- The Washington Times - Monday, July 8, 2002

For years, residents living near the National Institutes of Health have used the federal medical center's Bethesda campus like a municipal park.
Tree-shrouded pathways are a favorite of dog walkers and joggers. The NIH hosts an outdoor film festival and weekly farmers' market. Children convert hills into sledding runs during the winter, and commuters walk through daily to get to a nearby subway stop.
That will all soon end. NIH is completing plans to build an 8-foot fence around the perimeter of its 332-acre campus, a project developed after the September 11 attacks. It will eliminate most public access.
The plan is to keep terrorists or intruders away from the sensitive biological research done at the facility and from the scientists and staff there. But some neighbors say it will also fence the NIH off from its long-standing role in the community.
"It will have a whole different feel. Right now it is part of the community, but putting up a fence makes it look like a military institution," said Robert G. Marks, who lives a block away. "We'll have a suburban neighborhood and a big fence."
The NIH expects to begin work on the fence within a year, the latest security measure taken at the medical facility. Public bus access through the campus was cut off after September 11, and several entrances were closed to traffic. Visitors have their cars searched when they enter the main gates.
The campus has grown rapidly since the federal government first opened a research center in the 1930s, the core of what later became the NIH. It now resembles a bustling university, with huge medical buildings, open greens and 17,000 staffers.
The NIH is made up of roughly 70 buildings and 27 research institutes and centers where scientists study cancer, infectious diseases, drug abuse and other ailments. It is home to the world's largest medical library and the Human Genome Project, where researchers decoded the human genetic structure.
Pedestrians have never been blocked from the campus, although the federal government has been assessing the campus' vulnerability since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
Several government studies have since concluded that the NIH is wide open to attack. That includes an August 2001 report by the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services, the NIH's parent organization, that said the Bethesda campus "is vulnerable to penetration, violence and destruction."
Tom Gallagher, director of the NIH's community outreach office, says the fence is a regrettable but necessary security precaution.
"Nobody around here was lobbying to build a fence. We want to be a campus in the center of a community," he said. "But since 9/11, we have to make adjustments."
The NIH's 2,000-member alumni association also has weighed in against the fence. The group's board of directors passed a resolution in January urging the NIH not to build it.
Board member J. Paul Van Nevel said a security fence could make it harder to recruit scientists expecting to find a bucolic university-style setting for their research work.
"If you make it look like a prison camp, it's going to be hard to get people to come in and for people to stay," he said.
Mr. Van Nevel also said the fence NIH proposes will do little to keep out terrorists bent on destruction or other crime. He said plans he has seen for the fence call for no sensors or other concrete means of monitoring the perimeter.
Mr. Gallagher said the NIH plans to build an "aesthetically pleasing" fence that will blend with its surroundings. At most spots, it would be built at least 250 feet away from the edges of the campus, which NIH hopes will make it less noticeable. He didn't think that kind of structure would hurt recruiting.
Residents say a fence would cut off easy access to a Metro stop that sits at one edge of the campus. Commuters who cut through the NIH would be forced to go around the perimeter, in some cases doubling their walk times.
Mr. Marks estimates he will have to walk 35 minutes each way instead of his usual 15 to catch a train to his job downtown. The convenient Metro station was part of his decision to buy his house last August, he said. He worries the house may lose value because the stop will be farther away.
"We never would have bought the house if we had known about this fence," he said.
Others are more understanding of the NIH's need for security. Virginia Miller, co-chairman of the NIH Community Liaison Council, said she will be disappointed to see the campus blocked off but understands why the move is necessary. To her, the complaints are more about the Metro and less about losing a community asset.
"This really is all about the Metro stop and how this will make it less convenient," she said. "We wish this wouldn't happen, but we are OK with it."
NIH representatives have met with community groups during the past several months to discuss the plan and possible designs. Some residents are trying to get passes that would allow them to walk through the campus to the Metro stop. That, Mr. Gallagher said, is under consideration.
However, it is no longer a question of whether the fence will be built but how it will be done, he said.
"If someone presents a better way to build this, great. But the fence is a done deal."

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