New tower for Wilmer Institute

The Baltimore Sun

The Wilmer Eye Institute, considered one of the world's top eye research and clinical facilities, is expanding with a $100 million building across the street from its landmark location at Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore.

Construction will start today on a six-story research and clinical center that will allow the 83-year-old institute to boost research of macular degeneration and meet an aging population's growing demand for eye surgeries.

"In terms of our surgery, we are in a situation where basically we have to turn people away now," said Dr. Peter J. McDonnell, director of the Wilmer Eye Institute. "We are maxed out with our surgical facilities. We will be able to stop turning people away and be able to meet the demand."

The new structure on the west side of Broadway at Orleans Street - paid for entirely with private donations - is scheduled for completion in 2009. It will be built as Hopkins forges ahead with a $1.2 billion redevelopment project on its 80-acre campus to replace aging structures and half the inpatient beds.

The 200,000-square-foot building, approved by state regulators last month, will feature a multistory glass atrium that will reflect the image of the dome atop the institute's historic home across Broadway. On five floors, the institute plans to consolidate researchers now scattered among six buildings, giving them state-of-the-art laboratory space and promoting interaction among scientists in formal and informal settings.

"It will allow us to put people together working on similar eye diseases who should be next to each other sharing ideas," McDonnell said. "Now, they might be located a block apart in two different buildings."

Two of the five research floors will be devoted to studying macular degeneration, a leading cause of vision loss in the 55-and-older population.

The one-floor surgical center will replace the operating rooms at the existing dome building, which was built in the 1920s and has become inefficient for the many surgeries performed to treat conditions such as cataracts, glaucoma and retinal disease. Moving all the operating rooms to a single floor could increase efficiency by 50 percent, McDonnell said.

The institute performs more than 8,000 inpatient and outpatient eye surgeries a year, but as the population ages, demand is growing at a rate of 12 percent to 15 percent a year.

Wilmer counted patients from all 50 states and 73 foreign countries among its 180,000 patient visits last year. It also conducts $25 million worth of federal and other research with a full-time staff of 130, including 90 doctors, some of whom are researchers, and 40 lab scientists.

The new building was designed by a collaboration of Wilmot Sanz and Ayers Saint Gross. Various wings of the building will be named for major donors, including Robert H. Smith, the builder-developer of Crystal City in Arlington, Va., and his wife, Clarice Smith, an artist; oil and gas executive T. Boone Pickens; and a bequest from Maurice Bendann, a Baltimore art connoisseur who directed much of his estate to the institute, McDonnell said.

The new building will be among the newer additions to Hopkins' East Baltimore campus as the hospital replaces older structures. Hopkins is building two clinical towers at the corner of Wolfe and Orleans streets, one for cardiovascular and critical care services and one for a children's hospital. Site preparation began about a year ago, with completion scheduled for 2010, said Michael Iati, director of architecture and planning for Hopkins' hospitals. A new pediatric ambulatory building on Wolfe Street was dedicated last month.

Hopkins is a major player in a hospital construction boom in the region, especially among facilities built in the 1950s and 1960s. A $200 million outpatient building is under way at University of Maryland Medical Center, and Sinai Hospital is planning a $30 million expansion of its Children's Hospital.

Franklin Square Hospital Center in White Marsh has state approval to build a patient tower to add beds and expand the emergency room. Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis has approval to increase its beds, the size of the emergency room and the number of operating rooms. Baltimore Washington Medical Center in Glen Burnie has approval to add beds and obstetric service as well as to enlarge the emergency department. Howard County General Hospital in Columbia is increasing the number of its private patient rooms; and Hopkins' Bayview Medical Center is adding operating rooms.

In addition to projects approved, state health care regulators are reviewing a $292 million, 18-story patient tower for Mercy Medical Center in downtown Baltimore, and a $160 million expansion and renovation at St. Agnes Hospital in Southwest Baltimore.

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