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Business & Developmentby Fern Shen2:21 pmOct 30, 20230

Worried residents reckon with Johns Hopkins’ plans for large AI research buildings

Two Data Science and Translation Institute buildings, one facing the rowhouses of Remington Avenue, could rise as high as 120 feet, the university says, promising to set back their tops to prevent too wall-like an appearance

Above: Johns Hopkins University’s proposed Data Science and Translation Institute buildings (A and B in blue) at Wyman Park Drive and Remington Avenue. Depictions show possible massing and height, and are not architectural renderings. (JHU)

In August, Johns Hopkins University had something splashy to announce – a whopping new investment it was making in data science and the exploration of artificial intelligence.

The sweeping initiative, said JHU President Ronald Daniels, would make Hopkins “a leading hub for engaging the challenges and opportunities of the data revolution now upon us” and result in the hiring of as many as 80 new faculty members.

Since then, school officials have been tackling a tougher task:

Selling the community on the two large buildings they want to build on the southwestern end of the Homewood campus close to residential properties.

Hopkins has provided some basic information for the Data Science and Translation Institute (DSTI) project:

• The pair of structures, on either side of Wyman Park Drive at the Remington Avenue intersection, would provide 500,000 square feet of lab and office space, plus underground parking.

• The buildings would rise as high as 120 feet – exceeding the Zoning Code’s 65-foot height limit for that area – if Hopkins wins the support of the community association and wins City Council approval.

• Building A, just above Stoney Run parkland, would replace the Early Learning Center, a daycare facility for JHU affiliates.

• Building B would sit across the street from the 3100 block of Remington Avenue, a stretch of two-story brick rowhouses that currently sport Halloween pumpkins, potted plants and Pride flags.

Sitting with her laptop on the porch of one of those houses, Pahini Lampart told The Brew she’d heard something about the project and wasn’t thrilled about it.

“It’s going to be some kind of buildings for computers, right? Why can’t they put it somewhere else, instead of here next to people?” she asked. “I’m just afraid it’s going to be this big horrendous noisy thing that blocks the light.”

Told that it’s to be a building for not just computers but scores of new faculty, whose focus is data science and AI, her eyes widened.

“I’m in data science! That’s interesting,” said Lampart, a lead data analyst for a city agency. “I’m really big on ways to use data to make organizations function better.”

But when Lampart heard that JHU’s plans include getting rid of the child care center in that location, her face fell.

“Oh no! I kind of pictured, if we had a second child someday, we’d send them to that daycare,” she said, looking toward the low white modular structure with colorful play equipment outside. “I’m going to have to learn more about this.”

Aerial view of Johns Hopkins University's Wyman Park area, bounded by curving Wyman Park Drive and residential Remington Avenue and 31st Street. (JHU)

Aerial view of Johns Hopkins University’s Wyman Park area, bounded by curving Wyman Park Drive and residential Remington Avenue and 31st Street. (JHU)

Competing with Peers

The Greater Remington Improvement Association (GRIA) has been gathering information about the proposal and documenting the concerns of residents.

The group has held multiple meetings and heard presentations from Hopkins about what they want to build and why.

“It has become painfully obvious to us that our science facilities are woefully out of date,” Lee Coyle, senior director for capital projects and planning, told an online meeting of GRIA’s land use committee last monthg.

His PowerPoint presentation juxtaposes a photo of a cluttered-looking Hopkins lab room, with a gleaming white lab space with a high ceiling, captioned: “What JHU needs.”

There were shots of Princeton, MIT, Harvard and even Towson University which, Coyle said, had already built or were building large new data science buildings.

“It has become painfully obvious to us that our science facilities are woefully out of date”  – Lee Coyle, director of Capital Projects and Planning.

The new data science buildings are needed in order to “attract the very best faculty and students in the world, and attract research funding that further empowers JHU as Baltimore’s foremost economic engine,” he asserted.

The building site, which includes the empty lot below the SNF Agora Building, is Hopkins’ largest undeveloped parcel. It’s just down the hill from the Whiting School of Engineering, which would oversee the initiative.

Existing buildings elsewhere on campus, Coyle noted, don’t allow for the high ceilings needed for the new computer research work.

At left. the site of Johns Hopkins University's planned Data Science Translation Institute. At right, Remington Avenue rowhouses. (Fern Shen)

At left, the site of Johns Hopkins University’s planned Data Science and Translation Institute. At right, Remington Avenue rowhouses. (Fern Shen)

Possibly Six Stories High

But why the need to exceed the EC-2 zoning restrictions and get permission to build as high as 120 feet?

Coyle said that would allow for a better design than the alternative – a building that stays within the 65-foot limit, but stretches the entire length of the block to 31st street.

He noted there is already a “wall-like” quality to the Hopkins buildings currently on the site facing the neighborhood – a utility plant known as the Chiller Building and another structure used for buildings and grounds operations.

A taller building with a smaller footprint would allow for an opening from Remington Avenue, replacing the Chiller Building and leading to a grassy quadrangle that Coyle said would be open to the public.

Diagrams show this green area bordered on one side by the SNF Agora Building (now under construction) and the former Baltimore Marine Hospital on Wyman Park Drive. On the other side, the border is formed by Remington Avenue and 31st Street.

“This would allow us to have something of a ‘green gateway’ for people in the community to actually use the campus, to enjoy the campus,” he said, adding that the new quad would make the area feel more like the heart of the undergraduate campus. “We want to make it have the spirit of Homewood.”

“This would allow us to have a ‘green gateway’ for people in the community to actually use the campus”  – Lee Coyle, director of Capital Projects and Planning.

He said the project would also allow Hopkins to make this hilly side of campus ADA compliant by providing access from Remington Avenue up to the Decker Quad.

Still, residents like Melissa Falen, who lives across Remington Avenue from the project, have concerns.

Speaking at one of the community meetings, she said she worries that if the building comes too close to the sidewalk, “It would feel like it’s really claustrophobic.”

To comply with the Transform Baltimore zoning overhaul, the DSTI building would need to be set further back from the sidewalk than existing buildings are now, Coyle pointed out.

Remington Avenue homes across from Johns Hopkins University's planned Data Science and Translation Institute. (Fern Shen)

Remington Avenue homes across from Johns Hopkins University’s planned Data Science and Translation Institute. (Fern Shen)

Traffic and Noise

Questions at the community and GRIA meetings illustrated the concerns of some residents. Sadie Baker pressed Coyle on the issue of building height.

“We envision, basically, the building to be six stories above ground,” Coyle said, noting that the upper floors would be set back to ensure that there was not a sheer, potentially 120-foot wall facing Remington Avenue residents.

A sectional view of the massing for DSTI's Building B, in a sectional view from Wyman Park Drive showing the potential height, with a zoning variance. (JHU)

A sectional depiction of the massing for DSTI’s Building B, viewed from Wyman Park Drive, showing the potential height if allowed to exceed the zoning restriction. (JHU)

Jessica Hudson wanted more details on what will be going into the buildings.

“I’m concerned about the noise that these would generate if these are data lab centers,” she said. “It seems like they would need a lot of extra cooling mechanisms if you have to build something so grandiose as this.”

Coyle told her: “The plan right now is not to have data centers necessarily associated with the physical buildings themselves.” Some might be needed there, he said, though not “of the scale that is going to be of concern.”

“Baltimore has a noise ordinance,” he added. “I don’t know if you’re aware of that that. We have to pay strict attention to that.”

At another GRIA meeting, Peter Morrill said he worried about the extra traffic the project would generate in an already busy area.

Wyman Park Drive, as it continues through the park toward the Stieff Silver Building, “is full of blind spots and is terrifying to try to cross, especially with kids,” Morrill said, suggesting that the group “use our leverage” to push for either traffic calming or closing off the road to vehicles entirely.

Another concern has been the loss of the Early Learning Center, which many fear would put pressure on the already short supply of day care options in the neighborhood.

“The intention is to relocate [the Canter] so it’s not on this site,” Coyle said. “We don’t know where that is yet, we’re exploring that.”

Hopkins Early Learning Center, which backs onto Stoney Run, is being rep[laced with a multi-story data science research building. (Fern Shen)

Johns Hopkins’ Early Learning Center, which backs onto Stoney Run, is being replaced with a multi-story data science research building. (Fern Shen)

Design Panel Permission

Hopkins officials have been stressing that they are cognizant of widespread fears of the misuse of AI, as well as its potential.

“The institute will bring together world-class experts in artificial intelligence, machine learning, applied mathematics, computer engineering, and computer science to fuel data-driven discovery in support of research activities across the institution,” a statement released to The Brew by spokeswoman Jill Rosen said.

The DSTI initiative includes 30 new Bloomberg Distinguished Professors, whose appointment is aimed at bridging disciplines from neuroscience and precision medicine to climate resilience and the humanities.

According to Daniels, DSTI will support research into many areas, including “the societal and ethical concerns posed by artificial intelligence and explore appropriate government policy and regulation.”

As for Hopkins’ plan to address community concerns in the greater Remington neighborhood, Rosen described the process ahead.

Permission to exceed the zoning code’s height limits would be part of a campus master plan that the University must prepare and present to the Urban Design and Architecture Advisory Panel (UDAAP). Upon approval, Rosen said, the plan would be submitted in the form of a bill to be considered by the City Council.

Rosen said the master plan won’t be presented to UDAAP until “there is understanding of options” by local residents.

“JHU believes the plan featuring taller buildings offers merit to Hopkins and our neighbors to the west,” she said, “and, therefore, hopes to work together and realize mutual benefit.”

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