Boston biotech parks show promise, pitfalls

Project: The city provides examples as Baltimore moves toward a similar endeavor north of the John Hopkins Hospital complex.

August 27, 2002|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

BOSTON -- On the still somewhat seamy lower edge of the gentrified South End, a pair of impressive red-brick biomedical research buildings stand across the street from a medical center on what was once a large parking lot.

Across the Charles River from Cambridge, workers produce a drug to treat a rare genetic disorder in a castle-like bio-manufacturing facility on the site of an old railroad yard.

And in the heart of a renowned academic and medical area just outside downtown, a 12-story research center is under construction for pharmaceutical giant Merck on land leased from a small college.

As Baltimore moves ahead with plans for a biotech park north of the Johns Hopkins' east-side medical complex, this city provides an example of the possibilities that biotech development in a major urban setting can provide.

But Boston's experience also suggests some of the potential pitfalls: expansion of facilities that often is slower than many had anticipated, and the relatively low number of jobs that are created.

After nearly a decade, for example, the South End development, called BioSquare, is only halfway through the first of its two planned phases of development. And the Charles River plant of Genzyme Corp., which is about a tenth the size of the proposed East Baltimore biotech park, runs with just 200 workers; Merck's Boston Research Center, which will be considerably larger than the Genzyme plant, is projected to employ 300 scientists and 150 support staff.

"It's not really labor-intensive," David L. Birch, president of Cognetics Inc., an economic research firm outside Boston, said of the biotech industry. "It doesn't take a whole lot of people to grow microbes. It takes a few very smart people, a few technicians and a lot of capital."

Baltimore officials say their project is expected to take seven to 10 years to complete. They say it could eventually encompass 2 million square feet, house 30 to 50 companies and employ 8,000. About a third of the jobs would be earmarked for those with high school degrees.

The City Council has scheduled tonight the first of a planned series of hearings on the project, which could require the condemnation of up to 3,300 properties for the biotech park and construction and renovation of housing in the area.

Although Boston is surrounded by more biotech activity than Baltimore, the two cities have much in common when it comes to regional drug research and development.

Both cities are part of nine metropolitan areas nationwide that can be considered biotechnology centers based on the amount of research and drug development, according to a Brookings Institution study released last month.

Both are overshadowed by biotech development elsewhere in the region -- Baltimore by Montgomery County's Interstate 270 corridor and Boston by Cambridge, which has the area's largest biotech companies and which next year will become home to the worldwide research headquarters of Swiss-based Novartis AG, a major drug developer and manufacturer.

A way to reinvigorate

And both cities envision biotechnology as a way to reinvigorate decayed areas and provide new job opportunities for residents.

In Boston, several hospitals and medical schools have recently built or are building new research facilities, including Massachusetts General Hospital, Children's Hospital and Harvard Medical School. The latter two are located in the Longwood Medical and Academic Area, a 210-acre cluster of colleges and hospitals south of Fenway Park where Merck is putting its research facility and where there is so much construction under way that the main concern of residents is traffic congestion.

Harvard University is also considering, among other options, creating a biomedical research park on land it has acquired over the years in the city's Allston section. Located across the river from the university's main Cambridge campus, the land is near Harvard's business school and the Genzyme plant.

The plant, which opened in the mid-1990s, makes a drug called Cerezyme, which is used to treat patients with a rare genetic disorder called Gaucher disease which can cause enlarged spleens. The company, founded here in 1981, chose the site because of the availability of land and proximity to the company's headquarters in Cambridge, according to Genzyme spokesman Bo Piela.

The 180,000-square-foot plant employs about 200 people in a sophisticated production process, he said, with "few that don't have a [college] degree."

Merck's endeavors

One of the newest research players is Merck, which broke ground in October on its 300,000-square-foot research center on land leased from Emmanuel College, a small liberal arts school. When it opens in 2004, the center will be the first for-profit research facility at Longwood, according to Richard M. Shea Jr., president of a created to address concerns common to institutions in the area, which include Brigham and Women's Hospital and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.