Biotech park to get under way

Developers break ground today on $120 million East Baltimore life science center


The plans have been laid, the residents relocated, the land cleared, and at long last - after a ceremonial groundbreaking event today - construction is set to begin on the first building in a new biotech park that supporters hope will transform East Baltimore and the city.

The new building, which developers expect to be completed by 2008, is a six-story, 282,000-square- foot, $120 million life science center bounded by Wolfe, Chapel and Madison streets and Ashland Avenue. It is part of the first phase of the renewal project, which is to extend over 31 acres and include five life science buildings as well as three parking garages, 900 units of housing, 40,000 square feet of retail space and several acres of new parks.

The Johns Hopkins University plans to lease one-third of the space in the new building and the developer, Forest City-New East Baltimore Partnership, hopes private companies will move into the remainder.

"This groundbreaking has been several years in the making and represents a significant milestone in terms of not only East Baltimore's continuing redevelopment, but for the city and the region's economic future as well," said Jack Shannon, president and chief executive of East Baltimore Development Inc., the nonprofit organization the city established to oversee the renewal project. Over the summer, developers will turn to construction of a low-income residential building for seniors and another apartment complex.

The coalition behind the effort envisions a post-industrial Baltimore, where disappearing manufacturing jobs are replaced with new biotechnology jobs. The project will be boosted, proponents say, by the proposed park's proximity to the region's top medical research institutions, an educated work force, and the city's location near Washington, Philadelphia and Boston.

The development of the entire 80-acre site will take 12 to 15 years to complete and cost $1.2 billion. Project partners are planning parks, transportation, offices and retail space, as well as school classrooms and about 2,000 units of mixed-income housing.

"Over time, obviously, we'll be creating a neighborhood where the housing will have a greater density to it compared to what existed before we began our work," Shannon said. The housing will include rowhouses, apartment buildings, condominiums and housing for students.

It has been a long journey just to reach the groundbreaking stage. Already, 394 households and 20 businesses have been relocated with assistance from EBDI. The development organization connected residents with family advocates and provided homeowners an average of $150,000 in financial benefits and renters close to $40,000.

Last year, the Annie E. Casey Foundation funded a survey by an independent evaluator to determine whether relocated families were satisfied with the moving process. A majority of respondents indicated they were better off in their new homes and neighborhoods and rated their overall relocation experience as good or excellent.

But not everyone is content about the process.

"Where's the long-term stability in it?" said Donald Gresham, chairman of the Save Middle East Action Committee. He's worried that because of the rising cost of real estate, former residents won't be able to afford their new housing once the assistance runs out. He also expressed concern that residents won't have access to the new jobs being created, that those who want to move back won't be able to and that the community's history will be lost.

"If the people are not benefiting from the change, what good is it?" he asked.

These concerns are legitimate, said Douglas Nelson, president of Annie E. Casey Foundation and a member of the EBDI board. However, his foundation has already contributed $10 million to help residents and expects to spend substantial amounts in the future to avoid the kind of problems Gresham foresees.

While homeowners who have moved may be paying more in property taxes, many live in more valuable homes that they own debt-free, he said.

Moreover, the plan is to offer former residents - in addition to replacement housing - access to jobs, financial education and career development opportunities. EBDI has already invested in training programs, such as the BioTechnical Institute of Maryland's Biostart program, which trains high school graduates in the life sciences.

Nelson also said he expects to see displaced families move back.

"This will be a failure from my point of view, and Casey's, if we can't keep this neighborhood affordable to many of the people who used to live there or to other low-income families that want to move in the future," he said.

Around the country, most viable urban-renewal developments haven't included low-income residents in their long-term plans. Nelson hopes the biotech park will provide a better blueprint, he said. "An urban renewal project that is friendly to low-income people and remains so when it's successful."

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.