Memorial Park's land bridges are currently under construction. Rendering courtesy of Nelson Byrd Woltz

As Houstonians have been witnessing for the past few years, Memorial Park is in the midst of a renaissance, with a game-changing land bridge in the works, the recently opened Eastern Glades, and more than $200 million in improvements slated by 2028.

Now, Houston's crown green space has received another impressive donation towards the reintroduction of the native Gulf Coast prairie, courtesy of a $10 million contribution from the The Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Family Foundation. The massive contribution will help the park's Land Bridge and Prairie project realize its innovative goals of establishing a more resilient ecology, enhancing animal habitats, improving storm water management, and providing a beautiful, immersive and accessible experience for Park visitors, according to a press release.

"The transformation of Memorial Park is vitally important to our city and our Foundation. We are honored to be part of this incredible effort and proud to join the Kinders and others who have funded the vision for the park," donor Cyvia Wolff said in a statement. "Together, we are creating one of the largest urban prairie reclamation efforts in Texas so that Houstonians can experience a native landscape that has largely been lost."

The multi-year project aims to restore 45 acres of native prairie to the park in an area that starts at the south basin of the land bridge and extends to an area north of Memorial Dr. For the time in more than a century, the land will look as it did when Indigenous people roamed the coastal plain — long before it was farmed by European settlers or served as the ground of Camp Logan, a training area for soldiers during World War I.

Once a dominant feature of coastal Texas and Louisiana, less than 1-percent of its historic range remains, according to the Memorial Park Conservancy. Seeds from plants found along the park's railroad tracks will be added to others collected by the Nature Conservancy to enable the project's realization.

One of the project's primary benefits will be making the park more resilient during floods. The new, south prairie basin will retain more water than the parking lots, woods, and baseball fields that occupied the area previously, while the prairie's deep root system will absorb more water that would otherwise wind up overwhelming Buffalo Bayou.

Increased biodiversity means that native species will return to the park for the first time. Its proximity to the park's Bayou Wilds forest should create more opportunities for bird watchers. Park visitors will be able to experience the prairie through trails and other paths that will connect to other areas of the park.

"Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff are an important part of the fabric of Houston with their leadership in business and education. It is a true honor for us to be working with the Wolff Foundation in returning to the park's ecological and cultural roots and to, quite literally, plant the seeds for Memorial Park's future," said Shellye Arnold, president and CEO of Memorial Park Conservancy. "Through thoughtful research, design, planting, and stewardship, this project will create new places for park visitors to enjoy, grow, and learn for years to come."

---

Steven Devadanam contributed to this article. This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Work has begun on a crucial part of the Land Bridge. Rendering courtesy of Nelson Byrd Woltz

Houston park moves forward on innovative land bridge project

tunnel of sustainability

Few things get local greenspace lovers more hyped than the upcoming improvements and beautification of our beloved Memorial Park — which is currently undergoing a major transformation. While many of the updates and facelifts are years off, one of the most innovative ventures has reached a new milestone in the much-anticipated Land Bridge and Prairie project.

Installation of the first tunnel arches has started as of December 9, according to the Memorial Park Conservancy. Marked by two separate, 35-foot tall mounds, the Land Bridge will serve as a major connector for park users and wildlife between the north and south sides of the park, Additionally, it will offer new gathering spaces with scenic views of Houston and the project's expansive prairie network.

Once the project is completed, vehicular traffic will traverse a new alignment of Memorial Drive via tunnels through the Land Bridge — two tunnels below each of the mounds (one for each direction of travel), according to a press release. The arch segments now being erected south of existing Memorial Drive are for the two tunnels through the eastern-most mound.

Next up will be erection of the west mound arches; all tunnels are slated for completion and open to traffic by fall of 2021.

These tunnels boast an innovative edge. While most are built through existing hillsides or below ground, the Land Bridge tunnels will be set at the same grade as the existing roadway, prior to installation of the earthwork for the mounds, per a release. The tunnels through the east and west mound measure 400 feet and 560 feet long respectively and are made up of some 620 separate panels, each of which weighs just under 50,000 pounds.

While excitement is looming, traffic on Memorial Drive is no doubt a concern. Sources at Memorial Park Conservancy assure that Memorial will remain open throughout the duration of Land Bridge and Prairie construction. Within the project area, traffic has been reduced from three lanes to two each way.

All lanes will reopen in fall 2021 once the new Memorial Drive alignment through tunnels is complete. The new road alignment with three lanes restored each way will be complete in September 2021, while the Land Bridge is slated for substantial completion by October 2022.

Meanwhile, trees removed from the Land Bridge and Prairie project area (a major concern for locals) will be relocated in areas of the park designated for reforestation, or repurposed as either compost or toewood for streambank stabilization, in keeping with the Master Plan provisions.

The new arches are being installed on Memorial Drive. Photo courtesy of Memorial Park Conservancy

------

This article originally ran on CultureMap.

The new Land Bridge will create safe passage from humans and animals. Rendering courtesy of Nelson Byrd Woltz

Houston park breaks ground on innovative land bridge

now building

Last week, Memorial Park made headlines when it triumphantly opened its lush and verdant Eastern Glades. The 100-acre destination transformed largely inaccessible green space into a destination offering up picnic areas, native wetlands, a savanna, a pine-hardwood forest, green spaces, and miles of accessible trails.

Now, the Memorial Park Conservancy has announced that construction has begun on Memorial Park's Land Bridge and Prairie project. The 100-acre project, slated for completion in late 2022, will create a new community space with enhanced recreation opportunities for park users with "unmatched vantage points of urban skyline views," according to a press release. Memorial Park's prairie, which adjoins the Land Bridge to the north and the south, aims to re-establish endangered native Gulf Coast prairie, savanna, and wetlands.

The Land Bridge and its corresponding prairie are part of the Memorial Park Master Plan, made possible by a $70 million gift from the Kinder Foundation, and associated the Ten-Year Plan.

Commuters, no need to worry: Memorial Drive will remain open throughout the duration of Land Bridge and Prairie construction. Traffic will be reduced from three lanes to two each way beginning September, while a new section of Memorial Drive and the tunnel arch structures for the Land Bridge are completed directly south of the operating lanes.
All lanes will reopen in fall 2021 once the new Memorial Drive alignment through tunnels is complete, according to a release.

The Land Bridge Photo courtesy of MPC

Additionally, per the conservancy, the Land Bridge will:


Provide safety and connectivity
This will benefit both humans and animals crossing Memorial Drive. The Land Bridge will establish two dynamic greenspace connections over Memorial Drive that reunite the north and south sides of the Park while expanding the existing trail network and providing increased connectivity within the Park. While the Land Bridge will provide connectivity for Park visitors and wildlife over Memorial Drive, a stream corridor constructed through the Prairie and a culvert will provide connectivity under Memorial Drive. Together these elements will provide much-needed wildlife connectivity within Houston's largest urban wilderness park and to the natural Buffalo Bayou corridor.

Restore nearly 45 acres of native coastal prairie
This will establish a more resilient ecology during natural disruptions and improve animal habitats. Native coastal prairie is one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America, with less than 1 percent of its historic range remaining today. These forthcoming ecosystems will be home to numerous species of flora and fauna.

Create a new destination for visitors
New opportunities include nature education, leisure walking, interval running and cycling, stargazing, relaxing, and more.

Improve stormwater management
The project will detain stormwater that flows through Memorial Park to Buffalo Bayou during heavy rain events, lessening the impact of peak storms. A stream channel constructed through the site, along with the network of native prairie and savanna, will support greater regional biodiversity and act as a green sponge, helping to absorb and clean stormwater. The constructed wetlands will help to purify water and reduce roadway pollutants that would otherwise be released into the watershed.

"From aiding with critical stormwater management to granting people and wildlife safer crossing over Memorial Drive to providing a dynamic outdoor destination for all visitors, the Land Bridge and Prairie will be an asset not just for Memorial Park but for all Houstonians," said Mayor Sylvester Turner in a statement. "It's about unifying both sides of the Park and giving people a new landmark that they can be proud of and use to enjoy nature."

------

This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.