Everyone knows the role that the federal government plays in the enduring economic strength of the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, and those who develop office space for the feds often seem to operate on the following premise: “If you build it—according to GSA [U.S. General Services Administration] requirements—they will come.” But fewer people realize that educational and medical facilities—“eds and meds”—are playing an increasingly dominant role in the regional and national economy.

Realizing the full potential of this sector will be more challenging and complex than building standard office space, however, according to the “Eds and Meds” panel at ULI Washington’s Real Estate Trends Conference. “Eds and meds” have unique requirements and challenges, which can be met only through careful planning and collaboration involving the public, private, and institutional sectors.

David McDonough, senior director of development for Johns Hopkins University, pointed out that the Baltimore–Washington corridor has the greatest number of science assets in the world. But neither the United States nor any of its states or regions work to concentrate such assets in high-density clusters and connect them with excellent mass transit as is done in locations such as Singapore, Seoul, Guangzhou (formerly Canton) in China, and India’s “Genome Valley.” This type of concentration is critical, McDonough said, because advancement in science and medicine thrives on collaboration. “Facilities are key to attracting the best and the brightest,” said Alan Merten, president of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. “These highly educated individuals not only want labs and the latest technology, but they also need housing, transportation, and recreation.”

Following global models for “science cities,” developing a “regional innovation cluster” is exactly what Johns Hopkins is trying to achieve, in cooperation with local and regional planners and other organizations, with the Great Seneca Science Corridor. Last fall, Maryland’s Montgomery County Council approved the master plan to transform a large parcel of land between Gaithersburg and Rockville into a transit-oriented, mixed-use development focused on life sciences. It would be served by light rail or bus rapid transit connecting to the Shady Grove Metro station.  

This section of Montgomery County already is home to the Life Sciences Center, which includes Shady Grove Adventist Hospital, Johns Hopkins University–Montgomery County Campus (JHU-MCC), the Universities at Shady Grove, and biotechnology companies such as Human Genome Sciences, BioReliance, and the J. Craig Venter Institute.  GSA recently selected the JHU-MCC site for the consolidated headquarters of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Noted McDonough: “An anchor tenant like NCI will create opportunities for expansion, bring new tenants, and increase collaborations.”

In order to realize its potential for economic growth, the “science city” must provide not only opportunities for human connectivity, but also a different type of connectivity through the Internet. Ken Hunter, COO of Kaiser Permanente, explained that medicine is moving “into the cloud” at a rapid pace—with Web-enabled medical records including high-resolution body images, e-mail access to doctors, and digital information for every single cell in the human body. “Telemedicine is the wave of the future,” he said, “and the information must be available, because it’s a matter of life or death.” Science and medical facilities of the future must have extremely fast and reliable connectivity, he noted, as well as access to a tremendous amount of data storage.

Telemedicine is changing the way that medical services are delivered, Hunter went on. “More telemedicine services will be delivered in the patient’s home, and medical buildings will become more like hospitals—i.e., people will need to come in only when they are very sick. The outpatient side is finally catching up with the inpatient side.” With evolving technology, he added, medicine will become increasingly personalized. Trends conference panel moderator Donna Shafer of Cityline Partners commented that “health care is becoming more of an experience, and facility developers are taking their cues from the hospitality industry.”

The take-away from the panel was that the “eds and meds” sector provides significant opportunities for growth and development—but that real estate developers need to work closely with users to know exactly what they need, because this sector’s  needs are truly unique in the market, challenging to meet, and evolving rapidly.