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How the West was won

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2008 - Spring


The acquisition of the former Bayer HealthCare facility, now known as West Campus, resolves long-standing space needs and opens undreamed-of opportunities. The new campus will transform Yale—but how?

On Thursday, November 9, 2006, much of the nation was digesting the news about the dramatic swing in party control of Congress after the midterm elections two days earlier. In his office at Woodbridge Hall, however, Yale President Richard C. Levin had some startling local news in mind. Bayer HealthCare had announced that morning that it was shutting down its vast North American research headquarters straddling the border of the neighboring towns of West Haven and Orange. The disappearance of what had been the largest employer and taxpayer in the two towns immediately west of New Haven seemed to spell economic disaster for the region. But when Levin learned the news about the 136-acre site where nearly 3,000 people had once worked, he leaped up from his desk. “What an opportunity!” he exclaimed. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us.” Levin wanted to purchase the site, potentially changing the face and character of Yale University forever. But first he did what he could to find another buyer for the property.

For the past decade Yale has been building at a pace that rivals the near-complete campus reconstruction of the 1930s, which gave the university most of its present architectural face. Much of the recent construction binge has focused on the sciences, particularly biomedical research. In just the past three years, several major new academic buildings have opened as part of a billion-dollar plan to bolster science research and teaching. For instance, the 457,000-square-foot Anlyan Center, which opened in 2003, and the 120,000-square-foot Amistad Street building dedicated last October have increased the medical school’s laboratory space by nearly half. When the new 14-story Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven Hospital opens in 2009, it will unite all of Yale Cancer Center’s clinical services under one roof. On the main campus, numerous new science buildings affiliated with the medical school have opened or will open soon, including new chemistry and environmental studies buildings. Plans also call for significant additional construction, renovation and expansion of science facilities within the medical center.

Despite this building frenzy, Yale still lags well behind its principal competitors in both the size and growth of its science facilities. That’s in part because Yale remains largely landlocked within its dense New Haven surroundings, leaving scant room for outward expansion. And where there is room, such as at the medical school, construction costs have limited expansion. Yale, and in particular its medical school, continues to garner grant funding at a high rate on a per-faculty basis—it is presently third among American medical schools—but as a whole the university has fallen behind rivals in capturing its share of available resources for scientific research, dropping to 19th place in total government funding for science. The medical school is in 6th place in total NIH funding. “The quality density is just as good as the top competitors,” says medical school Dean Robert J. Alpern, M.D., Ensign Professor of Medicine, “but having less research space and thus less research than some of the other top schools limits the impact of our science programs.”

Levin asked Alpern what the medical school might do with the Bayer site were Yale to buy it. The possibility, though, was “so sensitive,” says Levin, that he made only Alpern and the University’s officers and trustees aware of his interest in the property. Alpern quickly put together a list of possible uses, and, Alpern says, “The list was pretty long.” That was no surprise to his colleagues. Says Daniel C. DiMaio, M.D., Ph.D., vice chair and Waldemar Von Zedtwitz Professor of Genetics, who consulted with Alpern about the former Bayer campus: “The rate-limiting factor here is space, not ideas or money.”

Room to grow—with ready-made laboratory facilities—suddenly appeared like a vision on the western horizon. About a 15-minute drive from downtown New Haven, the Bayer site’s 17 buildings include 450,000 square feet of state-of-the-art research laboratory space in four modern buildings, much of it either recently built or renovated and some of it never even fully occupied. Along with that, the campus comprises nearly 1 million additional square feet of modern offices, warehouses, and miscellaneous other spaces, including a day-care center, a power plant and surface parking for nearly 3,000 cars with easy access to Interstate 95. The site also has a library, a 250-seat auditorium, multiple seminar and conference rooms, modern computing and telecommunications facilities and a 200-seat cafeteria and other food service areas.

The addition of what would amount to an entirely new third science campus, albeit one outside Yale’s hometown of three centuries, would, says Levin, offer “great potential to lift Yale science to the very top rank” among research universities. But he had to keep quiet.

Levin may have coveted the property, but Yale could not show its interest. Sitting in his Woodbridge Hall office, Levin says, “It was important for the region to attract another pharmaceutical firm.” Not only might a large private corporate tenant make immediate use of the facilities and rehire laid-off employees, “It was consistent,” he says, “with our long-standing plans for contributing to a region with a strong science-based economy,” through Yale’s own biomedical research and efforts to build biotechnology companies based on university discoveries. Yale would need to sit on its hands and wait to see what new owner might emerge.

A productive corporate campus

For more than four decades, a pharmaceutical firm occupied at least part of the West Haven-Orange site. Bayer HealthCare, a division of the German pharmaceutical giant Bayer AG, and its predecessor at the West Haven site, Miles Laboratories, had invested nearly $1 billion there since first acquiring the former pig farm in 1965—and then added adjacent property when a multiplex theater complex closed and moved across the street. Eventually the campus grew to be Bayer’s largest site in the United States and the company’s North American headquarters.

The site had been a productive one for Bayer. Its scientists discovered and developed the kinase inhibitor sorafenib there. Last year the Food and Drug Administration approved the drug as a treatment for renal cell carcinoma, a deadly form of advanced kidney cancer, and it is now marketed as Nexavar. In addition to research, Bayer also used the site as a manufacturing center. Billions of tablets of the popular heartburn treatment Alka-Seltzer were once sent out from West Haven to the American market. More recently, crews worked around the clock under tight security churning out Cipro tablets, the trade name of the antibiotic ciprofloxacin, in response to the huge demand for stockpiles of the drug following the 2001 anthrax attacks in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

When Bayer put the property on the market, Connecticut Governor M. Jodi Rell formed a commission to find a buyer. Levin designated Bruce D. Alexander, Yale’s vice president for New Haven and state affairs and campus development, to serve on the commission, and Yale threw its weight behind the effort to attract a large pharmaceutical corporation. But with much of the pharmaceutical industry in the midst of painful restructuring and contraction, “there was not a glimmer of interest,” recalls Levin. The only bidders for the site, says Alexander, were real-estate developers who would have leveled it to make room for retail and commercial complexes. “That would have been a huge loss,” says Alexander. Levin decided it was time to move.

Yale entered the bidding against 14 other potential buyers but walked away with the prize in late June 2007. The final price, revealed at the closing in September, was astonishingly low: $109 million plus payments in lieu of taxes to West Haven and Orange amounting to $600,000 annually, and a million-dollar contribution over the next few years for training assistance to New Haven-area middle and high school science teachers. To put the purchase price in perspective, construction of The Anlyan Center alone cost about $176 million. At the approximately $700-per-square-foot cost of constructing new biochemistry laboratory space—plus the other buildings—says Alexander: “You could easily value the property at six or seven times what we paid for it in terms of its replacement cost,” far more if it were possible to build that much new space on the Yale campus in New Haven. And that does not count the costly equipment Bayer left behind—including scores of chemistry and biology safety hoods—nor the land itself. According to Levin, the site could accommodate nearly double the number of structures at present—“without touching the environmentally sensitive portions,” including about 20 acres of wetlands.

Speaking about the site, which Yale now officially calls the West Campus, Levin becomes animated, leaning forward in his chair, his voice rising with excitement. “This has transformative potential, frankly—only some of which we can envision today,” he says. “We’ve given our successors an opportunity to dream in ways we can’t imagine today.”

DiMaio, who is also the scientific director of Yale Cancer Center, hopes to see a long-envisioned cancer biology research center established there, bringing together an interdisciplinary oncology team able to perform genetic analyses of tumor cells and then design novel targeted pharmaceutical treatments for them. A student at Yale College when the first women entered as undergraduates, DiMaio believes that the acquisition and development of the West Campus has the potential to be the most significant event at Yale since coeducation. “If we don’t seize this opportunity and transform Yale, we will have failed.”

Transforming Yale

The purchase happened quickly. Only a handful of people even knew it was being considered. Suddenly, an entirely new western territory opened up for Yale. University Provost Andrew Hamilton, Ph.D., says, “This is a quantum opportunity and leap for Yale.” But what is Yale leaping into?

Over the past year, Levin, Alpern and Hamilton have met frequently to explore ideas for the new campus. They have also held meetings with many faculty leaders, and a retreat for medical school departmental chairs focused on the new site. An emerging theme from their discussions was not simply to transfer existing laboratories, people and administrative structures from the overcrowded New Haven campus to the empty West Campus. “We need to guard against allowing the campus to become a spillover space for existing programs,” insists Levin. Rather, he wants the space to be devoted to entirely new projects. “This allows us to think about new structures and new forms of science appropriate for the 21st century.”

“We are not going to rush into decisions,” Hamilton says; however, a few governing principles have emerged. “The West Campus will raise the visibility and impact of Yale science. It will not be an extension of existing Yale activities but will represent something distinctly different in organization and the way activities are planned.” Says Alpern: “This is an opportunity to grow a lot more, but also an opportunity to focus on cutting-edge areas.”

According to Alpern, the trio looked at multiple models for campus expansion. The one that best fit their thinking was the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass. Its faculty members have teaching affiliations with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Whitehead’s director, David C. Page, M.D., likens the institute to an artist’s colony in which established and emerging scientists have the freedom and resources to pursue high-risk, novel and interdisciplinary research. Page, a renowned genetics scientist and MacArthur Foundation “genius award” winner, touts the freedom Whitehead scientists have “to pursue new ideas while working in a collaborative environment. Our modest size and strong financial position allow us to move quickly to exploit scientific opportunities.”

Alpern expects that the West Campus will be organized around a series of new Whitehead-like interdisciplinary institutes, each centered on “a spectacular faculty member who will then recruit three to five other scientists for his or her institute.” Several core facilities will also be established there, drawing on Yale’s existing strengths and the laboratory configuration left by Bayer. These include a high-throughput genetic screening facility and a high-throughput chemistry laboratory—drawing on the Department of Chemistry on the main Yale campus—with drug screening and development capabilities not presently available on the medical campus.

Yale, Alpern says, has already begun recruiting new faculty members for the first of the proposed institutes—cell biology, major psychiatric disorders and cancer biology. “The key,” he says, “is to attract exceptional investigators from the start. If they’re weak, the value of the real estate goes way down.” Levin says that present faculty with innovative ideas for new interdisciplinary research programs may also move there.

Levin, Alpern and Hamilton emphasize that the West Campus’ facilities will link up with the entire university. Among those links will be a new $1.4 million high-speed optical fiber connection. According to Steven M. Girvin, Ph.D., deputy provost for science and technology, that will enable the university to move all current nonresearch computing functions from the Information Technology Services center at 155 Whitney Avenue (to be razed to make way for a new School of Management campus) to the existing data center on the West Campus. The new cables will also allow a big growth in research computing capabilities. “Eventually we will need new computing space on the West Campus for high-performance scientific computation, as we are running out of space on the main campus,” Girvin says.

The West Campus’ acres of manufacturing and warehouse floor space will be devoted to displaying, conserving and storing the thousands of artworks and other valuable collections presently warehoused around the region. Stored library and archival materials and preservation services may also relocate there. Alpern says, “It would make the campus special if activities there include the arts.” Among the ideas being discussed are creating a contemporary art museum “like a Tate Modern,” he says, comparing it to the popular and massive art gallery housed in a former power station in London. “That would give the campus a Yale flavor.”

A Yale feel

Right now, the 15-minute drive from the Yale campus in New Haven to the West Campus transports visitors to a completely different world. The 136 fenced-in acres—equivalent to about a third of Yale’s total New Haven campus acreage—run for close to a mile alongside the roaring cataract of Interstate 95 and nearly half a mile south of the highway to the periodic clatter of trains along the Amtrak and Metro-North railroad tracks that parallel the Long Island Sound coastline down the Northeast Corridor. The West Campus doesn’t feel or look anything like downtown New Haven or Yale’s august neo-Georgian and Gothic Revival campus. The bustling urban and collegiate world of the medical school and the main campus doesn’t exist at all out there. There are no coffeehouses or vendor carts, no honking horns or scurrying pedestrians. Instead, the site is a vast ghost town, its cooling, heating, electrical, security and telecommunications systems maintained by a skeleton crew. A Yale banner announces that the university has staked its claim to the West Campus. Along with its layout of scattered, undistinguished if pleasant modern glass, brick and concrete buildings set amidst lawns, parking lots, roadways and concrete walkways, the Bayer property includes the Oyster River, which runs through a deep wooded ravine that bisects the property. Wild turkeys, deer and coyotes roam the landscape.

Alexander Cooper, a principal in the New York architecture and planning firm of Cooper, Robertson & Partners, says, “It looks like suburban office parks you’d find in any of the 50 states.” Yale has engaged Cooper, who completed a new master plan for the New Haven campus, says Levin, “to think about ways to give the West Campus a Yale feel.” Some preliminary suggestions Cooper presented to the Yale trustees in December included demolishing some structures, rerouting some streets, putting towers at the ends of streets and clustering buildings around courtyards, as well as adding landscape alterations to make the campus more pedestrian-friendly. “It can become a great campus, absolutely,” Cooper says.

Just what will make it truly a Yale campus remains uncertain and will likely not be fully resolved for decades. Along with the present spaces dedicated to future biomedical research, arts and library facilities, Levin says possibilities exist for new structures for the applied physical sciences and clinical centers. Even residential facilities might be constructed on the site. “The possibilities,” he says, “are not fully imaginable today.”

Regional plans announced well before Yale’s acquisition of the site call for a new Metro-North commuter rail station to be built just outside the southwest corner of the site. Levin mentions that a dedicated shuttle train might operate between the West Campus and downtown New Haven. “It’s imperative,” he says, “that the West Campus be fully integrated into the core university. There have to be many faculty going back and forth.”

Getting faculty to take the leap of imagination to see the potential of the new West Campus, admits Alpern, “will be tough.” But before last year, the possibility that Yale would even acquire the property was not being considered. The future of the West Campus will take many years, and probably decades, to unfold. “When there was gold in the hills,” Levin says, “we populated the West. We’ll need a few brave pioneers to populate the wilderness. When they see the possibilities, others will want to join.” As they do, Yale will grow and change in ways that nobody can fully predict. YM

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