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Port Covington developers look to create nationally known biotech hub in South Baltimore

As the first buildings at Port Covington begin to rise, the project’s developers have a vision for the mini-city sprouting on a South Baltimore peninsula as the nation’s next big biotech hub.

The waterfront neighborhood of apartments, offices, stores and parks now under construction could rival life sciences cores such as Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Mission Bay in San Francisco, members of the development team say.

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The Port Covington project previously had been pitched as “Cyber Town USA” by cybersecurity industry firms that had hoped to move in there. Then, progress on the multidecade, $5.5 billion project skidded to a temporary halt for safety reasons during the coronavirus pandemic.

But the project’s principals now say that cybersecurity represents just one of several industries they have long targeted, along with data sciences, life sciences and education technology.

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“We recognize the opportunity to aggregate and create these clusters like we’ve seen in other cities,” said Steven Siegel, a partner with Weller Development Co. “We’re trying to emulate what they did right. Very early on, we started talking about it and finding like-minded partners that felt the same way.”

Boston/Cambridge currently ranks as the nation’s top life sciences cluster, closely followed by the San Francisco Bay area and San Diego, according to a 2020 year-end report on life sciences by Newmark, a global real estate advisory firm. Potential tenants in Cambridge have to wait two years for available space, the report estimated.

The review ranked Maryland seventh, behind the Raleigh/Durham area in North Carolina, Seattle and Philadelphia in life science clusters.

But Port Covington owners believe the redevelopment of the fallow former industrial land can help the state move up in the rankings. They say the state and Baltimore region have a ready-made pipeline to draw and develop businesses, including a highly educated work force, top educational institutions and government spending to support growth.

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The area has in many cases lower office rents and housing prices than other key life sciences cities. And Port Covington boasts a waterfront location with access to and visibility from Interstate 95.

Though the pandemic and new work-from-home policies have created uncertainty for the office market, demand in the life sciences sector remains strong, the Newmark report said.

“Life science tenants have managed to circumvent work from home disruption impacting other office users, and are less able to conduct vital research and development from home,” the report said.

Port Covington is making headway in turning the vision of a life science cluster into reality, said Marc Weller, founding partner of Weller Development, the lead developer, backed by Sagamore Ventures, owned by Under Armour founder Kevin Plank, and Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group.

The developers said they are collaborating with Alexandria Real Estate, a real estate investment trust and the nation’s largest owner of life science real estate.

Alexandria has 2.8 million square feet under construction, a concentration of projects in San Francisco, San Diego, Raleigh and in Maryland along the Interstate 270 corridor. A company spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment, but the company’s website says it believes its tenants are most successful amid life science and technology ecosystems and near top academic institutions, scientific talent and sophisticated investment capital.

“You can’t just throw a huge net as wide as possible and hope that you bring in businesses. You really need to attract that core ecosystem that’s here,” Weller said.

Plank originally amassed the land for the Port Covington project in 2013 and 2014, spending more than $100 million through his personal Sagamore Ventures investment vehicle to acquire about 200 mostly vacant acres on the peninsula where the former Under Armour CEO planned to establish a headquarters campus for the athletic apparel brand. (The purchases included The Baltimore Sun’s printing plant, for which the news organization has a long-term lease.)

Under Armour acquired its 50 acres from Plank in 2016 for $70.3 million, and in April announced plans to build a scaled-down headquarters by 2025, a move that prompted some city officials to suggest the overall scope and scale of the entire Port Covington project should be reviewed.

Construction got underway in March for Port Covington’s first phase that will include more than 1 million square feet of offices, apartments, shops and parking, plus parks. The long-term development, one of the largest urban revitalization project in the country, is planned for up to 18 million square feet eventually and is supported by $660 million in bonds the city approved for the new community’s infrastructure needs.

Alexandria plans a six-story, 170,000-square foot building designed for lab, office or manufacturing use in a later phase of the development. It is marketing the building to firms in industries that are thriving in Maryland, such as cell therapy, vaccines, therapeutics and manufacturing, said Pete Briskman, executive director and colead for the mid-Atlantic Life Sciences Practice for JLL, which is working with Alexandria on leasing.

Though no timeline has been announced, he said construction will begin after an upcoming pre-leasing stage reaches a certain threshold.

“We are experiencing strong activity from companies that are local, within the region, as well as national,” Briskman said. “We have very strong momentum.”

He said Port Covington should complement existing bioparks in the city, including UM BioPark, the biomedical research park adjacent to the campus of the University of Maryland Medical Center on downtown’s west side, and Science + Technology Park at Johns Hopkins, which anchors an 88-acre mixed-use redevelopment next to the Johns Hopkins University medical campus and hospital in East Baltimore.

The UM complex, which includes two-multitenant buildings, the state’s Forensic Medical Center and a redeveloped historic office building, is planned to span 14 acres with nearly 2 million square feet of lab and office space in 12 buildings at final build out. The Science + Technology Park, which opened in 2006, has more than 40 life science companies and research institutions that partner with Hopkins in commercializing scientific discoveries.

“We believe there’s enough room in this life science space for everyone,” Briskman said. “We’re uniquely positioned at Port Covington to grow. We have scalability for a very large cluster.

“And we’re pursuing a broader audience that is not only focused on partnerships with universities, like our colleagues, but also capturing the momentum of where Maryland is excelling in specific industries within the life science industry.”

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The Science & Tech park in the renamed, redeveloped neighborhood of Eager Park is thriving, with full occupancy in two life sciences buildings, on Ashland and on North Wolfe Street, said Cheryl Y. Washington, president and CEO of East Baltimore Development Inc., or EBDI, a partner in the redevelopment.

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She said several companies have raised record amounts of funds enabling them to move into larger space. And the biopark has a strong pipeline of companies that got their start at Hopkins and want to stay near the university.

“The concern is that they will leave EBDI or the city or state if we don’t have the real estate infrastructure,” Washington said. “We definitely have the talent.”

The supply of real estate for life sciences companies in the city is constrained, she said, with a 1% vacancy rate for life sciences real estate. Plans are in the works to build another life sciences building there.

Regardless of the location, economic development in the city is good for residents, neighborhoods and the city as a whole, she said.

“It’s great to see more lab space built for the growing ecosystem in the city, whether in Eager Park, Port Covington or at UMB BioPark,” she said. “One development alone is not going to solve the real estate supply issues.”

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