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

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."

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

Coming soon

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."

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.

The overall funding plan is a total of $205 million — MPC itself has a capital campaign goal of $50 million — with $32 million to go. A $70 million donation from the Kinder Foundation is the most significant contribution within the fundraising efforts. The foundation approached MPC asking to help contribute to the most transformative project in the master plan, Arnold says, and so they suggested the Eastern Glades, a park within a park and the first project within the master plan to deliver.

MPC expects the Eastern Glades to open next summer — and much of the construction has already been completed. The area will be a 100-acre park within a park with wetlands, a man-made pond, 9 acres of picnic space, and three picnic pavilions.

Eastern Glades

Photo courtesy of MPC

"The full 100-acre Eastern Glades project will provide an amenity that we do not have right now," says Arnold in a release, "a place to put down a blanket and read a book, relax on a park bench, or go for a leisurely walk and just enjoy being outdoors."

In addition to the Eastern Glades, the park will also reopen some relocated ballparks next year.

After next year, the MPC and its master plan partners will deliver a slew of other projects on a rolling basis.

Here are some other exciting ones you can expect in the next few years:

Running Complex

Photo courtesy of MPC

Running is such an important part of Memorial Park, Arnold says, citing the Seymour Lieberman's millions of annual visitors. The $19 million running complex is expected to deliver in 2022.

Memorial Groves

Photo courtesy of MPC

There's a section of Memorial Park that has more history than the rest of the land. The master plan includes a 100-acre, $21.5 million memorial for the fallen soldiers from Camp Logan that's expected to deliver in 2022.

"There were a handful of WWI training camps — this was one of the sites that was chosen," Arnold says. "We have archeological features in the park."

The memorial will feature native pine trees that will be planted in a formation that looks as if they are standing in attention.

The Land Bridge

Photo courtesy of MPC

Possibly the most striking of all the plans is the Land Bridge. The project will connect each of the prairie wetlands on either side of Memorial Drive with a 30-foot-high arch of land. The space will be large enough that you don't even realize you're standing over a busy street, Arnold says. The Land Bridge is planned to deliver in 2022.

Stormwater management

Photo courtesy of Mir

An ongoing part of the transformation will be stormwater management upgrades. MPC has budgeted $3 million to this asset of the renovation. While a part of the plan is tributaries for run-off water, bringing back prairie and wetlands will do a great deal to help abate stormwater.

"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."

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

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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.