Critics of downtown Silver Spring's revitalization complain that little about the new development is unique. A Starbucks. A Red Lobster. The all-too-familiar Chipotle.
But how many places can claim to have a BioWalk of Fame?
United Therapeutics, a Silver Spring biotechnology company that is developing treatments for ovarian cancer and lung disease, expects to break ground this month on a project that would eventually include a monument honoring people who have made outstanding contributions to the life sciences in Maryland.
The BioWalk of Fame won't look anything like its Hollywood counterpart, which features more than 2,000 pink-and-charcoal terrazzo squares embedded in the sidewalk along Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street. Instead, the inductees in the BioWalk will have their names etched into glass cubes that are high enough to sit on and scattered across a public plaza in front of the company's expanded headquarters on Cameron Street.
The cubes will react to motion, emitting colored lights, making sounds and even beaming images of speeches and interviews with the honorees to passersby and their hand-held devices or laptops. "We were really trying to be creative," said Paul Mahon, United Therapeutics general counsel and executive vice president for strategic planning. "We want it to be surprising how it interacts with you. You won't be able to expect the same thing twice. . . . It becomes a living plaza."
The BioWalk is part of a two-part project to expand the eight-year-old, publicly traded company's headquarters with the addition of a laboratory and two eight-story office towers. Plans also call for an oversized LED display -- "like you see at the MCI arena," Mahon said -- on one side of the new lab. It's called the BioWall.
The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission will consider United Therapeutics' expansion plans at a hearing today. The commission staff has recommended approval, calling the new structures in a report to the commission "a positive addition to this area of Silver Spring . . . [that] will enhance the quality of pedestrian activity, design and employment within the core area."
The 48,400-square-foot lab will be built first. It will sit on a former county-owned parking lot adjacent to United Therapeutics' current headquarters. The county sold the land to United Therapeutics last fall for $2.9 million as part of a deal to keep the company from relocating to Boston. The lab is scheduled to be completed next year and is expected to employ about 60 people.
State, county and local officials expedited permits for the lab. It will be used to develop an ovarian cancer treatment called OvaRex, which is in late-stage clinical trials, and to manufacture Remodulin, a therapy for pulmonary hypertension. United Therapeutics manufactures that drug at a facility in Chicago. Sales of Remodulin make up 90 percent of United Therapeutics' revenue, which totaled about $13.7 million last quarter.
Once completed in 2006, the office towers will house United Therapeutics' 160 employees. One tower will be across Cameron Street from the rest of the complex and connected to the other tower by a tube-shaped pedestrian bridge. Both buildings are fluid, curved glass structures. Each has a pitched roof to accommodate solar panels. The bridge will be adorned with a giant double helix. All three structures were designed by Schick Goldstein, a D.C. architectural firm.
"We did not design for maximum cubicle density. We wanted it to reflect the excitement, the twists and turns we encounter," Mahon said.
On the ground level of the towers will be about 16,000 square feet of retail with the storefronts facing the sidewalk beneath a set of archways. United Therapeutics will also handpick the retailers. "We want things like cafes, bookstores or a Ben & Jerry's -- something neat," Mahon said.
The name United Therapeutics won't appear prominently on the building. "We wanted to de-emphasize corporateness," Mahon said. So there will be "no big logo, no big entrance."
Visitors will find the BioWalk in an open area on Cameron Street. The inductees will be chosen by the BioWalk of Fame Foundation, which Mahon said doesn't exist yet.
Mahon and his colleagues have begun bandying about some names, though. A short list of likely inductees includes:
* J. Craig Venter, former president and founder of Celera Genomics, "for making genome sequencing technology practical."
* Francis Collins, National Human Genome Research Institute director, "for unraveling the human genome for public access."
* The late "Silent Spring" author and longtime Silver Spring resident Rachel Carson, "for her role in awakening interest in ecology."
* The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, "for detecting planets around distant stars."
The walk's next-door neighbor, the BioWall, will feature "life sciences programming" such as biology films, National Institutes of Health programming and Centers for Disease Control films, Mahon said. When not showing biology films, the BioWall can also be used by the community as a "video white board."
Groups will be able to sign up to use the BioWall by contacting a United Therapeutics community relations person, who will act as a sort of disc jockey for the space.
"We want people to say, 'I'll meet you at the BioWall,' " Mahon said.
The BioWall and BioWalk are the brainchild of United Therapeutics Chairman and CEO Martine Rothblatt, who lives three blocks from his company's office in downtown Silver Spring.
Both ideas were inspired by the architecture of the structures. "The lab's undulating wall facing into the central public amenity space provided the perfect surface for such a dynamic kinetic media art forum," Mahon said in an e-mail. "We very much want to enliven the plaza with the movement and pleasing visual images that an eclectic living life sciences video collage can provide."
It will certainly look very different from United Therapeutics' current headquarters, a plain, three-story, square 1950s office building. Directly adjacent to it are a couple of medical office buildings; most of the other nearby structures are parking garages.
Roger Lewis, professor of architecture at the University of Maryland, said United Therapeutics' plans aren't likely to disrupt the landscape of Silver Spring. It "is not like the Federal Triangle or Georgetown, with a consistent architectural language. You can get away with just about anything there," Lewis said. "It's such a hodgepodge."
Lewis added that he hopes it "raises the aspirations" of other architects who are designing there.
Mahon noted that United Therapeutics sits on the edge of the Silver Spring arts and entertainment district. "Maybe we will be incorporated into it later," he said.