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Astrodome-palooza

In case you aren’t completely full of my opining on the Astrodome and its possible fate, I was the author of a op-ed in the Sunday Chron on the subject. It’s kind of the Reader’s Digest version of the things I’ve been saying here, so if you don’t click over you won’t miss anything new to you. I did put a copy of it beneath the fold, since I like to keep track of my own writing.

Elsewhere on those same op-ed pages, former County Judge and State Sen. Jon Lindsay offers his critique of the private proposals that have been floated.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Now we have an opportunity to develop the premier convention city in the world. Just look at what we could create. The combination of the Metro rail service connecting the George R. Brown Convention Center and Discovery Green downtown to the Reliant and Dome complex would be awesome for really big events like a Super Bowl. There are other events that would benefit, like the Offshore Technology Conference (OTC) that requires event facilities combined with entertainment areas. I’m sure the Convention and Visitors Bureau can name others.

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I am critical of the proposal to strip the building to its structural steel and leaving it exposed. Where is the logic in having a steel skeleton out there that would require a full-time painting crew working to stop the rust? That tension ring must be protected or we will have a nature-caused implosion. A very large sculpture is not the answer, either.

There are not many stadiums that have better parking than we already have at Reliant. It can and should be improved, however. A parking garage would pay its own way, and if not, some of the event sponsors should contribute. There should be more effort to encourage parking downtown and use public transportation to get to the games and some other events like the rodeo. It’s much easier to get out of downtown after a game than the Reliant parking lot.

The proposal to develop exhibition space might make some sense if done on a grand scale. By that, I mean get some of the big players involved, like our major oil companies. Develop a big oil field in the Dome featuring some of the early oil rigs and everything big in the industry. Why can’t we have a continuing OTC featuring some of the past? Along with that, put in some educational facilities and meeting rooms. The industry could see that as a way to encourage youth to want a career in oil and gas.

He also mentions that if Texas ever does legalize more gambling, the Dome would be a “premier location” for it. The Dome as casino is the granddaddy of all What To Do With The Dome proposals, though as you can see Lindsay’s successor as County Judge didn’t think much of the idea back then.

Finally, Chron sports columnist Randy Harvey calls on Commissioners Court to think futuristically.

I’m open to most ideas, except for demolishing the Astrodome and replacing it with another parking lot. Even at the bargain price of $29 million estimated by the Texans and Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which is half as much as some say that would cost.

There is no doubt the building could be redeveloped as a shopping mall, a theme park, an apartment complex or a movie studio. I’m not so sure about an indoor ski resort.

It would be better if whatever it becomes commemorated the Astrodome.

Ryan Slattery, a University of Houston graduate student, wrote in his masters thesis that the steel frame and dome should remain, covering a park. The New York Times suggested it could become Houston’s Eiffel Tower.

That’s a difficult image to resist.

But I also would ask commissioners court to consider something more futuristic, as futuristic as the Astrodome was in 1965, as futuristic as NASA was by putting a man on the moon in 1969 and as futuristic as Houston still should want to be seen by the world.

Maybe we could create a museum, not of the past but of the future, more like an exploratorium, with interactive exhibits speculating on life on Earth or other planets in decades and centuries to come.

Ideas are the easy part. It’s the execution that’s tricky. If it were easy to do one of these things, we’d have done it by now.


“Take me back to the Astrodome”

– singer Leah White

As a decision about what to do with the long-dormant Astrodome draws closer, a lot of people have been expressing great sentiment about the old domed stadium. A recent op-ed in the New York Times by sports writer Jeré Longman, in which he recounted happy memories from his childhood about the then-new and wondrous venue and implored Houston to preserve one of its truly historic buildings, captured this sentiment clearly.

Like many Houstonians, I didn’t grow up here and can’t claim to share this sentiment. I do understand it – I remember how cool I thought the Dome was the first time I saw it after moving here in 1988 – but having seen my beloved Yankee Stadium get torn down in 2008, my sympathy only goes so far.

The fact is that in this country, when a stadium stops functioning as a stadium, it gets torn down. Several of the teams that the Astros played against in 1965, the Dome’s opening year, are in their third stadium since then. Ebbetts Field, where Jackie Robinson made his groundbreaking debut in 1947, was demolished in 1960, two years after the Dodgers headed to California. Apartments were built in its place. The only historic venues that still stand are those that are still used as sports arenas, such as Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Lambeau Field and Madison Square Garden.

There is no precedent for turning an unused stadium into some other functional structure, which may be why we have struggled so much to come up with a new use for the Dome. There’s no shortage of ideas – casino, hotel and convention center, museum, park, movie studio – the list goes on. Unfortunately, what these ideas have all had in common so far is the lack of a way to finance them. It is true that a historic structure shouldn’t need to turn a profit to justify its existence, but just about every such structure standing has some means of support. Some, like the Empire State Building or the Louvre, are still used for their original purpose. Others, like the Eiffel Tower or the Alamo, are destinations that people pay to visit, and they often have a private foundation associated with them to ensure their fiscal viability. Neither of these applies to the Astrodome. However, we do continue to devote $1.5 million of our tax dollars every year to maintain it. We’re just not getting any value for that amount.

There are people who have proposals to turn the Dome into something new and useful. Sometime after Monday, we’ll get to see what ideas have been forwarded to Commissioners Court for its review. If the commissioners see fit, we may even get a say in a future election.

Everybody knows that the alternative is the wrecking ball. Given the tide of sentiment about the Dome, it seems likely to me that any alternative put forward by the commissioners will be a favorite. My own lack of sentimentality aside, I do hope that a great and viable idea comes forth that we can all support, and, thus, preserve this unique part of Houston.

Let’s be clear, though: We have only one chance to get this right. Any private entity to which the Dome is turned over will take it on in the belief that a sufficient return can be generated to keep it alive for the long term. But what do you think will happen if they’re wrong about that? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure that multiple feasibility studies and a public process won’t be part of that decision-making.

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