High stakes on the east side

April 18, 2006

At Ashland Avenue and Wolfe Street yesterday morning, an important milestone for East Baltimore was observed: the groundbreaking for the first life science building in the Science and Technology Park at Johns Hopkins, often referred to as the east-side biotech park.

The ceremony was held four years after the city's formal announcement of the sweeping plan to tear down and remake the blighted communities occupying 80 acres around the Johns Hopkins medical complex - using that research powerhouse to lure new labs and offices for cutting-edge biomedical enterprises and, ultimately, community development.

This is an ambitious, expensive, high-stakes plan, a recipe for an entirely new East Baltimore. It will take a long time to bear fruit - but, in tandem with the west-side University of Maryland biotech center already under way, it proposes to recast Baltimore's economic future around this city's considerable medical and research assets. So yesterday's ceremony was a welcome sign of progress toward a 21st-century vision of Baltimore.

Eventually, the east-side development will include five life science buildings, new housing and retail complexes, and several new parks. But considerable obstacles loom.

One is the high cost of relocating the area's residents, now estimated at $150,000 per homeowner; rare is the biotech initiative that has taken on that sort of responsibility.

Another is that only one tenant, Johns Hopkins, has committed so far to leasing space in the new life science building. And last is the heated national competition - among dozens of cities and regions - for pieces of the booming, but not yet profitable, biotech sector.

Maryland remains among the top states for biotech business, largely because of the federal research facilities and public firms in Montgomery County's Interstate 270 corridor. But more than 40 states are offering hundreds of millions of dollars to jump-start their biotech industries. In the last General Assembly session, state politicians took a big step forward by providing $15 million for stem cell research - state support for biotech that must be increased if such enterprises are to bloom in Baltimore.

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