The Medical Center will soon boast an elevated, DNA-shaped greenspace courtesy of landscape architect James Corner.
Visitors to Manhattan's much-loved High Line already know Corner's handiwork. That elevated park, first opened in 2009, repurposes an abandoned railroad track to wind through more than a mile of the island's West Side and bring lush landscapes, regular art installations, and spectacular vantage points that make it a staple of both tourist itineraries and neighborhood lifers.
The Bayou City differs from Manhattan in about a million ways, of course, but Corner's TMC version shares similar ambitions. Dubbed Helix Park, the two-pronged project mimics the winding structure of a DNA strand and starts at-grade to rise to 60 feet, offering visitors an all-too-rare view of the city's multiple skylines. About 125,000 square feet of the underlying structure will be dedicated to research and lab space while another 125,000 square feet will be devoted to commercial and retail clients, including restaurants, cafés, and galleries. A central "piazza" will offer event space for things like farmers markets, galas, and concerts. All told, the helix structure will span a 30-acre plot with running and cycling trails connected to the adjacent bayou greenways.
"It's a centerpiece," Corner says. "That's important because when you look at the Texas Medical Center campus, it's just a lot of buildings—they don't have a center. This will be a symbolic and literal crown jewel in the middle of this campus."
This nods to how Corner's landscaped pretzel twist is just one part of the massive TMC3 project set to transform a parking lot between Brays Bayou and Old Spanish Trail into a national center for biomedical research. Slated for 2022 completion, the new campus is a first-ever joint effort between five entities: TMC, Baylor College of Medicine, Texas A&M University Health Science Center, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, and University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
The endgame is a multipurpose research nexus. Up to 1.5 million square feet of building space could ultimately rise, with that area subdivided into additional medical facilities, commercial spaces, restaurants, public space, and more. One third-party study predicts the new campus will have a $5.2 billion economic stimulus and furnish up to 30,000 new jobs.
Designers view the Helix Park as an opportunity to stitch together the work of the medical center with the existing urban landscape.
"There's a lot of opportunity south of the campus for densification," says Sarah Weidner Astheimer, a principal at James Corner Field Operations. "This project thinks ahead to when these areas are more developed, when there are more jobs, when there are more people living in these neighborhoods."
Part of that integration will be achieved by simply offering an enticing public space, but the park will also feature healing gardens, meditation spaces, and other elements attending to physical, mental, and social elements of health that go beyond exercise. "When we talk about a track or fitness stations," Weidner Astheimer says, "it's not just a track and fitness stations that you'd find at a typical community park. It comes with the center for human physiology next door doing experimental research on that track."
The overarching idea, Corner says, was to design a park that embodies the Medical Center's mission of advancing health in all its forms.
"It'd be really easy for them to just build more buildings, more garages, and more labs and have an internalized campus that really has zero amenity," he says. "Let's say TMC did the helix, but they only thought of it as a green roof for their employees to have a sandwich, and that's the extent of their vision. That would be typical. The fact that TMC really wanted to go as far as they possibly can to push this program of a public park that threads through their campus where health is the primary mission, that's beyond a park in a traditional sense."
Funding for the Helix Park comes from the five collaborating entities along with a philanthropic campaign spearheaded by former Anadarko Petroleum CEO Jim Hackett and his wife, Maureen. Groundbreaking for the project is set for 2019 with an estimated 2022 completion date.