Baltimore County And Towson Are Finally Pointing In The Right Direction

Bisnow Baltimore  |  Matthew Rothstein

A year ago, Mid-Atlantic Properties President Wayne Gioioso lamented the slow progress of Towson. Now, he has changed his tune.

“After several years of turnover, you’re now starting to see the people who care about Towson and have a vision for Towson [developing],” Gioioso said. “So now people are thinking, ‘Oh, Towson! I better give that a look.’”

Multiple major developments have broken ground in the past year, including Retail Properties of America’s Circle East and Greenberg Gibbons Commercial’s Towson Row. Both are mixed-use properties with significant retail and multifamily components, with the latter containing student housing, office and a hotel as well. Both projects had long, winding histories before shovels ever hit the ground, but Gioioso said that the interest they are already generating is palpable.

While Towson’s status as the seat of Baltimore County and the home of its largest student population gives it top billing in most discussions of the county, it is not the only submarket that is seeing transformative change through mixed-use development. Gioioso, Greenberg Gibbons CEO Brian Gibbons and St. John Properties Senior Vice President Rick Williamson will all be discussing the area’s progress at Bisnow’s Baltimore County Growth and Development Summit at the Sheraton Baltimore North on Sept. 18.

A rendering of the amenity hub for residents of Greenleigh at Crossroads, St. John Properties’ mega-development in Baltimore County

Williamson agrees with Gioioso that for too long, Towson was largely owned by a disjointed group of intermittently interested landlords and developers, but SJP responded in a different way by attempting to build a vast mixed-use community from scratch under one vision. That complex, Greenleigh at Crossroads, has been under construction in phases since 2006 but is still years away from completing what Williamson estimates will be 6.7M SF of development at full build-out.

SJP and its partner in the development, Somerset Construction, own 1,000 acres east of White Marsh and are developing Greenleigh on 500 of those acres. It has already delivered buildings from all the major food groups of commercial real estate: two multifamily buildings, office space, retail, a SpringHill Suites by Marriott hotel and light industrial products.

Williamson said SJP broke ground on a five-story, 100K SF self-storage building in Greenleigh, the first of its kind within the complex, Aug. 28. SJP’s ambition and success with the project helped it score an award from NAIOP as Developer of the Year in June.

Greenleigh is going to be walkable, kind of like an urban environment,” Williamson said. “And we haven’t really seen that in Baltimore County, to be able to walk to all these things without needing a car.”

Williamson acknowledged that the center of Towson already has a walkable feel, and Gioioso was quick to point out that 58 restaurants exist within a three-block radius of MAP’s office in the center of town. But Williamson noted that parking in the densest parts of Towson can be a challenge, as opposed to Greenleigh’s ample parking for residential, office and retail tenants.

Besides Greenleigh and Towson, towns like White Marsh and Owings Mills have found success with mixed-use town centers on a smaller scale, according to Gioioso. Like much of the United States, most suburban development of any size almost has to contain multiple uses so that each can feed the other.

“That’s primarily what we’ve done is retail in mixed-use projects, and it’s become more prevalent,” Gibbons said. “I don’t know if [a suburban development] has to be a mixed-use project, but that’s certainly more likely.”

The larger a mixed-use node can be, the more it can approximate an urban environment, which has been the key to recruiting the younger professional class to suburban apartment buildings and offices for years now. Either an area can have a certain scale organically like Towson, or it can dream big like SJP with Greenleigh, but the results have been speaking for themselves in Baltimore County recently.

SJP has been building office projects speculatively in Greenleigh, and scored a huge victory in justifying that ambition earlier this year when it leased 77K SF to Stanley Black and Decker, which is expanding beyond its Towson home. That success has precipitated the construction of another 100K SF office building, also on spec.

Stanley Black and Decker appreciated Greenleigh for its mix of uses, especially the nearby flex industrial buildings. It will be paying rents on par with Towson and higher than SJP could charge in the center of White Marsh, Owings Mills or Hunt Valley, Williamson said.

“[Stanley Black and Decker] is not the only company that likes the mix of uses, because Towson pretty much only has multi-story office buildings,” Williamson said.

According to Gioioso, however, Towson’s in-progress developments could carry it past Greenleigh in value, turning the area “from kindling into a bonfire.”

“I wouldn’t say Towson is in its infancy, but I really think it’s about to take off,” Gioioso said. “You’ll start seeing rent growth on a level that hasn’t been seen in 25 years. I’m already seeing that in my portfolio, but I think others will too.”

Optimism isn’t exactly in short supply in the public comments of commercial real estate professionals, but there has been a striking turnaround in the attitude of developers in the county, particularly Towson, toward local and county government.

A year after Bisnow’s Baltimore County event became an airing of grievances against Towson’s policies and local NIMBY population, Gibbons, Gioioso and Williamson had uniformly positive views of the direction of Baltimore County.

“I think Baltimore County is on a good path; I’m not sure I’d want anything to change. I think the county has provided proper incentives for redevelopment,” Gibbons said.

“Baltimore County is a great place to do business,” Williamson said. “They understand how difficult it is to develop.”

“There have been some real positive changes, particularly in Towson, with zoning and the way development can move forward,” Gioioso said. “So I think the ground is fertile now from that standpoint.”

Come see Gioioso, Williamson and Gibbons discuss Towson and other nearby submarkets at Bisnow’s Baltimore County Growth and Development Summit at the Sheraton Baltimore North on Sept. 18.