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The Best of Both Worlds

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How a decade-long battle over bwtech@UMBC Research and Technology Park created a thriving link between campus and business and a dedicated green space for research and teaching.
- By Richard Byrne ’86
Images by Kevin Weber

When a new wooden footbridge linking UMBC’s main campus to the university’s bwtech@UMBC Research and Technology Park and its Conservation and Environmental Research Areas (CERA) opened earlier this year, the walkway represented more than a convenient new path between previously disconnected areas of campus.

The new bridge also links UMBC’s larger efforts related to commerce and sustainability back to campus. The research park has capitalized on the opportunities presented to the university in technology and in entrepreneurship. The green spaces of the CERA are a dedicated space for research and teaching about our climate and our natural resources.

Walk across the bridge on a pleasantly cool summer day, and one feels an immediate connection to nature – even as the tips of buildings in the research park peek out over the trees. Foliage shades much of the walkway from sun, and the Herbert Run gurgles charmingly underneath the bridge and onward past Pig Pen Pond.

But the waters on this site have not always run so smoothly. The land now shared by the research park and the CERA was the scene of a sustained and divisive battle unparalleled in UMBC’s 40-plus years. Vocal opposition to the research-park project development – both on-and-off-campus – and lawsuits held up the project for more than a decade.

Only a hard-won compromise between the administration, the research park advocates and UMBC faculty finally pushed the project forward. But that compromise has paid dividends: creating space on campus for innovative companies and boosting UMBC’s efforts in environmental research, teaching and sustainability. The university even lured the U.S. Geological Survey to locate a regional water center in the park.

UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski, III credits “shared governance” between various campus constituencies as the key to the deal. And the payoff?

“The research park has become a major indicator of the value we bring to this region,” he observes. “The CERA is a physical representation of our interest in the environment. And it’s also a great research space.”

Growing the University

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When former UMBC President Michael Hooker died in 1999, the Baltimore Sun observed that “he laid the philosophical foundation for [Maryland’s] current drive to marry academic research and economic development.”

The university research park proposed by Hooker in the late 1980s was designed to be a tangible sign of that marriage. The proposal called for 12 new buildings to be built on 94 acres of land just south of UMBC’s campus. “Michael Hooker understood well that major research universities play a significant role in the economies of the regions in which they reside,” says Hrabowski. “We had strengths here that could be used to do that.”

The project was also meant to signal UMBC’s growth and maturity, adds Hrabowski. “We needed to be viewed by the state as a major research university,” he says. “We were still evolving, and it was very important to show what we could do.”

When Hooker left UMBC in 1992 to head the University of Massachusetts system, however, ground had not yet been broken on the project.

As UMBC’s new president, Hrabowski inherited not only the vision, but also considerable vitriol. Some residents in nearby communities vocally opposed the project for a number of reasons. UMBC was big enough already, some argued. Others cited wetlands and potentially-sensitive archaeological sites. Still others feared potential health risks associated with industries that might locate in the park.

University officials tried to quell opposition by emphasizing the economic benefits to the region. They also insisted that strong covenants were in place to control what sort of companies would populate the park. Unmollified by these efforts, a coalition of local residents eventually filed lawsuits in 1994 and 1996 to block the project altogether.

Skepticism among UMBC faculty members was also an issue confronting the research-park project. Many professors wondered aloud about the park’s potential impact on the environment and on their own research.

“The faculty had legitimate concerns,” recalls Andrew J. Miller, an associate professor of geography and environmental systems who sat on the research park’s board as a faculty representative in the 1990s. “What’s in it for the campus? Will this project lose money?”

A Timely Solution

When Ellen Hemmerly came on board as executive director of the research park in 1995, the proposal was bogged down. In contrast to Hooker’s grand vision, the park itself was comprised of an incubator with two trailers located on campus.

Hemmerly recalls being surprised at opposition to the project and frustrated by the delays. “We thought the project was providing clean and high-paying jobs that were going to rejuvenate the local economy,” she says. A bit of luck helped break the project out of the quagmire. In the process of consolidation following the 1995 merger between aerospace and technology giants Lockheed Corporation and Martin Marietta, a laboratory owned by Martin Marietta just off Gun Road and close to UMBC’s campus came onto the market in late 1996.

UMBC administrators and the research-park team concluded that the 170,000 square feet of space was a good fit for a number of projects connected with the research park – particularly as an incubator for start-up companies. They worked quickly to make an agreement with officials in Maryland state government: The state would purchase the laboratory and lease it to the university.

Miller says that the deal jump-started the research park. “It was now possible to do some things while the land was being argued about,” he says.

The lease deal also offered an opportunity to scale back the new park’s potential footprint on the contested site south of campus. In March 1996, UMBC administrators announced a new plan for the park that maximized the first of two planned phases and eliminated the second phase altogether.

The new plan – and a subsequent emendation made in the process of settling legal action brought by off-campus opponents – ultimately cut the project size roughly in half: five buildings on 20-plus acres of land. “The university just felt: ‘Look, it’s becoming an issue on campus,’” says Hemmerly. “When Martin Marietta came up for sale, it made it really easy to say, ‘Let’s maximize Phase One. Let’s move on. Let’s put this behind us.’”

Green Synergies

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As the university scaled down its own plan and ramped up its new laboratory site, a number of UMBC faculty members also had been pondering how the research park fit into their vision of the campus. Would there be true synergy between scholarly research and the companies at the park? And where did the environment fit into the vision?

In late 1994, the university’s Committee on University Priorities created a subcommittee on campus environment, co-chaired by Robert Burchard, now an emeritus professor of biological sciences, and Patricia La Noue, director of UMBC’s interdisciplinary studies program, to weigh in on these issues.

La Noue tackled similar questions with her students in a Fall 1995 seminar examining various approaches to the planning and creation of a campus greenway. The class had a tangible result: The creation of the Herbert Run Greenway, which connects various green spaces on campus, including what is now the Beuys Sculpture Garden and the land that would eventually become the CERA.

La Noue recalls that the seminar was also concerned with larger questions: “What is a stewardship ethic? How do we use our space?”

Sandy Parker, now the chairman of the geography and environmental systems department, was thinking along the same lines. And as UMBC announced its revised plan, Parker developed a proposal to create a new entity for research and teaching on the unused acreage in concert with a working group on the Campus Environment Committee and the Faculty Senate.

Drawing on a series of master plans for the university that envisioned the “protection of natural woods,” Parker’s proposal noted that the area offered “a wide range of research and teaching opportunities for faculty and students alike.” Equally important, the CERA would also encompass archaeologically sensitive sites – including pre-Columbian sites – that had sparked opposition on-and-off-campus.

Parker recalls that when the university revised its plans, “suddenly the landscape snapped into focus… I wrote the proposal and put it forward as a quid pro quo strategy.”

The pitch for a conservation and environmental research area took little over a year to wind its way to approval by the university. (The Faculty Senate approved it in late 1996.) The CERA was officially dedicated at a ceremony in front of the Albin O. Kuhn Library on April 28, 1997.

Almost five more years and settlement of remaining lawsuits passed before the RWD Applied Technology Laboratory became the first building to open in the new bwtech@UMBC Research and Technology Park in March 2002. Despite more than a decade between vision and reality, UMBC was still the first university in Maryland to successfully construct its own research park. (See “Incubate/Innovate”)

The agreement to create the CERA was a key moment in making the research park a reality. “The compromise did make it so that people on campus felt more comfortable with [the research park],” recalls Miller. “We had positives on both sides.”

Surveying the Ground

The new walkway allows easier pedestrian access to both the research park and to green spaces that many on campus point to as favorite places for getting away from it all.

Burchard observes that in the CERA, “you hardly know that you’re on a major university campus just off I-95.” But the space is not just a place to get away. Indeed, there are signs of a growing synergy between the two entities at the heart of the compromise.

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Hemmerly touts the fact that bwtech@UMBC Research and Technology Park is increasingly seeking companies that are developing new green technologies. The park has concluded an agreement with the Maryland Clean Energy Center to create the state’s first Clean Energy Technology Incubator.

The university’s winning bid for the U.S. Geological Survey regional water science center (which covers Maryland, Delaware and the District of Columbia) to relocate into the research park in 2006 is even more compelling evidence.

Miller and Claire Welty, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and the director of UMBC’s Center for Urban Environmental Research and Education, were the prime movers behind bringing the center to UMBC as a spur to research and teaching.

“The presence of USGS alone makes everything else worthwhile,” Miller says.

Miller and others also point to the CERA’s use as a “teaching landscape” and a place where vital research in a range of disciplines can be done. For instance, Kevin E. Omland, an associate professor of biological sciences at UMBC, has conducted his research on Baltimore and orchard orioles in the vicinity.

Looking back, Hrabowski observes that the successful compromise highlighted some of UMBC’s best qualities. “We listened carefully, worked through the challenges and came to a point where we said: ‘We can do this. We can handle both sets of opportunities involving companies and involving the environment.’”

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