High-Tech Clusters

By Steve Wright

Are Science Developments In Harmony or Conflict with Smart Growth?


A high-tech software company wants to bring its company headquarters— and all the great-paying jobs and growth of the 21st century economy with it — to your town.

A research corridor already flush with good, clean jobs could expand to bring a top-flight Life Sciences Center and master-planned mixed use development into your area.

Unemployment is the highest in decades and a prolonged recession is taking away the factory and other traditional jobs of the 20th century.

Is it time to strike up the band and set off the fireworks in celebration of science-oriented employers coming to town with thousands of modern-era professional jobs?

Well, it all depends on who you ask. One person’s job generator may look like a smart growth dream while others see high-tech clusters as a not-so-green and sustainable sprawling nightmare.

In Maryland, Montgomery County officials touted the vote to approve the Great Seneca Science Corridor (GSSC) Master Plan as a way of creating a Life Sciences Center (LSC), anchored by a Johns Hopkins University (JHU) development and served by transit, housing and commercial uses.

But the plan for the county in the greater Washington, D.C. area had a coalition of neighborhood groups opposed to what they said will create development “the size of 4.4Pentagons on property that is only one and a half times as large,” according to its Scale-it-Back.com website.

Donna Baron, coordinator of the Gaithersburg-North Potomac-Rockville Coalition, said residents support science research, hospitals and affordable housing, but they cannot accept a plan that they say was “contrived to aid Johns Hopkins University’s real estate” holdings by allowing overdevelopment.

“The Gaithersburg West Master Plan is the poster child for a disaster master plan from many different perspectives,” Baron said of the master plan that was renamed the Greater Seneca Science Corridor plan shortly before the Montgomery County Council voted unanimously to approve it in May. “It’s a head shaker for anyone involved in land use planning. They made up a master plan to make it (bowing to Johns Hopkins’ desires) happen, but they had to jerry-rig the numbers and speak gibberish for over three years because none of it made any sense at all.”

“There was wide-spread opposition from not only the residents but the adjoining jurisdictions of Rockville and Gaithersburg and many of the civic, environmental, transit and smart growth organizations,” Baron said. “Some of the politicians are still touting the Science City as smart growth and transit-oriented even though the smart growth and transit organizations say it is none of the above and never will be.”

Baron said for years area residents have looked forward to having Johns Hopkins in the community, but soured on the huge scale of the plan, especially when “the community was not involved in any of the decision-making.”

“The roads are highly congested now and the area is full of residential subdivisions,” Baron continued. “The county is telling us we will be subjected to 20 to 30 years of commercial and infrastructure construction, and the end result will be an average speed of 9 miles an hour on roads that now have a speed limit of 45 mph.”

Royce Hanson, the Montgomery County Planning Board Chairman when that body reviewed the GSSC before forwarding it to the County Council, said the 2010 update of the Master Plan is a sustainable move away from sprawl.

“The 2010 Plan recommends transforming the LSC from today’s suburban research park (single purpose uses surrounded by surface parking) into a more dynamic mixed-use center served by transit and focused on fostering businesses and institutions involved in the life sciences. This county — and progressive jurisdictions around the country — have moved away from suburban office park development to more sustainable, transit-oriented, mixed-use development and the (GSSC) Master Plan strives to achieve this objective for the future of the county’s premier Life Sciences Center,” said Hanson, who retired from the Planning Board after it reviewed the plan.

Hanson said the plan provides opportunities for growth and expansion of existing enterprises as well as land to attract new businesses. He said the plan ensures the proper infrastructure and services are in place to support future development. It also creates an extensive and connected open space system.

“The county is already home to the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, and two significant research universities (Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland) have substantial presence in the Life Sciences Center,” said Hanson. “Proximity to regulatory agencies, research universities, and a highly educated workforce are keys to any growing technology cluster. Montgomery County is fortunate to have all three.”

Hanson said the GSSC creates new housing near jobs to help balance the jobs/housing ratio in the immediate area and promote the use of transit, walking and biking. He noted a rigorous staging plan that will not allow development to proceed until the transit is funded/under construction.

David Alpert, creator of GreaterGreaterWashington.org— a website devoted to improving the vitality of Washington, D.C. and the walkable cities and neighborhoods in the Washington metropolitan area, said the LSC site is too far from the existing rail transit for many people to realistically commute by Metro.

“There are many underutilized parcels around Metro stations in Montgomery County and even more in Prince George’s County, but Hopkins wanted to build on this site and Montgomery bent over backwards to accommodate that,” he observed.

Diane R. Schwartz Jones, assistant chief administrative officer for Montgomery County, said expanding a place for knowledge-based jobs is good stewardship for the future of Montgomery County. “These jobs allow for better paying employment opportunities in a job sector with recognized growth potential. The county is placing them where a major transit way is planned and in alive/work environment to reduce reliance upon our road networks,” she said.

The GSSC was adopted with a maximum density of 17.5 million square feet of commercial development. Schwartz Jones said the plan for the future of Life Sciences Center in Montgomery County is positive because it addresses environmental, transit, economic development and fiscal impacts.

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the greater Washington, D.C.-area watchdog Coalition for Smarter Growth, said Montgomery County could have done better.

“(The GSSC) exacerbates the jobs/housing imbalance in Montgomery County,” he said. “In the western part of the county, the need is for housing, but this creates more jobs there. Some of the best ways to resolve traffic problems is to increase the number of jobs in eastern section and increase the amount of housing in western corridor— and add transit-oriented development.”

Schwartz praised Montgomery County for undertaking a long master planning process, but he said he’s not convinced the transit way planned for the GSSC will work efficiently for commuters.

“The state highway administration is now proposing a $3.2 billion expansion of Interstate 270 — in a region where the transit agency is bankrupt — partly due to the magnitude of auto-dependent jobs they are proposing in the Science City,” he said.

On Pittsburgh’s Southside, the reviews are nothing but positive for the aggressive redevelopment plan that replaced an abandoned riverfront steel mill with high-tech jobs, corporate headquarters, retail, and housing, and replaced nearly 150,000 lost manufacturing jobs with close to 175,000 science-related jobs.

Because of the close proximity to University of Pittsburgh’s and Carnegie Mellon’s adjacent research centers, the once-blighted area took advantage of the universities’ needs for a science cluster that would house bioengineering, biotechnology and spin off companies related to the advancing research.

A majority of the new jobs in the science-cluster development, called South Side Works, are in these fields plus education and medically-related. South Side Works is located directly across the Monongahela River from downtown Pittsburgh’s thriving Technology Center, so the reborn neighborhood is a natural for high-tech expansion.

In the past decade, the development has attracted numerous biotech industries including the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Distribution Center and Sports Medicine Facility — home of renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. Freddie H. Fu — and The McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

The Institute serves as a single base of operations for the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s leading scientists and clinical faculty working to develop tissue engineering, cellular therapies, biosurgery and artificial and biohybrid organ devices.

It also is host to the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse, a biomedical incubator that supports life science startups — such as Cardiorobotics, Flexicath and BlueBelt Technologies — developing health care products, tools and diagnostics.

In order to make the neighborhood attractive to relocating talent for the high-tech industry expansion and new startups, the aggressive redevelopment plan capitalized on the existing infrastructure, and The South Side Local Development Company also revitalized a beautiful corridor of Victorian shop fronts from 50 percent vacancy rates to a renewed historic hotspot with upscale restaurants, bars, shops and more — with virtually no vacancies.

“The South Side LDC used historic preservation as the lever for the economic redevelopment of the area,” said Rick Belloli, the nonprofit’s executive director. “It is smart growth because it is capitalizing on and reusing the existing infrastructure of existing roads, sewers, housing stock, commercial building, etc.”

The South Side Works is a $500 million mixed-use development of new, properly-scaled buildings housing retail, residential, offices and a hotel plus green space, a town square and Pittsburgh Steelers practice field on 110 acres that used to house an LTV Steel plant on the Monongahela River.

“The site, at completion, will equal or exceed the number of jobs that the steel plant had before it closed down in the 1980s,” Belloli said of the 75-percent completed project. “The South Side Works has 3,800 jobs on site now and 75 percent of those are office jobs. The site has been recognized by EPA, Urban Land Institute and profiled as a success story in the New York Times and the Economist.”

In addition, The South Side Works has landed blue chip tenants such as regional headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the headquarters of American Eagle Outfitters and the headquarters of a large construction firm.

When a CEO moved his software development company from an isolated airport corridor location to the South Side Works, he told the New York Times that his creative workers would benefit from “an environment where people are excited about being at work and going out after work, further praising the reborn neighborhood for its “sense of vitality and beautiful surroundings, and everything’s within walking distance.”

Belloli said the success of the South Side Works, plus the neighboring Carson Street historic commercial strip, is the result of partnerships and very intense work with the residents of the area.

“When South Side LDC started its work, homes in the area were valued below the median price in the city of Pittsburgh. Now, the existing housing stock plus the new condos and townhouses are valued about 2.5 times the median in the city,” he said.

Belloli said part of the area’s success has been working to program new retail in the South Side Works that doesn’t steal customers from the Carson Street commercial corridor. Another factor has been an insistence on sticking to the area’s master plan and fighting to preserve park-land and riverfront access.

“There is a tremendously large retaining wall on the Monongahela River — left over from the steel works. The wall is probably 10 feet thick, 40 feet tall and 500 feet long, but we are going to carve through parts of it to provide access to the river,” Belloli said.

“We love having the Steelers’ practice field here and it is only 80 yards long because to get 100 yards, it would have taken away riverfront park space,” he said. “To get the Steelers, in Pittsburgh, to build a practice space shorter than the NFL field they play on: that’s a strong partnership and commitment to sustaining a neighborhood,” he said.

In greater Madison, Wis., medical recordkeeping software giant Epic Systems’ move to a 350-acre suburban campus from several locations in central Madison sparked a controversy.

The campus, on former farmland in suburban Verona, Wis., has been criticized by Brett Hulsey, a longtime supervisor in Dane County, in which both Madison and Verona are located, and an environmental expert with 30 years of experience including a position as environ-mental policy advisor to President Clinton.

“It’s sprawl on an Epic scale,” Hulsey told the Isthmus alternative weekly newspaper in 2002, when the suburban location was chosen.

“There’s no way you can do campus-style office buildings and pretend that you really care about the environment. I’m sorry. You can’t say you’re ‘green’ because you have a solar panel on your roof, when you’re sitting out in the middle of a cornfield,” Rob Kennedy, a transportation consultant and member of the Regional Plan Commission, told the Isthmus in the same article.

Verona Mayor John Hochkammer sees things differently.

“It keeps great jobs local, is environmentally friendly, and it can be served with mass transit,” said the mayor of the city of 10,000 people located 10 miles from the center of Madison. “Some people were upset that the company left Madison, but most people now understand that Verona is part of the larger Madison metropolitan area — and keeping companies in the Madison area and surrounding counties is good for everyone in the region.”

Some have criticized the more than $10 million in incentives Verona gave to Epic to lure the still-growing high-tech firm to town. Mayor Hochkammer disagrees.

“The city of Verona did not ‘give away’ anything. The city made completely legal use of Tax Increment Financing dollars, the only economic development ‘tool’ available to us,” he said. “Simply put, the city agreed to direct taxes generated by the Epic development to pay-down the debt for utility and street improvements that were needed by Epic, as well as an underground structured parking facility to eliminate a huge surface parking lot.”

“This arrangement was agreed to by all jurisdictions that receive taxes — the schools, the county, the state, the city,” Hochkammer explained. “Epic pays full taxes— they get no ‘break’ — but those taxes go to pay off the ‘up-front’ costs until they are paid in full (in) about 12 to 15 years. After that, Epic continues to pay full taxes.”

Mark A. Olinger, director of Madison’s Department of Planning & Community & Economic Development, said the city tried to retain Epic by offering large urban sites at an industrial park, a plot adjacent to the regional airport and a downtown office tower left vacant when a large utility company relocated to a suburban office park.

He said Epic’s founder wanted a self-contained campus that required three times the acreage that Madison could assemble at any single site. He said the downtown convention center and hotels may suffer some because Epic used to pack both with people attending its meetings, but now the Verona campus has its own conference center.

In Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, people are applauding Dockside Green, an amazingly sustainable, compact, mixed-use development, which utilizes high-tech science to support its infrastructure, on 15 acres of former marine industrial land that required an environ-mental cleanup.

“The government wanted to preserve and support the shipyard trade on the land adjacent to the harbor, but they also wanted this adjacent site to be the greenest community in America,” said Robert Drew of Busby Perkins + Will, the Vancouver firm that designed the environment and buildings at Dockside Green.

Dockside Green’s office space was targeted for high-tech users to light industrial to serve and sustain the ship building industry next door. All the heating and hot water for the mixed-use community is supplied by an on-site biomass plant that uses clean wood waste left over from local construction, landscaping and other sources.

The development is one-third built, with four mid-rise residential towers, two commercial buildings and a local bakery restaurant and coffee shop. Every structure is a green building, with collected rainwater used to flush the toilets and an underground wastewater treatment plant on-site. Modern green technology treats wastewater so it can be used to supply a man-made water feature that runs through the mixed-use development with harbor views.

“From our point of view, it is less environmentally friendly to develop on a suburban site instead of an urban location,” Drew said. “The urban site — with harbor views, restaurants, shops, culture and constant activity — gives quality of life for workers. Greenfield sites usually take away natural land and turn pastures into developments that require you to run water, sewage, gas, electric and roads to.”

In Albany, N.Y., the Harriman Research and Technology Development Corporation (HRTDC) has undertaken the task of transforming an underutilized 130-acre site with offices for 7,500 state workers into a “regional growth engine for New York state’s ‘Innovation Economy’ and a world class research and technology park that will spur economic development, grow the tax base and create high quality jobs in the capital region,” said Jola Szubielski, spokeswoman for Empire State Development and its subsidiary, HRTDC.

“We believe the state’s future economic success lies within high-technology industries as they yield a tremendous rate of return in terms of investment and job creation. We hope to build on our partnership with of the University at Albany, a leader in scientific research and technology development, for attracting related businesses to the campus,” Szubielski said, noting the Harriman campus will be reprogrammed with mixed-use development that focuses on tenants that support the area’s emerging industry clusters including, but not limited to, nanotechnology and bio/life sciences.

HRTDC officials believe the existing transportation infrastructure, various surrounding neighborhood amenities and proximity to the University at Albany’s main campus, College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, and the growing SEMATECH complex make the Harriman Campus an ideal combination of high-tech job creation site and smart growth.

“Our ‘Innovation Community’ idea is a smart growth concept, defining a place where creative people work, live and play unlike what is available from the conventional urban/suburban commuting patterns,” Szubielski noted. “This concept of a mixed-use community having a university-based economy at its focus has proven to be a successful catalyst for improved residential and commercial property values and the attraction of entrepreneurs, both established and startup companies who would benefit from the region’s research and technology attributes. This ‘Innovation Community’ would promote smart growth and sustainable communities, drive economic development and job creation, and put the campus on equal footing with a new generation of university-affiliated research parks.”

The HRTDC Corporate Board has accepted a letter of intent from Columbia Development Cos., of Albany, the leader of a team that won the rights to redevelop almost half of the Harriman Campus. Columbia has proposed offices for tech companies, a hotel and upscale condos on 130 of the Harriman campus’ 330 acres. The remainder will continue to be used by state agencies.


Wright frequently writes about Smart Growth and sustainable communities. He recently participated in the prestigious Forum on Land and the Built Environment: The Reinvented City sponsored by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

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