Planned Hopkins biotech park draws guarded response from community


To many attending last week's meeting on plans for a biotech park north of the Johns Hopkins medical campus, what was most striking was the residents' reaction.

The mostly measured response - an apparent indication that serious action is needed if the decayed area is to be revitalized - has given rise to cautious hope that the city's preliminary plan could gain broad community acceptance.

"People didn't go away angry, they went away talking," state Del. Hattie N. Harrison, a Baltimore Democrat and a supporter of the project, said after a two-hour meeting at an East Baltimore elementary school.

The Rev. Reginald M. Clark, an organizer with the Save Middle East Action Committee, reached much the same conclusion.

"Most people agree that something needs to be done," said Clark, pastor of the Greater New St. John Baptist Church.

"I did not hear anything that would make me be in opposition," he added. "It piqued my interest. I'd like to hear more."

The tentative plan calls for 1 million square feet of office and laboratory space to be spread among several buildings for biotech firms that would be attracted by research done by Hopkins faculty. It also calls for up to 1,000 units of new housing in a blighted 50-acre area pockmarked by vacant lots and boarded buildings.

When completed in 7 to 10 years, the park, which would be developed and managed by a nonprofit corporation but would have close ties to Hopkins, could create up to 4,000 jobs.

Many details are yet to be worked out, among them the exact configuration of the buildings and the number of homeowners and renters who would be displaced by the project and how those people would be relocated.

Not everyone greeted the proposal with equanimity. In fact, city officials and their consultants had to scrap their idea to have a short general meeting and then break into smaller groups to allay the suspicion of many in the audience that the strategy being pursued was one of divide-and-conquer.

On several occasions, presentations were interrupted by shouted barbs.

"We've given up enough land to Hopkins," one woman screamed, an obvious reference to the medical complex's history of expansion in East Baltimore.

A number of people asked pointed questions. "How is it benefiting the neighborhood?" asked Shrene Burnett, who owns a home a few blocks north of the medical complex. "Who would this housing be for?"

Others, clearly supporting the project, had questions, too. Robert Harrison, head of the Oliver Economic Development Corp. and the son of Hattie Harrison, was among the most blunt. "Our east side is a mess. What are we going to do about it?" he asked.

A computer analysis of properties in the area shows that about two-thirds of them are valued at $12,000 or less; owner-occupied homes, which account for about one in five properties, are typically valued at around $20,000 or less.

Helen Montag, a special assistant for corporate affairs for the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, acknowledged that some of the negative reaction was not so much about the biotech park as about past transgressions, real and imagined, attributed to Hopkins.

"Given the history, I thought [the meeting] was pretty encouraging," Montag said.

The biotech park could benefit Hopkins in several ways, Montag said after the meeting. It would improve the neighborhood; offer faculty members an opportunity to become involved in companies within walking distance; and perhaps provide lab space that Hopkins researchers could rent, she said.

At the meeting, officials emphasized how the community could also benefit. About a third of the jobs to be generated would not require a college degree, they said.

They also stressed the tentative nature of the plan and the community's opportunity to have a say in its development.

Paul C. Brophy, a consultant to the project, presented three possible configurations for the biotech park but said they could change based on the height of the buildings and "what would be better for the neighborhood."

A series of meetings between the consultants and small groups will be held next month, followed by a community-wide meeting in July, said Laurie Schwartz, deputy mayor for economic and community development.

Schwartz - who pointed out that the city would like to introduce legislation to the City Council in the fall specifying which properties need to be acquired to get the biotech park started - said last week's meeting reinforced her belief that no one in the Middle East community is "defending the status quo."

That includes Clark of the Save Middle East Action Committee, who complained that the community was shut out of early discussions but said he is hopeful that "the view of the people will be heard." In recent weeks, Clark said, several residents questioned him about his committee. "Why do you call it Save Middle East? Why do you want to save it?" he recalled being asked.

"We're not trying to save the deterioration" was, and is, Clark's answer. "We're trying to preserve what's worth preserving, with the recognition that things can't go on like they are."

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