"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.
Such hopes have long hovered over Towson. Now, a series of new development, renovation and revitalization projects indicates that the goal — or something like it — may well be taking shape in 2013. One project aims to rejuvenate long-dormant Towson Commons. Another is bringing new offices and restaurants to a once-vacant tower. Yet another could produce what one official called a "transformational" development to the southern edge of downtown.
While many community leaders have embraced the projects, concerns over growing pains — like the traffic congestion that plagued the two Washington suburbs — have tempered their optimism.
Paul Hartman, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations, called the Towson Square announcements exciting, and a sign that "obviously people feel it's worth investing in this community."
But he added that as Towson grows, the county needs to consider traffic, security and "walkability."
"We've already got a traffic problem without [the new developments]," he said, "so we're going to need to discuss some sort of public transit," such as a circulator or shuttle bus.
Towson Square, being built on four acres bounded by East Joppa Road and Delaware, Pennsylvania and Virginia avenues, is slated to open in 2014.
Joining Kamenetz on Tuesday, officials of developers Cordish Cos. and Heritage Properties said three restaurants have committed to the "entertainment center," which will be anchored by a Cinemark movie theater: Nando's Peri-Peri, a South African restaurant; La Tagliatella, a Europe-based chain serving northern Italian cuisine; and On the Border Mexican Grill & Cantina. Officials said the complex will eventually house eight restaurants, with more tenant announcements planned in the coming months.
They also said Cinemark has expanded its initial plan for the theater, with the addition of a VIP level featuring a full bar and "premium food choices" for patrons ages 21 and older. The theater is expected to have 3,400 stadium-style seats — 200 more than initially announced — and 15 screens.
"You'll see a lot of construction over the next 18 months," said Blake Cordish, vice president of Cordish Cos.
The downturn in the economy slowed Towson Square, formerly called Towson Circle III, but the project is a "textbook" public-private partnership, said Mike Batza, chairman and CEO of Heritage. The county Revenue Authority is spending $6.2 million on the 850-space underground garage at Towson Square, and the Maryland Department of Transportation will add $2 million in infrastructure improvements in that area.
Robert E. Latshaw Jr., president of Latshaw Real Estate Advisors, in Towson, and a former member of the county planning board, said Towson Square and others projects indicate that "Towson's on its way back."
"The new restaurants at Towson Square certainly take it up another level, and add some amenities that we need on the east side of York Road," he said.
County Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican whose district includes Towson, said he feels a "real sense of optimism and energy."
"There is tremendous momentum here in Towson," Marks said. "Even in a difficult economy, big projects are advancing."
One of those other projects could bring life to Towson Commons, which occupies a large stretch of York Road in the center of town. At its Jan. 22 meeting, the County Council is expected to approve a parking-related measure that will pave the way for a fitness center to be built there. Marks declined to name the "nationally known" club negotiating for the lease, but said it would fill much of the vacant 50,000-square-foot space.
Hartman called Towson Commons — a once-bustling center that lost its retail tenants, then an eight-screen AMC movie theater in March 2011 — a "ghost town." But he believes the fitness center "will bring people back to the building and make it a productive building."
Nancy Hafford, executive director of the Towson Chamber of Commerce, agreed.
"It's the first time in — I can't say how many years — we've finally had something start at Towson Commons," she said. "To have a business come in taking 50,000 square-feet, bringing bodies not just in the daytime between 9 and 5, but early in the morning that can support our breakfast places [and] at nighttime that will support our local eateries, we couldn't be happier."
Other projects have reinforced that sense of optimism.
In August, officials celebrated the opening of the refurbished Towson City Center near the town's roundabout — a 155,000-square-foot redevelopment of an office complex that had been vacant for a decade. The $27 million, 12-story building is now home to Towson University's Institute for Well Being and the campus radio station. This summer, the Bagby Restaurant Group will open a new eatery there.
Recently, a group led by Caves Valley Partners, the same firm behind the Towson City Center renovation, purchased a property south of West Chesapeake Avenue and west of York Road — a block away from Towson Commons. That area is zoned under a category that would allow "major" retail, business and office space growth. While it is unclear how that tract will be developed, Marks said his knowledge of it suggests it could be a "transformational project for Towson."
Another property slated for redevelopment is the site of Towson Fire Station No. 1 on Bosley Avenue. Last month, Kamenetz announced that the county is selling the site and is fielding offers for commercial redevelopment. Bids from developers are due in April.
On Tuesday, county officials said Towson Square alone will create 1,530 jobs, including 660 construction jobs and 870 jobs once the theaters and restaurants open.
Those jobs will generate an estimated $16.4 million annual payroll, and the center itself will produce $1.75 million in county tax revenue each year, officials said, plus an estimated $2.9 million each year in state sales taxes.
Community leaders and county officials say some of that expected windfall should come back to Towson. In addition to traffic, there have been other concerns, particularly over security. This fall, unruly crowds and violence shut down streets outside the Recher Theatre. In December, a man fired five shots into a crowd outside the Charles Village Pub.
Last month, in the wake of the shooting, Marks said the Charles Village Pub incident "points out the need for more police officers in downtown Towson."
"Towson is going to continue to grow," he said, "and we're going to need to have a strong police presence."
Hafford wants people to see Towson not only as a destination center, but also as a home. She hopes residential projects will be part of the growth.
"We need bodies in town. People want to be here — you know they want to be here when you see beautiful apartment complexes like the Palisades, the Promenade, the Lambourne [apartments] and the Berkshire apartments," she said. "And they're all filled; that just shows you people like to live within walking distance of where they can go to the movies, shopping, dining and good grocery stores."
And despite the shared ambition, Hafford said she didn't quite embrace the county executive's goal of Towson being the next Bethesda.
"I think we have things to offer that no one else does. I don't aspire to be a Bethesda, I just want Towson to be the best community that we can be. … We can see it happen right before our very eyes."