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Can Towson sustain more development? ‘Yes,’ say developer, business leaders and county executive

On Wednesday, less than one mile from Towson Gateway – the ground zero of development ire for some Towson residents – Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski, business leaders and a developer met with community members at an open cocktail reception sponsored by The Baltimore Sun Media Group at Kenilworth Mall.

With The Sun’s Managing Editor Sam Davis moderating, panel speakers took questions about Towson’s ability to sustain more development. The resounding consensus was: yes, yes it can.

More than 300 community members and some elected officials attended the free wine and food gathering, called “Reimagine Maryland,” the second of three scheduled redevelopment receptions hosted by The Baltimore Sun Media Group.

The first in May, held in Baltimore City, and the third planned for Oct. 15, to focus on Owings Mills in Baltimore County.

Opening comments at the Towson event by Baltimore Sun publisher, Trif Alatzas, noted that The Sun has been a “leader in the community.” He said the event was spearheaded by The Sun and supported by its participating partners.

On the panel were: County Executive Johnny Olszewski, event co-sponsors and speakers from the Greater Baltimore Medical Center (GBMC) HealthCare, Towson Chamber of Commerce, Maryland Environmental Services, Towson University, and developer, Greenberg-Gibbons.  Additional sponsors of the event included contractor, Whiting-Turner and Towson Row.

Questions focused mainly on development and its sustainability in Towson.

In response to questions posed by the Baltimore Sun editor regarding more congestion with continued redevelopment in the area, panelists addressed the hot topic with responses like “improved transit” and “walkability” – mentioned at least 16 times – which dominated much of the discussion surrounding congestion and other common public concerns.

“It’s all about walkability,” Brian Gibbons of Greenberg-Gibbons said. “Towson will become much more walkable”. “Towson is – using a real estate term – ‘urban/suburban.'”

Noting the nationwide rise in obesity, John B. Chessare, president and CEO of GBMC HealthCare said, “If there is anything we can do for Towson, it is to make it more walkable.”

Olszewski said, “There is strong push to make Towson more walkable.. I don’t think development and sustainability have to be at odds,” he said. “We can encourage development…”

In 2016, the controversial Towson Gateway project became a sticking point and central to the campaigns of some Baltimore County politicians who ran on the promise of an end to the so-called “pay-to-play” culture after 30 trees were cut down and a building razed – all paid for by the county – for a developer’s project located close to Wednesday’s Baltimore Sun event.

Protesters of the project, known as “Treegate,” opposed what appeared to be a symbiotic relationship between elected officials and developers, where Caves Valley Partners, developer of a Towson Gateway development project, contributed generously to Baltimore County politicians.

Leading up to the Towson Gateway project, the county held a similar event called “It’s Towson Time” in 2014.  Non-members were charged $95 to attend the cocktail hour in which Towson’s future development was discussed during the previous administration then-led by the late Kevin Kamanetz who died last year while running for governor.

During the 2018 election, Olszewski, a Democrat, along with primary and general election opponents from both parties, promised an end to “pay-to-play politics” in Baltimore County.  Olszewski promised transparency, should he win.

In 2018, he narrowly beat Sen. Jim Brochin during the primary election. Brochin also ran a strong “end to pay-to-play” campaign. He lost by 17 votes.

On Wednesday, Olszewski echoed his commitment to transparency, also stating, “(We) are not just listening, but are letting people know that their input matters.”

Since taking office in December, Olszewski has conducted numerous town halls, presenting Baltimore County’s grim state of financial affairs across the county. A deficit of $81 million – left behind by the Kamanetz administration – left a brand new Olszewski administration to face budget cuts, and the trimming of $91 million from Baltimore County Public Schools’ initial budget request.

In response to a question posed to Olszewski by a community member at Wednesday’s event, on how developers will contribute when surrounding schools are overcapacity and in need of repair, Olszewski cited millions in planning money that was made available for high schools that his administration found despite the budget shortfall.

He also cited an announcement he made earlier on Wednesday regarding matching $16 million in state funds for air conditioners for remaining county schools without them.

“There is no point to building when you cannot support schools,” a community member said to the sound of applause. Olszewski replied, “I couldn’t agree more,” while referencing what he has maintained is a longstanding issue where, he said, “the state is not keeping pace with the county. We can hope that the governor can release the ($127 million), approved by legislation earlier this year.”

Towson University president, Kim Schatzel, spoke of Towson as a “university town” and that development would serve the students and community.  Other panelists spoke of jobs created by development for new businesses.

Nancy Hafford, executive director of the Towson Chamber of Commerce, spoke of the good for the community and that consumers are coming to Towson for food and entertainment instead of leaving Towson to patronize elsewhere.

On a question surrounding the perception of development in Towson and how community members were previously impacted under previous administrations, Hubbard said. “We have more community meetings.  People talk about what people like and do not like.  One change is that we are one community with each other.  Everyone is at the same table. You have to be able to work together,” she said.

Brian Gibbons, whose company took over the five-acre mixed-use Towson Row project when original lead developer, Caves Valley Partners encountered difficulties, said. “Is Towson built-out? No, I do not think Towson is built-out by any means,” he said.

In response to concerns about congestion, amid existing and possible future development projects, Hafford admitted the difficulty development poses for Towson residents. “There are challenges,” she said. “But this is a damn great place to live.”

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