UM BioPark takes root in West Baltimore

Buildings surround venerable neighborhoods

  • James L. Hughes, vice president and chief enterprise and economic development officer, Office of Research and Development, University of Maryland, stands on a balcony overlooking the University of Maryland Biopark and neighboring communities.
James L. Hughes, vice president and chief enterprise and economic… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
November 08, 2013|Jacques Kelly

It's hard to imagine the thriving neighborhood shopping district that once extended along West Baltimore Street on the western fringe of downtown Baltimore. The 19th-century buildings ended their existence here as secondhand shops, offering items like dented washing machines.

In the past nine years, the University of Maryland BioPark has taken the place of those tattered retailers. The transformation offers some lessons in the way cities handle change.

The biopark may be geographically separate from what we think of as the University of Maryland's main downtown campus, with its hospital, medical, dentistry, pharmacy, social work and law schools. But it is now a part of it. If you look at a map, the main campus looks like the head of a key, and the westward-facing biopark offshoot resembles the shank of the key.

Surrounding the biopark — a friend likened it to a jigsaw puzzle — are several venerable Baltimore neighborhoods. The blending of rowhouses and science labs seems to be working well, just as this part of Baltimore once accommodated rowhouses and sprawling industrial campuses, such as the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's Mount Clare shops and the Bartlett, Hayward iron foundry.

I met with James L. Hughes, president of the biopark and a University of Maryland vice president, who explained what's happened in the last nine years. The city of Baltimore offered the university 4 acres of vacant land just west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. While this property afforded the university the chance for expansion westward in the Poppleton and Hollins Market neighborhoods, it was centered along a moribund business street.

He also brought up some of the retail buildings, which he said looked as if their merchants had locked the doors one night and never returned. "There were tabletops with merchandise from the 1960s covered in inches of dust," he said.

We stood on a roof terrace of the building at 801 W. Baltimore St. In the distance was the Montgomery Park (formerly Montgomery Ward), the B&O Railroad Museum, and the old St. Peter the Apostle Church — recently purchased by Carter Memorial Church — and what seemed like a sea of asphalt rowhouse roofs.

On the floors below, students enrolled at Baltimore City Community College take courses at the Life-Sciences Institute. They are learning skills in biotechnology and various premedical fields. Another floor holds the Institute for Genome Sciences. Within the surrounding blocks are medical firms such as eNeura Therapeutics, which produces a device to treat migraines.

When a business rents an office or lab here, a kind of tax, at 25 cents a square foot, goes into a community project fund. Beneficiaries of the fund have been public schools in neighborhoods adjacent to the biopark.

Once the impetus for change took root, brick research buildings began to rise — and luckily were completed before the economic downtown of 2008. After a hiatus of several years, construction has started up again. The new Maryland Proton Treatment Center has gone up, although it will not open until 2015 because of the time it takes for its technology to be installed. University officials hope that an extended-stay hotel will rise next to the proton center to accommodate cancer patients and their families.

What could be the biopark's landmark is hardly recognizable as the state morgue. At Baltimore and Poppleton streets stands the Maryland Forensic Medical Center. Its generic architecture calls no attention to the medical work that happens there.

The park employs 600 people, 400 of whom work for private firms; the rest work for the state. There are also 700 students on the site.

"It's a nice mix of jobs, lab techs, doctorates, medical doctors and master's in business administration," Hughes said.

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