A steel beam was hoisted yesterday atop the first life sciences building at the East Baltimore biotech park -- marking the halfway point in the structure's completion and providing officials with the opportunity to publicly promote progress in a project designed to transform a once-decayed swath with research facilities and hundreds of units of new housing.
"This is a grand milestone for a grand project," said Dr. Edward D. Miller, CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine, one of several private and public officials to speak before the ceremonial "topping out" of the building.
When the John G. Rangos Sr. Building, named for a Hopkins donor, opens at The Science + Technology Park at Johns Hopkins a year from now north of the school's medical complex, researchers from Hopkins' Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences will occupy about a third of the seven-story, 270,000-square-foot building.
In addition, an "important national tenant" has been secured for the building, said Gayle Farris, president of the science and technology group of developer Forest City Enterprises.
Farris, whose publicly traded company is teaming up with a group of local developers, declined to identify the tenant but said, "They'll come in when the building opens."
Just before a giant crane lifted the beam, the intermittent rain stopped. But the weather was not the only damper on the festivities, which included speeches delivered under a tent, a jazz band and two flat-screen monitors showing videos of the construction work.
Before the event, held on a corner of a 30-acre parcel where blocks of mostly vacant houses were acquired and demolished, the Save Middle East Community Action Committee issued a statement saying it was boycotting the ceremony because the life sciences building symbolized the "death of our way of life" in the neighborhood.
In separate interviews, Nathan Sooy, executive director of the group, and Donald Gresham, the organization's president, said they were concerned that most of the affordable housing planned for the project was rental housing and that the new houses offered to relocated residents were too pricey to maintain.
They said they were offended that more attention was being paid to the life sciences building than to housing for residents who were displaced by the project's first phase or might lose their homes in the second phase.
"It should have been the houses that go up first, before they start celebrating a biotech park," said Gresham, whose rowhouse is on a block scheduled for demolition in the second stage.
But Jack Shannon, president and CEO of East Baltimore Development Inc., a nonprofit group overseeing the $1 billion east-side revitalization effort, noted that a 74-unit senior apartment complex and a 78-unit work force complex, scheduled to open in August and November, respectively, would be online before the life sciences building.
About 200 rowhouses are expected to be completed about the same time the first life sciences building is done, Shannon said. He added that the group hoped to raise enough money to allow current and former homeowners to afford taxes on houses up to $250,000.
"We believe we've honored our commitments," Shannon said.
Not everyone honored the boycott.
Nia Redmond, a community representative on the East Baltimore Development board, acknowledged the disruptions as she looked out over an expanse of cleared houses.
"This is a sacrifice to progress," she said.
And Mack Jackson, a 50-year resident of the area, came by "because I'm happy about what they're doing."
In speeches and printed information distributed at the event, officials noted that more than 35 percent of the contracts for the project went to businesses owned by women and minorities, and more than 40 percent of the workers on the project were city residents.
They said 501 buildings were razed, 185 vacant lots cleared and 396 households relocated to make way for the project.
The Rangos life sciences buildings is the first of five life sciences buildings planned as part of the project.