East-side biopark gets a big boost

A decade-long effort to create a biotechnology park at Johns Hopkins in East Baltimore received a boost Wednesday when a new brain research institute that will be led by several renowned scientists announced plans to establish its headquarters there.

Officials with the Lieber Institute for Brain Development announced their selection of the Hopkins-affiliated biopark over four other medical research institutions across the country that vied to become its permanent home. The institute, which is funded by an endowment of more than $100 million, is expected to employ up to 60 researchers focusing on schizophrenia, stem cells, neurobiology and other brain-related fields.

"This is a unique, world-class project," said Stephen A. Lieber, vice president of the Lieber Institute. "We are assembling a group of people who have an unparalleled level of knowledge of the development of the human brain, and we are going to concentrate their efforts on finding out why the brain develops in so many cases with mental disorders. And after we discover that, discover ways to cure them."

The new tenant at the biopark is a shot in the arm for East Baltimore Development Inc., the 88-acre mixed- use community that is under construction north of the Johns Hopkins medical campus and includes the biopark. The long-term project, which aims to reshape the area with science jobs, retail stores and housing, had been slowed by the recession.

In the poor economy, credit was hard to obtain for new biotechnology ventures and developers, and the development was set back at least two to three years, project officials said. Now they are starting to focus on other aspects of the project, such commercial development in addition to the several science-related buildings still planned.

The Lieber Institute, which currently exists only on paper, expects to be in operation in Baltimore by July. It has been likened to the Kennedy Krieger Institute in its potential scope and impact.

Leading the institute will be Dr. Daniel Weinberger, an expert in schizophrenia research and director of the National Institute of Mental Health's Genes, Cognition and Psychosis Program. Dr. Ron McKay, who leads a research program among the first to show that stem cells may provide new cell therapies for degenerative diseases, will join the institute as director of basic science.

Thomas M. Hyde, senior staff clinician at the National Institutes of Health, will be Lieber's acting director. Solomon Snyder, former director of the neuroscience department at the Johns Hopkins Medical School, will remain at Hopkins and become director of Lieber's drug development unit and a founding faculty member.

Lieber is the largest non-Hopkins-related tenant to be announced for the biopark, where redevelopment work began in 2001. Officials hailed Lieber's move as a coup for Hopkins and Baltimore. Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels called it "a recognition of the university's prowess in the research of mental disorders."

"We're exuberant about the fact that we can attract an institution like this," said Dr. Chi Dang, dean of research for the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. "To be able to get an institution of the size and importance of Lieber, especially in these economic times, really is an achievement."

Biotechnology is one of the riskiest industries in the market, with firms working for years on potential groundbreaking drugs that can cost millions of dollars to develop.

Maryland's biotechnology industry is largely clustered in Montgomery County, around Gaithersburg. But city and state officials have long believed that Baltimore could turn into a life sciences industry hub with the University of Maryland and Hopkins institutions at its core.

At the start of the decade, Baltimore had high hopes for developing the biotechnology industry inside the city limits. On the west side of downtown, the University of Maryland has built a biopark that has steadily filled up with research companies. The project cost $300 million, spans 8 acres and has more than 400 workers in its facilities.

East Baltimore Development planned a more ambitious $1.8 billion development. A key component has been attracting science companies and organizations to the Science + Technology Park at Johns Hopkins, a 31-acre development within the larger EBDI parcel. The master developer for the biopark is Forest City-New East Baltimore Partnership.

Scott Levitan, senior vice president and development director for Forest City, said Lieber's decision shows that the biopark can draw tenants not affiliated with Hopkins.

Lieber's decision is "a proof of concept, that companies will … see the advantage of being next to the John Hopkins Medical Institutions," he said. "It creates a critical mass of neuroscience research activity in East Baltimore."

The Lieber Institute, started by Stephen and Constance Lieber of New York, launched its search for a permanent home in 2007, but a lease was not signed until this week. The Lieber Institute also will be the home of Maltz Research Laboratories.

Lieber said the institute selected the East Baltimore site for a combination of reasons, including its proximity to the Hopkins and NIH campuses, its location along the East Coast, the quality of Hopkins faculty and its work in the field of mental health.

Several local organizations provided financial incentives to help Lieber establish a presence in East Baltimore, including the Abell Foundation, the Baltimore Development Corp. and the state.

Lieber has agreed to lease 30,000 square feet of space on the third floor of the two-year-old John G. Rangos Sr. Building at 855 N. Wolfe St., the first of five lab buildings planned for the park and the only one completed so far. According to Levitan, Lieber plans to move in by July 2011, but first the organization is leasing 5,000 square feet of temporary space in the building starting next month.

The recession has pushed the entire EBDI development back a few years, said Christopher Shea, EBDI's chief executive. In addition to the Lieber Institute, Shea said a $165 million building for the state health department and a graduate student housing tower are being designed. Other plans include retail establishments and possibly a hotel, he said.

"I think we still have 10 to 15 years ahead of us," Shea said of the EBDI project.

Matt Seward, vice president of Cassidy Turley, a commercial real estate firm that works with the University of Maryland BioPark and the Hopkins biopark, said the pace of signing new tenants at the Hopkins project slowed along with the economy, as new funding for biotech firms has been "very scarce."

Stephanie Hession, a real estate economist with the CoStar Group, said that research and development vacancies peaked in the second quarter of 2009 at 19.3 percent of the 5.7 million square feet available in Maryland. But the vacancy rate has been slashed nearly in half as the economy and the industry has improved in the last year, she said.