed to consider alternative ways of achieving these goals." (Kevin Kamenetz)
The problems with the deal are not financial, they are about urban design: The first issue was that a green space was paved to build the new fire station, even though Towson is very short of open space, The second problem is that the development proposal which the County picked is a Royal Farm store with a mega gas station, exactly the type of car oriented non walkable development that makes York Road so unsightly in the first place. The intersection at Bosley and York is already graced with an Exxon Station. That something much better could be done on this prominent site was demonstrated by another proposal that included a Harris Teeter store with apartments on top. A truly urban solution that had the potential of truly making a good gateway and represent entrance into an urban core. Apparently, Harris Teeter wouldn't commit to the deal and the County dropped the proposal and picked the next bidder in line.
Google Streetview towards downtown Towson on York Road

This urban design dilemma could have been avoided if the request for the developer proposals would have included a set of urban design parameters that would have stuck with the zoning that is in place here, requested a multi-story building at the dominant corner and excluded things like gas stations and surface parking lots.

But the horse is out of the barn and the gas station cum convenience store appared to be the only deal in hand. Having built the new fire station already, the County feels it is in a bind and has to force the matter through. Ironically Caves Valley, the developer for the Royal Farm proposal, is also the developer for a large urban mixed use, high-density urban development in downtown where Bosley Avenue meets up again with York Road. The developer who prides himself of understanding urban development should have an interest that Towson represents itself well at the other edge as well. But Caves Valley apparently described their highway strip proposal as
"an attractive commercial center" [that will] "create a welcoming focal point and streetscape." 
That is quite a euphemism and a blatant misunderstanding of the urban design term focal point. No doubt, those convenience and gas stations are very lucrative, a reason that they blight the entrance to many towns.
Since the old fire station re-development is proposed as a Planned Unit Development (PUD) because the existing business zoning doesn't allow a gas station, the County and the community still have a few means in hand to prevent the worst. At least that is what Councilman David Marks thinks who unfortunately has recently resorted to horsetrading in his district. Some developers call it extortion and community members consider it ineffective. Marks, a Republican himself feels like between a rock and a hard place and blames the Democrat Kamenetz for the problem.

In the horsetrading approach to the problem of bad use or bad design, the issue isn't confronted up front through predictable controls and masterplans but by making last minute deals with developers in which they get their permit for paying money to some local causes. Nothing against community benefits, but better design would be preferable.
Protests against the gas station proposal
Towson's northern gateway could use it. No fountain can make a mega gas station sitting on a high retaining wall an attractive entry point.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore SUN article (2016)
Baltimore SUN article (2013)

A longer article about Towson can be found on my blog here