NIH paying $1.3 million monthly for unused lab

Vibrations still an issue at new Baltimore facility

Sun follow-up

December 02, 2007|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- The federal government has begun paying millions of dollars in rent for a new medical laboratory facility in Southeast Baltimore, but federal scientists, who were supposed to relocate there a year ago, are still months away from moving in.

The National Institutes of Health expects it will take three more months to determine whether vibration problems with the building have been fixed and whether all scientists who were supposed to transfer there will be able to. The Sun reported last year that the agency and many researchers feared the vibrations would skew results of sensitive microscopes and other lab equipment.

The $250 million building, called the Biomedical Research Center, is on the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center campus. The building has been promoted as a state-of-the-art facility for research programs on aging and drug abuse, and is a cornerstone for redevelopment in the Southeast Baltimore neighborhood. Last month, NIH began paying more than $1.3 million a month in rent and upkeep.

The NIH said a recent study showed that the level of building vibration was well within industry standards. But experts say some government scientists use instruments that require far more exacting levels than called for by those standards.

In recent statements, the NIH said the building was almost finished and office staff should begin to move in by the middle of this month. The agency said "certain" researchers would have to wait for the conclusion of the vibration testing, to be conducted this month and in January, to see if they can move in.

"When the results are in, [officials] will start making decisions about when [their] scientists will begin moving in," the NIH said yesterday.

Mark P. Mattson, who leads a team of 60 researchers and support staff studying Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other diseases, said he was told his team would relocate in the late spring of next year. Mattson said the new lab must be checked for infectious agents that might harm the mice and rats used in experiments.

"There's a lot of things that have to fall in place," said Mattson, who said he was excited about moving because he helped design the lab space his team will use.

Although scientists haven't relocated, the NIH had to start paying $1.1 million in monthly rent Oct. 27 according to the terms of the 20-year lease, said Brian B. Dembeck, president of BRC Lease Co., a Hopkins-related corporation that owns the building. The NIH also began paying about $214,000 in monthly payments for operation and maintenance, Dembeck said.

The payments are on top of nearly $38 million the agency had spent to upgrade building security and make other improvements, according to lease documents obtained under a records request. The government may need to spend millions more if vibrations are severe enough to prohibit moving some equipment to the facility, and officials must instead renovate an old laboratory that the Biomedical Research Center was supposed to replace.

The new building has been a headache for the NIH since planning for it began almost a decade ago. The facility was built to replace the outdated Gerontology Research Center, also on the Bayview campus, and spur the neighborhood's development.

The NIH decided to lease the new building rather than pay for it outright, an arrangement that the General Services Administration, the federal government's contracting arm, normally opposes and that required special congressional approval. In addition, city fire inspectors objected to initial plans for chemical storage, said William F. Kirten, a vice president at Smith Management Construction Inc., which has been overseeing the construction. And the vibrations have prompted numerous studies.

NIH officials originally expected the building would open in the fall of 2006. Later, they moved the start date to early this year.

Although the building's completion is finally near, the project is mired in legal wrangling over who's responsible for the delays. In August, Skanska USA Building Inc., the builder, filed a lawsuit in Baltimore Circuit Court saying a shaky retaining wall and other problems have required repairs that pushed back the finish. Skanska blamed slow decision-making by Smith Construction Management Inc. and sought at least $17 million in damages.

In court papers, Smith Construction Management pointed fingers at NIH, asserting that the agency ultimately decided on all changes. BRC Lease Co., the Hopkins-related corporation that owns the building, said in court papers that NIH may be responsible. "BRC certainly doesn't think it has any liability," Dembeck said.

In court papers, the NIH denied any responsibility and said it would seek damages from Skanska for the delays.

Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article

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