Bold plans for Hopkins medical park, neighborhood

East Baltimore overhaul aims to revive campus life

May 05, 2002|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

When Harvard seeks to recruit talented doctors to its medical school and hospitals, it can take them on a leisurely walking tour past Fenway Park, a world-class art museum and rows of attractive brownstones and condos.

At the University of California at San Francisco, doctors can show off nearby Golden Gate Park and attractive streets lined with coffee shops, restaurants and gingerbread homes.

But at the Johns Hopkins schools of medicine and public health, recruits are typically whisked past the immediate neighborhood to more inviting areas beyond.

"We take them to Homeland, the areas around the Hopkins main campus, to Towson, Cockeysville and maybe Columbia," said Dr. William S. Agnew, chief of the physiology department. "We probably don't drive down Madison Street past the prison unnecessarily."

At the heart of bold plans to redevelop not only the medical complex but also the neighborhood to its north is the deep belief that the area is dangerous and depressing -- an impediment to luring the best minds to the East Baltimore campus and keeping them there.

Although Hopkins has long boasted a hospital and schools of medicine and public health that rank in the nation's elite, its leaders say their status may be threatened if something isn't done to improve their physical surroundings.

Not only does the area lack such basic amenities as restaurants and delicatessens, but it also does not allow students and faculty to feel secure while walking. Lying just beyond the campus are blocks of decaying housing and some of the city's most notorious drug markets.

Although some of the nation's top medical students enroll at Hopkins, those who are accepted but go elsewhere rank the school's environs as a principal reason.

"We see it as a problem that people can go to other academic health centers that have areas that are acceptable," said Dr. Edward D. Miller, dean and chief executive of the medical school and hospital. "If this area continues to go downhill and downhill, people will refuse to drive into it."

Yesterday, Hopkins unveiled a $1 billion plan to redevelop its medical campus. The ambitious undertaking will include the construction of several clinical and research buildings and the razing of aging structures to make way for green space.

Hopkins has also been a key player in the city's plan to transform the disintegrated neighborhood north of the medical complex into a biotech park that would create 8,000 jobs. And though the park would be developed by private builders and leased mostly to private companies, Hopkins has promised to lease up to $1 million worth of space annually for 10 years.

While the biotech park would encompass about six square blocks, the city also envisions renovating or replacing hundreds of housing units in a broader area around the medical complex. Hopkins has committed to helping compensate displaced homeowners so they can buy new homes in the revitalized neighborhood.

With these plans, Hopkins hopes to overcome a reputation that it has been a distant -- and patronizing -- neighbor on the hill, quick to expand its plant and fend off crime but reluctant to improve the larger community.

`More of a struggle'

Underlying its plans, however, is the belief that Hopkins cannot hope to compete with its peers in elite academic medicine -- Harvard, Columbia, UCSF, Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, among others -- if it can't offer more appealing places to walk, dine or simply lounge in peace.

"It is definitely a factor in the recruitment of the best graduate students," Agnew said. "We do get good graduate students, but it's more of a struggle. It's a somewhat intimidating environment for people coming from more pastoral academic settings."

Agnew said that when he first came to Hopkins in the early 1990s after leaving a position at Yale, he tried to recruit a faculty member who took a look around, got scared and returned home.

He also recalled a Nigerian medical student who had attended school in Virginia before coming to Hopkins. The student went into a clinical depression after living nearby in a rented building that was quickly burglarized. He fared better when the faculty helped move him to a safer building in Charles Village.

Dr. Robert S. Lawrence, associate dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, filled leadership roles at a Harvard teaching hospital and at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York before coming to Baltimore in the mid-1990s.

"All things being equal, would I prefer to live in an environment like most of Boston vs. most of Baltimore? The answer is probably yes," Lawrence said.

Despite that, Lawrence said, he and his wife enjoy Baltimore's manageable size, its pleasant residential neighborhoods, and its cultural institutions such as the symphony.

`Like another world'

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