Over 30 years ago, when Andrea Van Arsdale graduated from college with a degree in wildlife biology, she probably never expected to find herself responsible for overseeing major changes to densely populated (by humans) communities in Baltimore County, such as the current redevelopment of Towson—a series of projects backed by more than $800 million in private investment. But that’s precisely where the 50-something finds herself today.
As director of the Baltimore County Office of Planning, Van Arsdale is tasked with guiding the growth and development of the entire county, which spans over 680 square miles and is home to more than 800,000 residents. Currently, the project that takes up much of her time focuses on revitalizing Towson’s downtown business district. Long a sleepy suburban area, Towson — with more than 48,000 workers, 55,000-plus permanent residents, and a college student population of approximately 25,000 —has the potential to earn a much different reputation, especially as the town’s numbers are expected to grow.
Plans to accommodate the growth and turn downtown Towson into a more progressive, urban hub have been compared to Maryland communities like Bethesda, Silver Spring, and Harbor East. In Towson, developers are building luxury housing, a Whole Foods Market, several new restaurants, and brand new office space, joining a recently completed state-of-the-art movie complex, an upscale gym and completely renovated YMCA. Together, the additions have the potential to make good on the promise of a 21st-century community where people live, work, and play. But the changes are not free of criticism.
Zoning debates, nagging questions about traffic and parking, and concerns about new housing being inhabited disproportionately by college students top the concerns raised by the project’s critics. But in a recent interview, Van Arsdale touted the forward momentum of Towson’s new development, responded positively to skepticism about its changes, and shared her vision of the town’s future.
You’ve worked for the county for 28 years—as a coastal home planner, on the team overseeing the county’s master plan, with the Department of Economic Development, for the county’s commercial revitalization program. Can you point to a few key aspects of your lengthy career that prepared you for the job of Baltimore County’s Director of Planning?
All of it prepares you. You learn from the littlest things, from how to talk to people with open ears and respect, to what different agencies do, to learning how the politics of life work. I’d have to say, probably the biggest thing to prepare me was working on commercial revitalization. That’s where a lot of it comes together. Elements of economic development, planning work, budgets. All of that comes to play on the ground. There’s a need to plan, to study, but also to do.
You’ve held this position since 2011. Had plans for the re-development of downtown Towson begun before you took the job, or were you in on them from the beginning?
The redevelopment of Towson has been in every master plan since I’ve been here [in the office of economic development]. It’s the county seat. As for the structure of a town, Baltimore County is unique. It has no incorporated municipalities, so Towson can’t operate on its own. It’s part of the county. But if anyone thought about it, Towson is probably the most downtown-like area we have. A little mini-suburban city. There are a number of big high rises here. If you look at old pictures of Towson compared to now, it used to be all small one- and two-story buildings. Now I see four major high rises just looking out my window.
There’s always been a desire to see Towson grow. It ebbs and flows. But each time you’re going further up the ladder in creating a real urban downtown, the heart of Baltimore County. Now what’s different is that it’s not a single developer with a single project. It’s a number of high quality developers anxious to make the growth happen.
If you could sum up the vision for Towson’s recent and forthcoming development what would it be?
Since the 80s, there’s been talk of Towson being more urban, higher density, mixed use; that vision has been fairly constant. A lot of people don’t really know what that means. Folks like the county executive [Kevin Kamentez] have tried to frame those words and present a vision. He has said it could become something like Bethesda, because that was a suburban town that has become a highly successful urban town.
There will be quibbles about it on the edges. There will always be people who don’t want change, who want it to go back to the 1950s. But it’s not the 1950s. For the most part, there’s a consensus that this should be our 21st century town—where we live, learn, play, and work.
What’s very unique is that we’re bookended by two colleges: A large public university on one end of town and a small, liberal arts college at the other. The benefits of having a Towson University in your own backyard far outweigh any issues. It’s an economic engine in its own right, and it attracts bright, intelligent people.
Talk about your role in the re-development of Towson.
A lot of time has been spent studying Towson. The county executive [Kamentez] was very interested in seeing tangible results. He said: Everyone knows as much as we’re going to know. Now it’s time to make these changes happen. My role is to implement the county executive’s vision.
When you first became involved in this project, what was your gut response?
From a personal and professional perspective, I couldn’t think of a better place to be. This is our [the citizenry’s] backyard, and it’s undergoing a major transformation. To be part of that is exciting. We’re very lucky. The county has done its homework, gotten a lot of cooperation among departments under the county executive. We’ve been able to attract some of the best developers in region, if not the nation. A number of these developers own, build, and hold. They are interested that the rest of Towson work. And they attract others who are interested in its long-term success.
Some compare Towson’s potential future to Bethesda, or Harbor East. Are these reasonable comparisons? Why or why not?
No two towns are the same, no two developers or communities are the same. When we try to visualize something new, we go back to models we’re familiar with. What binds these communities together is that they all are re-developments of something of the past into something of the future. They are transformative. Another commonality among these communities is that they’re higher density, more mixed-use. [Towson is] not a transit stop. We are not on the water. But we have benefits because we are very conveniently located. We’ll be developing our own character.
Towson serves a diverse population: The business community, established residents surrounding the downtown community, Towson students. How have these various constituencies played a role in the momentum of Towson’s redevelopment?
The key is to work with all the groups and try to develop consensus. That’s the goal. It’s not always achievable. You hope the majority of people will get united behind a particular vision. I think in most cases with Towson that has happened. In the end, I hope we have a fair and understood vision for Towson, and one that most people like. Each group has something to offer. I personally have worked a lot with those who have an investment in Towson: Business owners, small and larger, and developers—those within the commercial revitalization district. They’ve been great to work with.
Some of the adjacent communities have been troubled by the vision. It’s good to have a little tension. It pushes you into critical thinking. That’s important. It forces you to think about things, adjust, refine, and sometimes change things completely. It’s important that everyone has a seat at the table.
Some folks have suggested that the downtown area of Towson should acquire different zoning in order to make the proposed renovations easier to act on. Could you talk about what these zoning changes might entail, and the pros and cons of them from the county’s perspective?
Zoning is always being amended and changed to fit changing conditions. Towson’s zone is a mixed used, higher density, more urban zone. But it’s been modified a number of times, minor and major. I think all of these piecemeal changes have been leading us to the notion that there might need to be comprehensive consolidation of these ideas of high quality, urban development that’s well designed. I think that’s how most people would like to see the zoning go. Let’s have a comprehensive zone that’s good for small as well as large developments.
Two chief complaints that people have of downtown Towson in its current iteration center on parking and traffic. What impact do you foresee future development having on these two hot-button issues, and do you believe there’s a reasonable way to address them?
Downtown Towson has five major parking garages, over 5,000 spaces—many of which are not filled in the evenings. So, parking isn’t a problem in Towson. Many people, because of their suburban perspective, have had some resistance to structured parking and paying for parking. If you want to come into Towson now, the easiest way is to park and pay for a garage. They’re safe and conveniently located. We are going to be reliant on them. Once people get comfortable with them, the will find they work really well. There’s plenty of parking; it’s in the garages. Compared to downtown parking rates, you can park for a minimal amount.
As for traffic, there are peak times. It does get a little congested. If you have a little congestion, you’re in a place where people want to be. To have a bit of a parking issue means that people want to be here.
A developer cannot get financing or lease space unless there is parking available and traffic doesn’t become so horrendous that people can’t get there at a particular time. It’s in our best interest to make sure there is reasonably priced parking, and reasonable congestion. All major urban areas have some congestion. It doesn’t mean it isn’t a great place to go.
Green space is at a premium in this densely populated area. What will these changes to downtown Towson mean for accessible green space?
It might be a bit of a re-definition. We have a tendency to call our gathering spaces green spaces. We don’t necessarily have to have parks to have social gathering places. The point is to have places where people can come together as a community. That can be done as simply as making sidewalks great gathering places. If they’re wide enough and there’s street furniture, that’s a gathering place. We have street parties in the summer where we block off the street to traffic, Feet on the Street. That’s a temporary but great gathering spot for everybody in the Towson area.
Apartments are vertical communities. Some apartment buildings in Towson have big TV screening rooms, fire places, areas to do group cooking, watch football games, enjoy special presentations and classes. They’ve created local gathering spaces in the buildings. We also have plazas in Towson, and we’re looking at ways to maximize their use for downtown workers and residents. We’re looking at different ways of creating gathering spaces.
If you had some friends who were thinking of relocating to the Towson area in a few years, what would you tell them?
I would say definitely check it out. The trick is getting people to come and look at it, especially those who want more of an urban lifestyle. Start to see what’s here. Walk in a couple of these new developments. Places like Towson Promenade and the Palisades of Towson sell themselves. Towson sells itself.
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