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."

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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

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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."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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2 COVID-19-focused research projects happening in Houston

research roundup

While it might seem like the COVID-19 pandemic has settled down for the time being, there's plenty of innovative research ongoing to create solutions for affordable vaccines and tech-enabled protection against the spread of the virus.

Some of that research is happening right here in Houston. Here are two innovative projects in the works at local institutions.

UH researcher designs app to monitor best times to shop

A UH professor is putting safe shopping at your fingertips. Photo via UH.edu

When is the best time to run an errand in the pandemic era we currently reside? There might be an app for that. Albert Cheng, professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston, is working on a real-time COVID-19 infection risk assessment and mitigation system. He presented his plans at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers conference HPC for Urgent Decision Making and will publish the work in IEEE Xplore.

Cheng's work analyzes up-to-date data from multiple open sources to see when is the best time to avoid crowds and accomplish activities outside the home.

"Preliminary work has been performed to determine the usability of a number of COVID-19 data websites and other websites such as grocery stores and restaurants' popular times and traffic," Cheng says in a UH release. "Other data, such as vaccination rates and cultural factors (for example, the percentage of people willing to wear facial coverings or masks in an area), are also used to determine the best grocery store to shop in within a time frame."

To use the app, a user would input their intended destinations and the farthest distance willing to go, as well as the time frame of the trip. The risk assessment and mitigation system, or RT-CIRAM, then "provides as output the target location and the time interval to reach there that would reduce the chance of infections," said Cheng.

There's a lot to it, says Cheng, and the process is highly reliant on technology.

"We are leveraging urgent high-performance cloud computing, coupled with time-critical scheduling and routing techniques, along with our expertise in real-time embedded systems and cyber-physical systems, machine learning, medical devices, real-time knowledge/rule-based decision systems, formal verification, functional reactive systems, virtualization and intrusion detection," says Cheng.

2 Houston hospitals team up with immunotherapy company for new vaccine for Africa

The new vaccine will hopefully help mitigate spread of the disease in Sub-Saharan Africa. Photo via bcm.edu

Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital have teamed up with ImmunityBio Inc. — a clinical-stage immunotherapy company — under a licensing agreement to develop a safe, effective and affordable COVID-19 vaccine.

BCM has licensed out a recombinant protein COVID-19 vaccine candidate that was developed at the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development to ImmunityBio. According to the release, the company engaged in license negotiations with the BCM Ventures team, about the vaccine that could address the current pandemic needs in South Africa.

"We hope that our COVID-19 vaccine for global health might become an important step towards advancing vaccine development capacity in South Africa, and ultimately for all of Sub-Saharan Africa," says Dr. Peter Hotez, professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor and co-director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.

ImmunityBio, which was founded in 2014 by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, is working on innovative immunotherapies that address serious unmet needs in infectious diseases, according to a news release from BCM.

"There is a great need for second-generation vaccines, which are accessible, durable and offer broad protection against the emerging variants," says Soon-Shiong. "ImmunityBio has executed on a heterologous ("mix-and-match") strategy to develop a universal COVID-19 vaccine. To accomplish this, we have embarked upon large-scale good manufacturing practices and development of DNA (adenovirus), RNA (self-amplifying mRNA) and subunit protein (yeast) vaccine platforms. This comprehensive approach will leverage our expertise in these platforms for both infectious disease and cancer therapies."

Elon Musk taps into Texas workforce for out-of-this-world bartender gig

DRINKING ON THE JOB

Can you mix a mean margarita? Are you capable of slinging a superb Aperol spritz? If so, Elon Musk wants you to become a "spaceport mixologist."

Musk's SpaceX, which builds and launches rockets, is hiring a "passionate, experienced" mixologist for its "spaceport" near Brownsville. The ideal candidate possesses at least two years of "superior" mixology experience at resorts, bars, and full-service restaurants, including the ability to pair drinks with themed menus.

Among other duties, the mixologist will prepare drinks, including handcrafted cocktails, and will ensure "consistency and compliance with the restaurant's recipes, portioning, and waste control guidelines."

The new mixologist will concoct alcoholic beverages for SpaceX's launch facility in Boca Chica, a Texas Gulf Coast community about 20 miles east of Brownsville. The job posting indicates the mixologist will work on the culinary team serving the SpaceX workforce.

According to Austin-based job website Indeed, the average mixologist in the U.S. earns $13.53 an hour. The SpaceX job posting doesn't list a salary, but you've got to imagine Musk — by far the richest person in Texas — would fork over more than $13.53 an hour for a spaceport mixologist.

By the way, in case you're not a master mixologist, SpaceX also is looking for a sous chef in Boca Chica. The sous chef will be tasked with cooking up menus that emphasize seasonal items and "creative" options. The chef's duties will include sourcing high-quality ingredients "with a focus on local, sustainable, and organic items."

Musk, who spends much of his time in Austin, is developing what the Bloomberg news service describes as an "empire" in Texas. Aside from the SpaceX facility, Musk-led Tesla is building a vehicle manufacturing plant just east of Austin and is moving its headquarters here. If that weren't enough, the Musk-founded Boring Co., which specializes in developing underground tunnels, lists 20 job openings in Austin on its website. In addition, SpaceX tests rocket engines at a site in McGregor, about 17 miles southwest of Waco.

"Texas has had its share of characters over the years, and many have been larger-than-life, wealthy risk-takers who came from elsewhere," Waco economist Ray Perryman tells Bloomberg. "There's still a wildcatting mentality here, and there's still a mystique about Texas that Elon Musk fits well."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.