Science City' looks to muster supporters
Some question whether county can be a world-class bioscience hub
A coalition of biotech firms, health care providers and academic institutions is coming together in the Shady Grove Life Sciences Center to foster cooperation in transforming the 700-acre area west of Interstate 270 into a world-class research hub.
Announced last week, the "Science City Coalition" remains informal. It includes Johns Hopkins University and Shady Grove Adventist Hospital, who are currying favor from some of their neighbors in the Life Sciences Center, including the Universities at Shady Grove and biotech firms such as Human Genome Sciences.
Hopkins', dubbed "Vision 2030" also has the backing of the County Planning Board, County Executive Isiah Leggett and several members of the County Council. The council will define and approve the Gaithersburg West master plan, the blueprint of planning and land use guidelines to make the transformation possible.
"We're pretty cacophonous right now," said Elaine Amir, executive director of Hopkins' Montgomery County campus.
Representatives from several groups laid out their missions and discussed the plan with about two dozen residents on Thursday during the second of four public forums on the Gaithersburg West master plan.
Though they did not talk about their specific roles in Science City, they emphasized the need for business/research partnerships to take advantage of the resources in the Life Sciences Center.
As the template for fostering the infrastructure needed for Science City, the Gaithersburg West master plan must allow dense, high-rise zoning to rival research hubs emerging around the world, especially in Asia, where workers can live, work and be entertained, said David McDonough, Hopkins' senior director of development oversight in the Hopkins division of real estate.
The challenge for the Science City Coalition, then, will be to better harness the abundance of private firms and government agencies in the county and the Baltimore-Washington corridor.
"No other place in the world has as many scientists as we have in this corridor. We have unbelievable potential, but frankly, it's barely tapped today," he said.
Though residents and civic groups at Thursday's meeting were sympathetic to the general ideas, many questioned whether the area can support the vision.
The growth needs to emerge organically around major academic institutions and clusters of profit-driven companies, not community colleges and government anchors like NIH and FDA, said Gary Robinson, a business developer with Panacos Pharmaceuticals of Gaithersburg and a resident of Washingtonian Woods, which would border much of the new growth.
"It just does not come together in a believable way," he said. "I don't see how you can impose a structure like this on a suburban community."
For the county government to play its part, officials are looking to sell 52 acres in the Life Sciences Center — home of the county's police/fire training academy — to make way for several thousand housing units. Leggett (D) has created a biosciences task force to create a strategic plan in 2010 to steer the county's course over the next 20-30 years.
"We are on the cusp of great things and there's no reason why these great things should not happen in Montgomery County," said Diane Schwartz Jones, one of Leggett's Assistant Chief Administrative Officers.