As news continues to evolve regarding the revitalization of downtown Towson, most recently the Cinemark theater announced on Friday for Towson Circle III, I keep thinking that there is a real disconnect between the development and the community.
This "Look What I've Done For You Lately" approach of building bigger and more lucrative projects in Towson is burying the beauty of what makes Towson unique in the first place.
It is nearly impossible to get that "old-town feel" of one-way streets and local businesses when it is overshadowed by mega-theater complexes and big-box shopping developments.
That's like saying, "I'm going to build a Walmart to bring in the out-of-community traffic, but their lower prices and one-stop shopping experience will make the rest of Towson a nice place to drive through on the way back home." Building big doesn't mean that the locals are going to benefit necessarily from the increased traffic coming in to Towson.
I'm not against the development; I just think that the gap between "big draw" and "local feel" is widening with each new project, simply because we are missing the opportunities to make the community more a part of the revitalization. Towson Circle III, with its open-space plan, gives us a chance to change all that.
I offer three initiatives that I think would diminish that gap and allow both groups to support each other.
1. Create a stretch of stores at Towson Circle III just for local businesses. I think this is something that is sorely missing from the Avenue-style projects. Allow small, Towson-based businesses the chance to open up or move their stores to the new Circle, and reduce their rent accordingly. Offer small business owners the chance to set up kiosks or even rolling stands that feature products from their Towson store, thus enticing shoppers to head over to the local district and spend some time walking along Allegheny, Chesapeake, and the other store-lined streets. As more of these Avenues pop up, a local strip of stores, reflecting the culture and history of that smaller town, would bring a refreshing merger of old with the new, giving local owners a chance to be a part of the revitalization, and not a discarded afterthought.
2. Offer free or reduced parking rates to the local communities. If we are revitalizing the community, and we want more of our community residents to patronize these newly developed projects, entice us by providing Towson community parking permits or even coupons that we can use—not just at Towson Circle III, but at all the county-owned garages in Towson. Isn't it common sense that, if you let us save a few dollars in parking, we are more likely to stay local and spend much more money in our Towson-based businesses?
3. Provide opportunities for local artists to perform. Towson is rich with artists and musicians of all ages. Towson Circle III could instill that local feel by allowing local artists from schools and small community groups to perform and make some money. As a result, local foot traffic would increase, making the latest addition to Towson the strongest yet when it comes to appreciating and integrating the local talents unique to our area.
In the past, community involvement has meant little more than making decisions about how a new development can blend in with the existing look and feel of Towson. Let's make this more than just a cosmetic interaction and build a plan that is going to involve the Towson communities in a meaningful and sustaining manner.
Rus VanWestervelt is a local writer, photographer, and educator. A graduate of both Towson University and Goucher College, Rus currently teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in writing.