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Maryland Life Sciences Seeks To Shift Away From ‘A World Of Office Parks’

Maryland’s life sciences market, one of the largest in the country, has a lot of things going for it — a hearty talent pipeline, federal research agencies and relatively cheap real estate prices. 

One thing that it doesn’t have pinned down quite yet: the urban, mixed-use, flexible developments that are most attractive to today's tenants. 

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich speaks at Bisnow's Mid-Atlantic Life Sciences and Biotech Summit.

Local leaders and industry executives at Bisnow’s Mid-Atlantic Life Sciences and Biotech Summit last week said that for the area to keep up with its peer markets like Boston-Cambridge and San Diego, developers need to start thinking outside the traditional life sciences box.

“Wellness, walkability, transit, it's all of those things. It's just a little bit more difficult here because it's such a suburban market,” INTEC Group President and CEO Keith Switzer said at the event, held at Preserve Labs’ 1 Preserve Parkway in Rockville.

Urbanized science developments have been a priority for Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich. In his opening remarks, he said that attending international life sciences conferences over the years has given him insight into the next generation of developments.

“I heard this word, ‘collision spaces,’” Elrich said onstage. “There was an increasing interest in people building facilities where you could walk out of your building and you could go down and meet somebody from another building from another company — you could have lunch together, you could stay late and have dinner together, you can be in a place that was alive all the time around you — and made it more attractive to bring their employees there.” 

Those mixed-use, collaboration-friendly environments are already underway in many of Maryland’s competing markets.  

“We were in a world of office parks where places like Boston were doing this in an urban environment,” he said.

An opportunity to launch headfirst into that type of development has emerged at the North Bethesda Metro station.

HOK’s Aaron Altman, INTEC Group’s Keith Switzer, DPR Construction’s Abhishek Dhawan, Activation Capital’s Kipton Currier, MCB Science & Health’s Will Germain and Longfellow Real Estate Partners’ Greg Capps

The 12-acre site owned by WMATA is planned for up to 2.5M SF of mixed-use development, including life sciences space. The transit authority plans to release a request for proposals this summer.

“We've developed a common vision for North Bethesda as a new life science cluster in a transit-rich location that includes a new Metro entrance and future bus rapid transit service, as well as world-class public spaces, retail amenities and diverse housing opportunities that will help attract and retain top talent and high-paying jobs to Montgomery county,” WMATA Vice President of Real Estate and Development Liz Price said.

That vision is an important one to draw on as Maryland thinks about its ability to compete, panelists said. 

“The [projects with] higher rents are the ones that are taking advantage of the amenities around them and their being in places as [Elrich] mentioned where you have collisions,” Skidmore, Owings & Merrill Science Practice Director Danielle McGuire said. 

In addition to a mix of uses, industry executives said it is important that life sciences buildings adapt to tenants’ changing needs as they grow. 

“We're trying to maybe emulate or become the Boston, San Francisco, even Philly at this point,” Switzer said. “Some of the buildings that are out there in markets, they just give you the flexibility to sort of grow or expand relative to the infrastructure or the space that you have inside of the building.”

The Universities at Shady Grove’s Anne Khademian, Montgomery County EDC’s Lynne Stein Benzion, University of Maryland Institute for Health Computing’s Bradley Maron, SOM’s Danielle McGuire, Johns Hopkins University’s Christy Wyskiel, Maryland Tech Council’s Kelly Schulz and George Mason University’s Gregory Washington

Flexibility is especially important near college campuses, where startups with limited capital may need to be lean to start out and can save on equipment costs and cut down on extraneous space by cohabitating. 

“And the types of companies that come out of Johns Hopkins are young, they need your help, they need your insight,” Johns Hopkins University Executive Director of Technology Ventures Christy Wyskiel said.

“And so when buildings like this get built, make sure you think about the first couple of floors being highly flexible, highly adaptive, with flexible lease terms. Again, I hope I'm not making all of the real estate developers in the room sweat, but that's the reality of the types of companies coming out of Johns Hopkins.” 

Mixed-use and flexible spaces where tenants cohabitate not only attract businesses but also bolster scientific collaboration, which companies are attracted to, panelists said. 

“We all decided that physics is one thing and biology was one thing and chemistry was one thing. Nature did not,” McGuire said. “And we're seeing all that come together. And we're seeing people needing more flexibility in their space, more innovative ways of controlling their space.”

JLL’s Justin Gore, Heffron’s Colin Dunn, Whiting-Turner Contracting Co.’s Stacy Percoski, HDR’s Sally Lee, Wexford Science & Technology’s Gregory Herlong, Stonebridge’s Tracy Vargo and BXP’s C.J. Overly

But there also needs to be a place for those cross-discipline conversations to happen.

“Food is still the No. 1 driver,” she said. “We always put in restaurants and bars.”

But colocating a series of different uses comes with challenges for life sciences, HDR Associate Education and Science Principal Sally Lee said. For developments that mix lab and residential, for example, it is imperative to have differentiated entrances. 

“As a residential person coming into the tower, you may want to have a residential experience,” Lee said. “And obviously, you don't want people in gowns walking by you as you're getting your mail. Or vice versa, you don't want people with their bikes rolling through your labs.” 

She said it is also crucial that the life sciences portion has strong branding so investors are clear about the purpose. 

Meanwhile, loading areas are another aspect that needs to be clearly differentiated between uses so that the life sciences employees gathering equipment don’t interfere with residential or grocery portions of the development. Safety precautions are also paramount as hazardous chemicals are being transported in and around the properties. 

“So that balance is something that you have to work very closely with your development partner to ensure that you're ticking the boxes but also maintaining life and safety as you start introducing more mixes,” she said.