Houston park moves forward on innovative land bridge project

tunnel of sustainability

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

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.

Memorial Park Conservancy's renovations include some projects that are rare or never been done before. Photo courtesy of MPC

These were Houston's top impact innovation stories this year

2019 IN REVIEW

When it comes to the impact that innovation has had on Houston, a number of things stand out for 2019. And, so many of these top stories from this past year are just beginning.

InnovationMap's most read articles in its impact category include new technologies for flood resiliency, The Ion's development, Memorial Park renovations, and more.

These Houston entrepreneurs and startups are searching for flooding solutions

From a water-absorbing tower to sensor-enabled rubber ducks, here are some flooding solution ideas coming out of Houston. Courtesy of Gensler's ByDesign

The feeling is all too familiar for Houstonians. Tropical Storm Imelda hit Houston with devastating flood waters just two years after Hurricane Harvey did its damage.

With any obstacle or challenge, there is room for innovation. Over the past year, InnovationMap has covered various flood tech startups in Houston. Here are six innovations that can make a difference the next time a storm decides to take its toll on Houston. Continue reading.

Memorial Park Conservancy plans to deliver its first project of its master plan redevelopment next year

Memorial Park Conservancy is gearing up to unveil one if its first projects within its 10-year master plan redevelopment. Photo courtesy of MPC

Memorial Park Conservancy has until 2028 to deliver on its master plan redevelopment project, but if MPC president and CEO Shellye Arnold has anything to say about it, the plan will be completed way ahead of that.

The project is a collaborative effort between MPC, Uptown Houston TIRZ, and Houston Parks and Recreation Department to redevelop the 1,500-acre park. In 2011, a major drought decimated the park and areas saw losses of 50 to even 90 percent of the canopy of trees.

"As tragic as it was, it made people take action," says Arnold.

Following the drought, these organizations looked to the people to see what was needed and wanted by the 3 million visitors and residents of the 170 ZIP codes that frequent the park annually.

"There was a huge outcry to do something," Arnold says. "That something became an effort to define the future of the park in a way that would be powerful, bold, thoughtful, innovative, and very resilient. It would consider Houstonians of the future and Houstonians today. It would consider soils, storm water treatment, the wildlife, and what people want." Continue reading.

Overheard: The Ion breaks ground in Midtown's former Sears building

The Rice Management Company has broken ground on the renovation of the historic Midtown Sears building, which will become The Ion. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

The Ion — a to-be entrepreneurial hub for startups, universities, tech companies, and more — is, in a way, the lemonade created from the lemons dealt to the city by a snub from Amazon.

In 2018, Amazon narrowed its options for a second headquarters to 20 cities, and Houston didn't make the shortlist.

"That disappointment lead to a sense of urgency, commitment, and imagination and out of that has come something better than we ever could have imagined," David Leebron, president of Rice University, says to a crowd gathered for The Ion's groundbreaking on July 19.

However disappointing the snub from Amazon was, it was a wake-up call for so many of the Houston innovation ecosystem players. The Ion, which is being constructed within the bones of the historic Midtown Sears building, is a part of a new era for the city.

"Houston's on a new course to a new destination," says Mayor Sylvester Turner. Continue reading.

Third Ward community expresses concerns with The Ion project that's underway

The local community has raised some concerns about Rice Management Company's Ion project's effect on the Third Ward. Courtesy of Rice University

The city of Houston has been buzzing about Rice Management Company's Ion Innovation Hub — a 270,000-square-foot coworking and innovation hub project expected to deliver in 2021 — but there's one group isn't so thrilled with the plans: The Third Ward community.

In a public community meeting on November 12, community members gathered at the Wesley AME Church to plan a Community Benefits Agreement that would legally bind The Innovation District's development team and the Rice Management Company to move forward with the local residents' indicated best interests. According to the Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement, a newly formed group to work on the CBA, it would be the first of its kind in Houston.

The coalition is supported by Third Ward is Home Civic Club, the Emancipation Economic Development Council, the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats - Harris County, and the Houston Society for Change. Continue reading.

4 things you need to know from the Greater Houston Partnership's annual report as it pertains to innovation

downtown houston

The Greater Houston Partnership has the facts. Nick Bee/Pexels

Every year, the Greater Houston Partnership — the city's economic development arm — gathers up data and reports to paint a full picture of the Bayou City. In the past few editions, innovation has been a key component.

The GHP's innovation coverage spans three pages under the top industry and sectors category. From tech startup growth to money raised, here's what you need to know from the 2019 Houston Facts. Continue reading.

Memorial Park Conservancy's renovations include some projects that are rare or never been done before. Photo courtesy of MPC

3 ways the Memorial Park Conservancy renovations are innovative

Park of the future

Memorial Park is undergoing a huge transformation that is mixing a little bit of old with the new.

The Memorial Park Master Plan includes adding breathtaking new projects — like water features, a new athletic complex, and more — as well as conservation efforts that restore parts of the land that were native coastal prairie. The project is a collaborative effort between Memorial Park Conservancy, Uptown Houston TIRZ, and Houston Parks and Recreation Department to redevelop the 1,500-acre park.

The Master Plan is set to deliver a series of projects ahead of 2028, and there are a few initiatives that are innovative and different from other urban parks' transformations, notes MPC's president and CEO Shellye Arnold.

The Land Bridge

Photo courtesy of MPC

A big part of Memorial Park's transformation is restoring the park to native species and ecosystems.

"We're taking ball fields, parking lots, and roads and converting them back to what was here — native wetland coastal prairie," Arnold says. "This serves important stormwater purposes."

In order to connect two native coastal prairie lands on either side of Memorial Drive, MPC is building a unique 30-foot-high land bridge the size of three-and-a-half football fields. The space will be large enough that you don't even realize you're standing over a busy street, Arnold says.

The prairies will serve an important purpose for rainwater collection — a growing need within the city of Houston.

"We're channeling [rainwater] into this prairie where some of it can be absorbed, cleansed, slowed down," says Arnold. "And then what doesn't get slowed down and absorbed can flow through the prairie [on the other side], which is even bigger."

The Land Bridge also serves another purpose that park goers have wanted, Arnold says: Connectivity.

"[They] want access across the Memorial Drive — [they] want to safe access, and so this is the response. It's a pretty bold and visionary response," Arnold says.

BioCycling

Photo courtesy of MPC

In 2011, a major drought decimated the park and areas saw losses of 50 to even 90 percent of the canopy of trees. MPC and its team saved what could be saved, and the rest is serving a new purpose to the park.

"We took the trees that we lost on the drought that people felt such a tremendous loss for and ground them all up, and they are in a biocycle in a two-acre area in the back of the park," Arnold says.

The soil created — some of which includes manure from the animals at the Houston Zoo — has already been used on some plants in the park, and Arnold says those plants are thriving.

"It's cool that those those trees are giving life to the park," Arnold says.

Invasive species of trees that are plucked from out of the park are also being ground up and used in the same way.

"There isn't anything this big like this in an urban park setting like this kind of recycling effort," she says.

The biocycling process is scalable too.

"We could open this up to other organizations," Arnold says. "It's so much better ecologically to take trees and grind them up and use it inside the space rather than haul them out to landfill way outside of town and dump them."

The benefit to the program is that MPC can retain some of the soil it produces for these other organizations and use it on site.

Biodiversity initiatives and research

Photo courtesy of MPC

When putting the plans in place, MPC and its partners called on 25 of the best ecologists, as well as 50 more park and other types of consultants specializing in everything from insects and wildlife to prairies and trees.

Just as the Land Bridge is creating new prairie space, other initiatives throughout the park will be focused on eliminating invasive species and bringing back the natural ecosystem of the park.

The Easter Glades project, which is set to deliver next year, will have a habitat for fish, and will not allow any fishing or boating. Carolyn White, conservation director at MPC, is working with the Texas Wildlife Association to bring in the right species of fish.

Arnold says that MPC works with other organizations in an innovative way to bring native plants into MPC, since the park has the space for these organizations to use to cultivate and propagate plants.

"They bring their native plants and they grow them with their volunteers, and they leave us a little bit here," Arnold says. "We could never buy enough native plants to go inside this park."

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Looking back: Top 5 most-read Houston research-focused stories of 2021

2022 in review

Editor's note: As 2022 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. In many cases, innovative startups originate from meticulous research deep within institutions. This past year, InnovationMap featured stories on these research institutions — from their breakthrough innovations to funding fueling it all. Here are five Houston research-focused articles that stood out to readers this year — be sure to click through to read the full story.


Texas nonprofit cancer research funder doles out millions to health professionals moving to Houston

These cancer research professionals just got fresh funding from a statewide organization. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Thanks in part to multimillion-dollar grants from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, two top-flight cancer researchers are taking key positions at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine.

Dr. Pavan Reddy and Dr. Michael Taylor each recently received a grant of $6 million from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

Reddy is leaving his position as chief of hematology-oncology and deputy director at the University of Michigan’s Rogel Cancer Center to become director of the Baylor College of Medicine’s Dan L. Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center. Dr. C. Kent Osborne stepped down as the center’s director in 2020; Dr. Helen Heslop has been the interim director. Continue reading.

Rice University deploys grant funding to 9 innovative Houston research projects

Nine research projects at Rice University have been granted $25,000 to advance their innovative solutions. Photo courtesy of Rice

Over a dozen Houston researchers wrapped up 2021 with the news of fresh funding thanks to an initiative and investment fund from Rice University.

The Technology Development Fund is a part of the university’s Creative Ventures initiative, which has awarded more than $4 million in grants since its inception in 2016. Rice's Office of Technology Transfer orchestrated the $25,000 grants across nine projects. Submissions were accepted through October and the winners were announced a few weeks ago. Continue reading.

Houston researchers create unprecedented solar energy technology that improves on efficiency

Two researchers out of the University of Houston have ideated a way to efficiently harvest carbon-free energy 24 hours a day. Photo via Getty Images

Two Houstonians have developed a new system of harvesting solar energy more efficiently.

Bo Zhao, the Kalsi Assistant Professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Houston, along with his doctoral student Sina Jafari Ghalekohneh, have created a technology that theoretically allows solar energy to be harvested to the thermodynamic limit, which is the absolute maximum rate sunlight can be converted into electricity, as reported in a September article for Physical Review Applied.

Traditional solar thermophotovoltaics (STPVs), or the engines used to extract electrical power from thermal radiation, run at an efficiency limit of 85.4 percent, according to a statement from UH. Zhao and Ghalekohneh's system was able to reach a rate of 93.3 percent, also known as the Landsberg Limit. Continue reading.

Texas A&M receives $10M to create cybersecurity research program

Texas A&M University has announced a new cybersecurity-focused initiative. Photo via tamu.edu

Texas A&M University has launched an institute for research and education regarding cybersecurity.

The Texas A&M Global Cyber Research Institute is a collaboration between the university and a Texas A&M University System engineering research agency, the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station. The research agency and Texas A&M are also home to the Texas A&M Cybersecurity Center.

The institute is funded by $10 million in gifts from former Texas A&M student Ray Rothrock, a venture capitalist and cybersecurity expert, and other donors. Continue reading.

Houston research organization doles out $28M in grants to innovators across Texas

Houston-based Welch Foundation has awarded almost $28 million in chemical research grants throughout Texas this year. Photo via Getty Images

Chemical researchers at seven institutions in the Houston area are receiving nearly $12.9 million grants from the Houston-based Welch Foundation.

In the Houston area, 43 grants are going to seven institutions:

  • Baylor College of Medicine
  • Rice University
  • Texas A&M University
  • Texas A&M University Health Science Center
  • University of Houston
  • University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston
  • University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston

The Welch Foundation is awarding almost $28 million in chemical research grants throughout Texas this year. The money will be allocated over a three-year period. Continue reading.

University of Houston powers up first robot food server in a U.S. restaurant

order up

The University of Houston is taking a bold step — or, in this case, roll — in foodservice delivery. UH's Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership is now deploying a robot server in Eric’s Restaurant at its Hilton College.

Booting up this new service is major bragging rights for the Coogs, as UH is now the only college in the country — and the only restaurant facility in Houston — to utilize a robotic food delivery.

These rolling delivery bots come from the state-of-the-art food service robot called Servi. The bots, created by Bear Robotics, are armed with LiDar sensors, cameras, and trays, and automatically return to their posts when internal weight sensors detect a delivery has been completed.

Not surprisingly, these futuristic food staffers are booting up plenty of buzz at UH.

“People are excited about it,” says Dennis Reynolds, who is dean of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership and oversees the only hospitality program in the world where students work and take classes in an internationally branded, full-service hotel. Launching robot waitstaff at UH as a test market makes sense, he notes, for practical use and larger implications.

The Servi robots deliver food from the kitchen to the table. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

“Robotics and the general fear of technology we see today are really untested in the restaurant industry,” he says in an announcement. “At Hilton College, it’s not just about using tomorrow’s technology today. We always want to be the leader in learning how that technology impacts the industry.”

Bear Robotics, a tech company founded by restaurant experts and tech entrepreneurs, hosted a Servi showcase at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago earlier this year. After seeing the demo, Reynolds was hooked. UH's Servi robot arrived at Eric’s Restaurant in October.

Before sending the bot to diners' tables, the bot was prepped by Tanner Lucas, the executive chef and foodservice director at Eric’s. That meant weeks of mapping, programming, and — not surprisingly — “test driving” around the restaurant.

Tanner even created a digital map of the restaurant to teach the Servi its pathways and designated service points, such as table numbers. “Then, we sent it back and forth to all of those points from the kitchen with food to make sure it wouldn’t run into anything," he adds.

But does having a robot deliver food create friction between human and automated staff? Not at Eric's. “The robot helps my workflow,” Joel Tatum, a server at Eric’s says. “It lets me spend more time with my customers instead of just chasing and running food.”

Once loaded, the kitchen staff can tell the Servi robots where to take the dishes. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

Reynolds believes robots will complement their human counterparts and actually enhance the customer experience, even in unlikely settings.

“Studies have been conducted in senior living facilities where you might think a robot wouldn’t be well received, but it’s been just the opposite,” Reynolds says. “Those residents saw the change in their lives and loved it.”

To that end, he plans to use Servi bots in other UH venues. “The ballroom would be a fantastic place to showcase Servi – not as a labor-saving device, but as an excitement generator,” Reynolds notes. “To have it rotating through a big event delivering appetizers would be really fun.”

Critics who denounce robot servers and suggest they will soon displace humans are missing the point, Reynolds adds. “This isn’t about cutting our labor costs. It’s about building our top-line revenues and expanding our brand as a global hospitality innovator,” Reynolds says. “People will come to expect more robotics, more artificial intelligence in all segments of hospitality, and our students will be right there at the forefront.”

Servi bots come at a time of dynamic growth for Hilton College. A recent rebrand to “Global Hospitality Leadership” comes as the college hotel is undergoing a $30 million expansion and renovation, which includes a new five-story, 70-room guest tower. The student-run Cougar Grounds coffeehouse reopened this semester in a larger space with plenty of updates. The neighboring Eric’s Club Center for Student Success helps with recruitment and enrollment, undergraduate academic services, and career development.

“To be the first university in the country to introduce robotics in the dining room is remarkable,” Reynolds adds. “There are a lot of unique things we’re doing at Hilton College.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston innovator on seeing a greener future on built environment

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 162

An architect by trade, Anas Al Kassas says he was used to solving problems in his line of work. Each project architects take on requires building designers to be innovative and creative. A few years ago, Kassas took his problem-solving background into the entrepreneurship world to scale a process that allows for retrofitting window facades for energy efficiency.

“If you look at buildings today, they are the largest energy-consuming sector — more than industrial and more than transportation,” Kassas, founder and CEO of INOVUES, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. “They account for up to 40 percent of energy consumption and carbon emissions.”

To meet their climate goals, companies within the built environment are making moves to transition to electric systems. This has to be done with energy efficiency in mind, otherwise it will result in grid instability.

"Energy efficiency goes hand in hand with energy transition," he explains.

Kassas says that he first had the idea for his company when he was living in Boston. He chose to start the business in Houston, attracted to the city by its central location, affordable labor market, and manufacturing opportunities here.

Last year, INOVUES raised its first round of funding — a $2.75 million seed round — to scale up the team and identify the best markets to target customers. Kassas says he was looking for regions with rising energy rates and sizable incentives for companies making energy efficient changes.

"We were able to now implement our technology in over 4 million square feet of building space — from Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York City, Portland, and very soon in Canada," he says.

Notably missing from that list is any Texas cities. Kassas says that he believes Houston is a great city for startups and he has his operations and manufacturing is based here, but he's not yet seen the right opportunity and adaption

"Unfortunately most of our customers are not in Texas," "A lot of work can be done here to incentivize building owners. There are a lot of existing buildings and construction happening here, but there has to be more incentives."

Kassas shares more about his growth over the past year, as well as what he has planned for 2023 on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.