Scientific groups leaving New York for College Park

June 23, 1991|By Patricia Meisol

New York City Mayor David N. Dinkins tried to woo them with a two-day conference. More than 40 other municipalities put on shows of their own. But only William E. Kirwan, president of the University of Maryland College Park, sped to a late-night meeting to nail down City Council approval of a tax-free state bond issue.

The prize: Some of the nation's most prestigious scientific organizations are leaving the Big Apple for the Big Campus.

The American Institute of Physics, an umbrella group of learned societies, and two other physics societies are expected to sign an agreement in the next few weeks to build a $20 million headquarters on land contiguous to the 1,350-acre College Park campus.

"It's quite a coup," Dr. Kirwan said. "We started late in the game, but when they came they liked what they saw."

It is the latest in a series of developments that could make Terrapin territory a mecca for internationally renowned scientists, as well as U.S. historians, sociologists and public policy experts in five to 10 years.

The physics societies, whose combined membership totals more than 120,000, will occupy a 100,000-square-foot office building south of campus and will call themselves the American Center for Physics.

On the north side, the National Archives is building a $205 million, state-of-the art project to house this century's historical papers and the entire record of the Department of State.

The two projects and a Metro station are expected to be complete by late 1993 or early 1994.

The Metro was critical to the physicists, whose members wanted easy access to the nation's capital, the heart of science policy and research funding. Money was less important in the decision to move.

"We didn't pick the cheapest area," said Kenneth W. Ford, executive director of the American Institute of Physics, whose 89,000 members include the top figures in American science. The institute also publishes the world's largest collection of international physics and astronomy journals, and runs education programs for elementary and secondary-school children in 40 states.

The school and a sister organization, the American Physical Society -- the premier physics group, now on East 45th Street in Manhattan -- will join with the American Association of Physics Teachers (already in College Park) in new research and education projects in their new joint headquarters. It will include AIP's library and archives of science history, but not its vast publishing empire, which will remain on Long Island.

Dr. Ford said the desire to be closer to Washington and a lack of office space in Manhattan, where AIP staff is split between two buildings, prompted the move. Besides the location, he said the societies were attracted by current and potential links with the College Park campus, including a strong history of science program, collaborative elementary and secondary school science programs, and statistics projects. Space for expansion also was critical, he said.

Competitors included Baltimore's Inner Harbor, Philadelphia, Chicago, Austin, Atlanta, Northern Virginia, North Carolina and New York City.

About 240 people will move to the site, a 24-acre piece of a 155-acre office park in College Park and Riverdale being developed by the Bethesda-based firm of Colton & Laskin, Dr. Ford said. Plans call for four more buildings, or a total of 500,000 square feet of office space, in the next two decades.

The wooing of the physicists began three years ago when a College Park professor and university lawyer, Brian P. Darmody, heard that the scientists had narrowed their search to six sites. He urged Dr. Kirwan to contact the New York group to get it to come to campus.

The General Assembly passed a law giving it tax-free status as an educational organization, and the state Department of Employment and Economic Development arranged for state-issued bonds whose low interest is intended to woo new industry.

The lone hang-up came two weeks ago. The College Park City Council found itself in a tie vote for what many assumed would be routine approval of the $41 million in state-financed bonds.

Dr. Kirwan caught the battle as he flipped television channels after a dinner party at his home. He jumped into his car and sped to City Hall minutes before the midnight deadline to approve the bonds. The vote was secured by his promise to work with the city on a Route 1 traffic study.

Besides state help with financing, the university offered the scientists the opportunity to serve as adjunct professors and researchers, a relationship AIP staff now has with Columbia University in New York.

For College Park, the move means important physicists who visit the societies will have easy access to campus.

"We are quite excited about it," said Derek Boyd, chairman of the physics department. He said the department already is serving as a "first check" on ideas and programs generated by the American Physical Society and expects to help test many others.

The 80-member College Park physics department is one of the five largest in the country and is ranked 19th in one recent national survey. It is working jointly with the American Association of Physics Teachers on a new way of teaching physics with computers that could wind up in many elementary school classrooms in the country.

Physics officials and academics said they expected other societies to move to the site. Among the national groups affiliated with AIP are those involved with geology, mathematics, engineering, nuclear and meteorological societies.

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