A rendering of the proposed design for Johns Hopkins University’s Agora Institute.
A rendering of the proposed design for Johns Hopkins University’s Agora Institute.

Although the Johns Hopkins University has put a hold on most capital projects in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, at least one major campus project is moving ahead.

The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute, a one-of-a-kind interdisciplinary center started in 2017, is proceeding with plans to build a six-story headquarters on Wyman Park Drive, next to the former Baltimore Marine Hospital and just west of the main Homewood campus.

Hopkins president Ronald Daniels informed the Hopkins community last week the administration is suspending most capital projects over $100,000 through fiscal 2021 as a way to mitigate the financial challenges caused by COVID-19-related disruptions to university and health system operations.

Daniels noted that exceptions include capital projects that address critical safety or systems issues, meet an urgent strategic need or are largely supported by donor or sponsored funds. He also said design and construction activities already underway are subject to review.

“The SNF Agora project is proceeding as planned since it is largely supported by donor funds,” said Elizabeth Smyth, executive director of the Institute, in an email message. “The president’s message indicated that the hold on capital projects did not apply to projects that are largely supported by donor and/or sponsored funds.”

In 2017, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation announced it was committing $150 million to launch an effort with Hopkins to build and staff an academic forum dedicated to “strengthening democracy by improving civic engagement and civil discourse worldwide.” The institute takes its name from the Athenian Agora, an open space used for public gatherings.

Hopkins hired the Renzo Piano Building Workshop of Genoa, Italy, and Ayers Saint Gross of Baltimore to lead the design team, selected the Wyman Park site and worked with city planners and elected officials to obtain zoning changes needed for construction.

The university has not disclosed a budget for the Agora headquarters, but planners said the costs of design and construction are largely covered by the SNF gift. The university’s pre-COVID-19 timetable called for the design to be approved in time to start construction this fall, and for the building to open in 2022.

Other major Hopkins projects potentially affected by the hold on construction include a new student center proposed to replace the Mattin Center on Charles Street and consolidation of Hopkins’ Washington-based graduate programs inside the former Newseum building on Pennsylvania Avenue in the District of Columbia. Hopkins is also planning a 12-story, $400 million research tower for its East Baltimore medical campus and has done preliminary sitework.

A university spokesperson did not answer questions about the status of those projects.

The Agora Institute has already begun to assemble a staff and launch programming, including a series of Webcast conversations about the political and policy implications of COVID-19. Smyth said a groundbreaking date for the Agora project has not been set.

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.