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$1.8B biotech effort seeks a new direction after 10 years

The John G. Rangos Sr. building was completed in 2008.

The John G. Rangos Sr. building was completed in 2008.

Construction of the biotech park linked to the $1.8 billion redevelopment project north of the Johns Hopkins Hospital has stalled, with leaders of the plan looking for another economic anchor nearly 10 years into the venture.

Five high-tech lab buildings are on site maps for East Baltimore Development Inc., the nonprofit corporation overseeing the 88-acre renewal of the struggling community that used to be known as Middle East.

Since 2001, city development officials have said the biotech park would create 8,000 jobs and attract middle-income residents to the area. But just one lab building has opened. The builder, Forest City-New East Baltimore Partnership, as well as EBDI’s leaders, say there is not enough demand now for other lab buildings.

EBDI has placed no one in a biotech job there.

“Biotech is not as promising as it was 10 years ago,” said Christopher Shea, EBDI’s president and chief executive officer since December. With construction on hold, he said EBDI is reassessing the project.

“I think it would be unhealthy if we kept plowing ahead,” Shea said. “Let’s take a time out. Let’s revisit some of our assumptions. Is science working?”

Shea said he is now looking to the spending power that 30,000 Hopkins employees and visitors bring to the campus every day. “A huge market … a very important market,” he said.

Rather than more biotech space, Shea said his immediate priorities include a grocery store, coffee shop, restaurants, a health club and dry cleaner — “Those kinds of things that a large, tens of thousands of people in a business location would tend to want.”

The shift away from a biotech park, even in the short term, is a profound change for East Baltimore Development Inc. From the plan’s inception nearly a decade ago, the city tied the revival of the neighborhood to a research park that would build on the science and economic power of the Johns Hopkins medical campus.

The neighborhood, which once had been a stable, working-class community, was 80 percent abandoned when then-Mayor Martin O’Malley announced the project in January 2001.

Middle East, with its collapsing row houses, crime and poverty, deteriorated despite its location across the street from the affluent, world-renowned Johns Hopkins Hospital — a medical campus teeming daily with employees and visitors.

EBDI officials say the project — paid for with city and state funds as well as gifts from foundations — is the largest neighborhood renewal effort ever in Baltimore.

A grand dream

The biotech park and the jobs it produced were planned to help create a diverse community settled in the new housing that is rising there. The range of household incomes was meant to strengthen a neighborhood where 37 percent of residents made less than $10,000, according to the 2000 census.

“This will mean thousands of new, mixed-income homes,” O’Malley said in his State of the City speech in 2002. Nearly 3,000 of the 8,000 jobs created at the biotech park would “be available to high school — not college — graduates,” O’Malley said.

“And we will provide training, in East Baltimore, for neighbors who want to earn a better career and build a better life,” he added.

With high-tech buildings boasting sophisticated lab space — twice as expensive to build as office space — the biotech park was envisioned as a lure to private firms that wanted to set up shop near Johns Hopkins.

On Wednesday, Hopkins announced a new tenant in the completed 855 N. Wolfe St. building. The Lieber Institute for Brain Development, a neuroscience research institution focusing on the causes of schizophrenia, will locate its new research facility in the lab building, which already houses the Johns Hopkins’ Brain Science Institute.

EBDI, Johns Hopkins, the state and multiple groups interested in the area’s economic development, began wooing the Lieber Institute in 2007, when the organization was scouting other states and academic institutions for its location. Other considerations included the University of Pennsylvania, Yale University and Columbia University.

More construction at the biotech park is on hold. But O’Malley, now the governor, said he believes that biotech still makes sense for Hopkins and East Baltimore.

“Why would you want to move away from biotechnology,” he asked recently, “when you have a city that has cleared a huge amount of land for biotechnology life sciences next to a hospital research institution that’s ranked No. 1 in the world year after year?”

Science and retail are both important to the project, the governor said. But “it’s not like retail is knocking on the door in the middle of a recession either.”

Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, acknowledges that work on the biotech park has gone slowly, though he is confident it will be completed. “EBDI, that at one time may have been a 12-year plan, might be now a 15-to-20-year plan before it’s totally built and seeks its ultimate goals,” Fry said.

Different kinds of jobs

While biotech construction has lagged, EBDI has a job placement office to help residents find other work around the city. Cheryl Washington, EBDI’s director of community and human development, said EBDI has placed 1,964 people in jobs since 2004.

Of those, most were in construction, EBDI said. The others range from work at Burger King and McDonald’s to warehouses to security firms. Many workers, according to EBDI’s records, have lost those jobs over time.

Between November 2007 and February, EBDI placed 188 people in jobs that paid an average of $10.52 an hour.

Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, which has contributed to EBDI, said the biotech park was the best alternative for the renewal project when city leaders settled on it in 2000.

“Would it be a success if no job was created? No. But jobs have been created,” Embry said. “A job’s a job,” whether in biotechnology or construction.

“People are better off than they were before,” he added. “That’s a good thing.”

A 2009 study by the Jacob France Institute at the University of Baltimore, commissioned by EBDI, found 43 percent of people who live in the area haven’t completed high school, compared with 25 percent of all city residents. There is a “fundamental disconnect,” the report said, between local residents’ skills and the work anticipated at the biotech park.

Hopkins now is interested more in office space than in lab buildings, said Jack Ellinghaus, facilities manager for Forest City.

Helen Montag, director of corporate relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, said that Hopkins indeed needs room for offices. But that, she said, is not a shift from earlier plans. “I just think (biotechnology) can be defined broadly,” she said.

Shea said the biotech park is “still a really high priority.” But EBDI is “recalibrating” the renewal project, adding that this is normal for a multi-year development plan.

“The community, the city, Hopkins, EBDI and their leadership,” he said, “have become much more sophisticated than they were in the early days when they said ‘SCIENCE!’

“These things change over time. They are organic. They evolve,” Shea said. “And if you’re not able to cultivate that evolution, your project will fail.”

Daily Record Business writer Danielle Ulman contributed to this article

One comment

  1. This is some really interest stuff here. Too bad the
    residents impacted by “the promise” of this project either
    can’t read or don’t have access to this media.