Onward and westward

May 30, 2002

LOCATION IS the most significant feature about the University of Maryland, Baltimore's plan, announced last week, to build a biotech incubator.

After two decades of debate and hesitation, the campus for the first time would leapfrog to the west side of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Indeed, maps submitted to the Board of Regents show that over this decade the university intends to build offices and parking structures along a four-block stretch of Baltimore Street, all the way to Schroeder Street.

This is potentially a watershed event. Poppleton, Hollins Market, Union Square and Pigtown would finally be bridged to downtown, and that bridge could bring with it badly needed new investment to areas that have been combating commercial and residential abandonment for years.

UMB will conduct a design study over the next six months to nail down details of the incubator plan. The park would then be constructed in stages. The first building, depending on success in pre-leasing, could be ready in 2005. Its tenants could include startup firms as well as the university itself.

Two powerful forces are driving the biotech incubator idea. The obvious one is the university's desire to capitalize on commercialization of its research. Many other universities are hoping to do the same thing, including Johns Hopkins, which is planning a privately owned biotech park next to its East Baltimore medical campus.

In UMB's case, an equally compelling motive is its desire to secure options for long-term growth while inexpensive land is still available. That's what crossing Martin Luther King Boulevard is all about.

Over the past decade, some $1 billion has been spent to transform the downtown campus. By 2010, the university intends to lay out another $1 billion for 50 projects that involve renovation, new construction and infrastructure improvements.

Most of those projects are not in the core campus but in the adjoining west-side redevelopment area. But there the university increasingly finds itself competing for space with commercial bidders. That's why the land across MLK suddenly has become irresistible. Cleared by the city a decade ago, it's ripe for acquisition.

UMB's leap west is worth celebrating. Like the construction of Heritage Crossing townhouses and the makeover of the old Lexington Terrace public housing site along MLK, it is another significant move that strengthens the edge of Baltimore's reviving downtown.

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