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NIH takes on a hefty lease for shaky facility

Times Staff Writer

A federal agency has committed itself to a $330-million long-term lease for a new bioresearch building in Baltimore, but its occupancy is stalled while officials grapple with an issue that first surfaced before construction even began.

The 10-story building vibrates, particularly in its upper floors. Now, as engineers try once again to sort out the problem, questions remain about whether highly sensitive scientific research can ever be performed in the structure.

A Times review of the project from its early planning stages shows that at virtually every step in the process, federal officials ignored expert advice about the building’s structural design. Officials also pushed to lease space for the National Institute on Aging laboratories despite a government agency’s opinion that it would cost too much.

Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, who oversees the institute as director of the National Institutes of Health, recently promised that regardless of ongoing testing, his agency would eventually fully occupy the new quarters. The $250-million building is owned by an affiliate of Johns Hopkins University, where Zerhouni spent much of his career before joining the NIH in 2002. He was an executive vice dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine when the building’s lease was authorized by Congress.

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Zerhouni insists that the NIH intends to honor the lease, citing recent data “that the facility will be capable of accommodating state-of-the-art biomedical research.” Even so, he said that some labs may be left at a nearby federally owned building.

Several hundred scientists and laboratory workers were supposed to move into the new building late last year. NIH officials hope that engineering studies conducted in coming weeks will allow the move to proceed by summer.

The selection of Baltimore as the new laboratory site was viewed as an important achievement by local and university officials, who envisioned the facility as a major new element in a growing bioresearch sector and a source of jobs in the city’s blue-collar Highlandtown neighborhood.

Records obtained by The Times show that some NIH scientists are concerned that the vibration issue is more serious than Zerhouni has acknowledged. In a Feb. 21 e-mail to NIH officials, a California consultant hired to examine the issue concluded that the building’s floors were not stiff enough, causing vibrations that would interfere with basic research equipment.

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Floor stiffness was a key topic at a March 13 meeting among NIH scientists, engineers and outside consultants. Some researchers warned that vibrations caused by people simply walking down corridors or within laboratories could disrupt ongoing projects. The researchers discussed establishing walking speed limits to minimize shaking.

Several at the meeting noted that some earlier landmark projects -- such as research that led to development of medicated stents for heart patients -- could not have been conducted in a vibrating building.

“At this point,” one researcher stated, “you just can’t place tissue culture anywhere” in the new building.

“You are correct,” an NIH official and a consultant responded, according to the minutes.

At another meeting March 17, the institute on aging’s scientific director, Dan Longo, said, “If we spend a lot of money in fixing the floors, it doesn’t necessarily solve the problem.”

Another scientist at the institute said, “It’s a no-brainer to me that our research will be severely compromised,” the minutes show.

Around that time, outside engineering expert Allyn Kilsheimer recommended attaching steel plates beneath the beams on each floor to reduce vibrations. That advice was not followed.

Hopkins efforts to land a major new federal research facility on its Bayview campus in East Baltimore date to the 1990s.

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In 1999, NIH said it was considering a lease arrangement with Hopkins’ real estate arm, the Dome Corp. The U.S. General Services Administration said it would be less expensive for the government to build its own structure.

Nevertheless, in late 2000 Congress approved a provision pushed by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Baltimore Democrat, authorizing NIH to enter into the lease. The facility would house the NIH’s aging institute as well as the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The lease arrangement was unique for the NIH, which owns its other research facilities.

The NIH has agreed to pay the Hopkins affiliate $13.2 million a year for 20 years with a 3% annual adjustment -- a total of more than $330 million -- with an option for an additional 10 years. Exercise of the option would cost an extra $260 million. The fees include $400,000 in ground rent and $6.5 million for site improvements. The balance would go to pay off $200 million in bonds the Hopkins affiliate issued to finance the building.

In addition to the lease payments, the agency will pay an extra $16 million to $18 million per year to another Hopkins affiliate to operate and maintain the building. All of the money will come from the research budgets of the two institutes.

Although NIH officials insist that the building will be completely safe and useable, they acknowledge that it is not built to the same standards required for NIH-owned facilities.

Mikulski considered the lease arrangement an accomplishment for her district. In an April 2, 2002, hearing, she boasted that she and other members of the Maryland congressional delegation “teamed up with Hopkins to outwit the General Services Administration.”

Melissa Schwartz, Mikulski’s spokeswoman, said in an e-mail that Mikulski had been “fighting for Johns Hopkins and the Bayview NIH facility for several years.” Zerhouni, then at the medical school, cited the agreement as a major step in Hopkins’ plans to create a biotech research hub.

“For us, it’s great to have more biomedical research in the city. With projects like this we want to bring Baltimore up to the level of Boston and the San Francisco-Stanford area,” he told a reporter when the project was announced. Zerhouni also attended the building’s 2004 groundbreaking ceremonies.

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A spokesman for Zerhouni said that while at Hopkins, Zerhouni had general knowledge of the proposed Bayview facility but “no direct involvement whatsoever while at Hopkins as well as at NIH.” He said Zerhouni complied with federal ethics rules and did not participate in matters concerning Hopkins or the project for one year after he became NIH director. Only recently, they said, did he become involved when questions were raised about the new building.

Zerhouni still maintains ties to Hopkins through his wife, Nadia, a physician affiliated with the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. But his disclosure of that relationship has been incomplete. Last week, NIH officials acknowledged that Zerhouni inadvertently omitted from his financial disclosure forms information about his wife’s part-time employment with Hopkins.

Throughout early project discussions, Hopkins “had virtually nothing to do with the design of the building,” said spokeswoman Joann Rogers. Design decisions were handled by the NIH and an outside firm, she said, adding that Hopkins would make no profit from the lease arrangement.

However, the building will revert to Hopkins when the lease expires. NIH officials acknowledged that construction costs and the future conversion of the facility for another occupant were factors in determining how the building should be designed.

The Times’ review shows that concerns about the design surfaced even before construction began.

In early 2001, consultant HLM Design warned that the two types of steel structures then under consideration were inadequate and recommended a reinforced-concrete design.

Steel designs were more appropriate for an office building or shopping mall, the HLM report states, concluding that “these systems would be inadequate as research facilities.” Nonetheless, a composite structural steel design was selected and HLM Design was replaced by CUH2A based in Atlanta.

As construction began, problems arose while laying the foundation, which was not anchored in bedrock. Construction was delayed when a retaining wall suddenly shifted by several inches.

Concerns included not only the potential for vertical and horizontal vibrations that could disrupt the operation of sensitive equipment but also issues such as space allocation, fire safety and chemical storage. As concerns grew, government scientists met with NIH officials and building contractors and designers, fearful that the facility would turn out to be a major problem. Some discussed banding together and refusing to move into the building.

In one consultant’s presentation, the scientists were told, “The [building’s] problems are extreme and cannot be remediated.” Another report stated, “Many critical experiments are likely to be impossible to perform.”

The NIH’s problem became public in October when the Baltimore Sun reported on the vibration issue. Zerhouni issued a statement in December indicating that new testing showed the vibration problems were not as serious as previously reported and that further construction had stiffened the building’s resistance.

But he acknowledged that some “especially sensitive pieces of equipment” might remain in the existing building, and others would require special isolation tables. Floor plans show that the designers had planned to place some of the most sensitive microscopes on a top floor, where vibration problems are most severe.

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wally.roche@latimes.com

Times researcher Janet Lundblad contributed to this report.


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