From the Blue Ridge Institute for Medical Research

Medical Schools Jockey for Research Space


Peter Foley for The Wall Street Journal

Shafts of light in the atrium of the new Leon and Norma Hess Center for Science and Medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

When a massive brick-and glass-building officially opens this week at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine just off Fifth Avenue, it will herald, doctors there say, a new age of collaboration between researchers and practitioners that "can change the face of medicine."

But Mount Sinai isn't alone. A few miles away, Weill Cornell Medical College is constructing a research building designed to be "at the vanguard of new medical research and discoveries." And nearby, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center is completing the second phase of a 700,000-square-foot research complex on East 68th Street.

While other industries have been hobbled by the weak economy, New York's large medical centers, among the city's largest employers, are embarked on spending $2 billion on research buildings designed to attract hundreds of biomedical researchers from around the country.

 Peter Foley for The Wall Street Journal

The exterior of the Hess building and adjacent tower on East 102nd Street just off Fifth Avenue.

The race to build big new research complexes promises to expand an important high-tech industry in the city.

But the building spree—largely made possible by low-cost, tax-exempt financing and large donations from New York's deep bench of wealthy financiers and businessmen—is raising questions of whether there could be too many institutions chasing too few federal research dollars to fund operations in the buildings.

The medical schools all have the same plan: recruit researchers who can work with doctors and patients to translate advances in study of the human genome and other research into new treatments and cures—and bring in more money from federal research grants and other funding sources

New York City ranks second after Boston in its prowess in winning grants from the National Institutes of Health, with $1.2 billion in grants received in the latest federal fiscal year ended in September. But New York's grants are split among many top-ranked medical centers, and not one center ranks among the top 10 grant recipients nationally. As a result many local institutions are looking to expand.

Peter Foley for The Wall Street Journal

Lab technicians prepare chemotherapy medications for cancer patients.

Robert Roskoski Jr., a researcher who follows federal health-research grants, said that NIH funding has been nearly flat in recent years. "The pot is only so big," he said. "A lot of people are working hard to get the grants, but they are all fighting for the same money."

At Mount Sinai, Dean Dennis Charney of the medical school said it began work on the $640 million project—a combination of research space, cancer outpatient clinics, faculty medical offices and a 52-story apartment tower on East 102nd Street—in 2009 because the school had run out of lab space for new research.

The new building will provide lab benches for the recruitment of 90 new research teams at Mount Sinai, he said. This could generate an extra $80 million a year in federal grants when the building is fully staffed, a move that could help Mount Sinai catch Columbia University's medical school at the city's top recipient of NIH grants.

But Columbia isn't standing still, either. Researchers there will get about 130,000 square feet of space in a new neuroscience building, the Jerome L. Greene Science Center, under construction on Columbia's new Manhattanville Campus in West Harlem. Researchers also will get an additional 50,000 square feet of space in existing buildings at the school's Washington Heights campus.

The Weill Cornell Medical College is due to begin moving into a $650 million, 18-story research building at the end of 2013, a building that will more than double the college's space for research. Dean Laurie Glimcher said she wanted to bring in "the very brightest researchers who can go bench to bedside" and wasn't worried about competition.

"Our goal isn't to compete with each other our goal is to cure disease," she said. With so much medical progress, she said "you can't have too many" researchers.

At Mount Sinai, doctors wanted the new research building to reflect the "gravitas" of the search for disease cures, according to Ben Ciferri, a vice president at Mount Sinai who oversaw the construction.

As a result, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill designed a hulking building with large columns covered with speckled white brick used elsewhere at the campus. At its center is a 60-foot-high atrium with balconies that serve as patient waiting rooms. Above that is a winding, open central staircase designed to foster collaboration among those working on six floors devoted to research.

The research building was named for Leon Hess, the late oil tycoon, and his wife, Nora Hess. Two floors are set aside for cancer research and another two floors for an expanded outpatient cancer-treatment center. There are also floors for neurological, child health, cardiovascular and genomic research.

The building is connected to a 52-story tower designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli, with 229 apartments on the upper floors, about 20% of them set aside for renters who meet income restrictions. The base of the tower contains Mount Sinai offices and clinics.

Rents at the apartment tower, listed for as much a $12,000 a month for a three-bedroom apartment on will eventually be used to support the operations at the medical school, according to Mr. Ciferri. Tax-exempt financing was issued through two state agencies.

The cancer clinic was moved to the new building first, on the last weekend in October, just before superstorm Sandy struck the area. That freed up space at Mount Sinai to take in patients evacuated from other hospitals.

A version of this article appeared December 13, 2012, on page A22 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Medical Schools Jockey for Research Space. Data provided by the Blue Ridge Institute for Medical Research.


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13 December 2012