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Another designation for the Astrodome

It’s quite the historic place.

All this and history too

The famed Astrodome will be designated as a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark — the highest honor the state can bestow on a historic structure.

The marker will finally and officially tell the story of the “Eighth Wonder of the World” and, hopefully, create a snapshot destination.

“The dome has never had an actual historical marker,” said Mike Vance, a member of the Harris County Historical Commission which is the local arm of the Texas Historical Commission.

The Texas commission approved the stadium in January among 172 new historical markers statewide for 2018.


The Astrodome received its strongest protection in a 2017 state antiquities landmark designation, which requires clearance from the Texas Historical Commission for any alterations. Becoming a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark adds another measure of protection.

“It’s a higher standard you have to reach to qualify for that kind of marker,” said Vance. “That means that it’s a building and it has to be intact in the judgment of the Texas Historical Commission — and the dome, thankfully, is.”

In addition, the sign’s unveiling will be “something tangible and visible,” unlike the antiquities designation, Vance said.

So let’s get a couple of things straight at this point.

1. There’s no way the Astrodome gets demolished. You can argue that it was wrong to pursue these historic designations, and you can argue (incorrectly) that the Dome should have been demolished after the 2012 bond referendum was voted down, but those ships have sailed. The Astrodome is basically in the same class as the Alamo now. It’s not getting demolished.

2. Given #1, that means the choices before us are Do Something, and Keep Doing Nothing. It should be clear to all that nobody wants to Keep Doing Nothing. Ed Emmett certainly doesn’t want to do nothing, and the people who are most vocally opposed to the plan that Emmett has put forward are the ones who are most vocally upset about the state of the Dome now after years of nothing being done. Nobody wants to do nothing.

3. So, one way or another, we are going to do something about the Dome, and that means that one way or another we are going to spend some money on doing something about the Dome. The something that is on the table and currently in progress is the Emmett plan. One argument being made by those who don’t like the Emmett plan is that we should have a public vote to approve spending money on the Dome before we do so. I oppose this for two reasons. One is that we don’t as a matter of course have public votes to approve the spending of money by government entities. We vote to approve the borrowing of money, but not the spending of money. I have zero interest in setting that precedent, and I can’t think of a single reason why anyone of a progressive bent would want to set that precedent, either. And two, public votes like this have become little more than preludes to litigation over the result of those votes, often on ridiculous pretexts and often taking years to resolve. You want to ensure that nothing continues to get done on the Dome for another five or ten years, maybe more? Insist on a vote before authorizing any money to be spent on it. It’s more effective than any filibuster.

The case for the Astrodome

Lisa Falkenberg lays it out.

We have a plan!

But here’s the thing: leaders have to balance today’s needs with tomorrow’s. The long view has its virtues. And frankly, it’s been all to absent in the decision-making of Houston and Harris County. Shortsightedness has gotten us into a lot of trouble – from poor investment in flooding infrastructure to irresponsible growth that increased the region’s vulnerability during storms and rain events.

It has led us to pave over prairies. To bulldoze historic architecture and old trees and character. And yes, to leave an expensive, beloved, world-famous landmark with a lot of tourism potential rotting away in full view of visitors and homefolk alike.

So, sure, it may seem tone deaf to pour money into the Astrodome right now, but the decision seems to be in tune with Houston’s future needs.

And critics of the decision either don’t understand the facts, or willfully ignore them.


So let’s address the naysayers, point by point, with a little help from Emmett, the county judge.

*CLAIM: Harris County voters already voted to demolish the dome.

No, they didn’t. They voted down a proposed bond for a much bigger $217 million renovation project. They said loud and clear that they didn’t want county commissioners borrowing money to fund a dome project, and Emmett says the county listened. He says the stripped-down plan to raise the dome for parking and open it for special events makes financial and logistical sense, as it will produce revenue, and also provide space for first responders during a storm, and potential storage for the medical supplies during those events. “Would you really want us spending $35 million to tear down a perfectly usable building?” Emmett says he asks people who bring up the vote. And he points out that demolition is no longer an option anyway, since the Texas Historical Commission has designated the Astrodome a state antiquities landmark, giving the stadium special protections against demolition.

See here for some background. As you know, I think this is a decent and workable plan. I expect people will disagree with that – Emmett’s Democratic opponent Lina Hidalgo has made the “voters rejected the bond proposal” and “we have other priorities” arguments on Facebook. I believe the case for it is sound, and I appreciate Falkenberg laying it out as she did. If you don’t see it that way, take what she wrote as your starting point and take your best shot from there.

County approves Astrodome plan

Like it or not, here it comes.

Take a last look at it

Harris County Commissioners Court voted unanimously Tuesday to move forward with the final design and construction of a $105 million project to transform the cherished piece of Houston’s sporting history into what officials hope will be coveted event space.

“It gives us a huge national story line,” said Holly Clapham, chief marketing officer for Houston First Corp., the city’s main marketing arm. “This, obviously, is a very significant building and we can tell the story of its new life, and serving a new constituency that didn’t know it as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World.'”

Construction on the project is expected to begin in October and end in February 2020.

“The first thing we have to do is get it back to where it’s structurally sound,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said after Tuesday’s court meeting. “Nine acres of open space, under cover, in Houston, Texas, is a big deal. We’ve already been contacted by all sorts of groups that want to come use it, so it’s exciting.”

See here and here for some background, though obviously there’s a lot more to this long-lasting story. I like this idea – unlike so many other proposals, this plan makes sense to me, it’s not outrageously expensive, and it keeps the property in the hands of the public. I’m not sure if it will make sense to keep calling it the Astrodome when all is said and done, but we can cross that bridge when we get to it.

Not everyone sees this as I do, of course, and we’ll be hearing plenty from them.

State Senator Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who co-sponsored legislation last year that would have required a public referendum on the Astrodome project, called Tuesday’s vote by Commissioners Court “tone deaf.”

“We just need to recognize the obvious,” Bettencourt said in a statement. “If the county has money to ignore a public vote and refurbish the Astrodome, then they have the capability to offer flooded-out homeowners disaster reappraisal and to cut their property tax rate.”

Bettencourt and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have called on local taxing jurisdictions to allow residents whose homes were damaged by Harvey to have their properties reappraised to reflect their lower values.

Through a spokesman, Emmett called Bettencourt’s remarks “ill-informed” and said the project would allow the county to generate revenue for upgrades to the NRG Complex that otherwise would fall on taxpayers.

See here and here for more on the failed bill to require a vote on something that we wouldn’t normally require a vote on, since no bonds are being floated. The preview story goes into the funding source for the remodel.

In response to Harvey, the county is poised to call a bond referendum of at least $1 billion to pay for flood control projects, and Commissioners Court has imposed tougher regulations on new development in floodplains, as well as authorized up to $20 million to facilitate buyouts of Harvey-flooded homes.

Of the $105 million cost to renovate the dome into convention and meeting space, about a third would come from the county’s general fund, largely made up of property tax revenue. The other two sources — hotel occupancy taxes and parking revenue — would not be used for flood control Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said.

“We’re the third largest county in the country. We’re having to renovate a lot of buildings. This is another building,” Emmett said. “We need to renovate it and make it usable.”

He added that $35 million “does not go very far flood control-wise” when billions of dollars in improvements and repairs are needed.

People are going to have feelings about this, that’s for sure. There’s no direct vote on the Dome plan, but there will be that bond referendum, and Ed Emmett will be on the ballot, so the politics of this could work out in a number of ways. I’ve said my piece. We’ll see what develops from here.

Dome bash planned

Mark your calendars.

All this and antiquities landmark status too

Next year, Astrodome lovers will be able to once again take a gander at the stadium’s iconic roof before it embarks on its next adventure.

During a mixer/meeting for friends and supporters of the Astrodome Conservancy, organizers revealed that a party to honor the Astrodome’s history is tentatively set for April 9, 2018.

In a fitting touch, the mixer was held at the 8th Wonder Brewery.

The party would be much like the 50th birthday bash held for the stadium in 2015 when nostalgia for the Dome was at a fever pitch. Fans were able to walk onto the floor of the Dome and see what it currently looks like inside. Thousands of Houstonians came from all over the city to take in the view and take selfies. The party itself won’t be in the Dome, but fans can wait in line to walk inside for a few minutes.


More plans for the 2018 party are still to be solidified, with more programming and entertainment details to follow.

One presumes this will be to help generate support for the Astrodome repurposing plan, whatever that winds up being. Would you be interested in attending this party? Leave a comment and let us know.

Bonds on the ballot

Mayor Turner has one more item to deal with this November.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner is poised ask voters to approve bonds this fall to fund improvements to city parks, community centers, fire stations and health clinics, adding hundreds of millions of dollars in debt to a crowded November ballot.

The proposed five-year capital improvement plan, unveiled at a City Council committee hearing Tuesday, calls for $6.7 billion in airport and utility projects, to be funded by user fees, as well as $538 million in improvements such as expanded police and fire stations, renovated libraries, miles of bike trails and repairs to city buildings to paid for with taxes or philanthropic gifts.

The plan relies on a November 2017 bond vote as one of its key funding sources, with about $190 million worth of projects in the five-year plan contingent on approval of new debt.

Houston’s last bond vote was in 2012, and the city’s capital spending is expected to quickly exhaust the debt voters authorized then.

“It’s not a question of going to voters with debt. We will be going to the voters with an investment proposal, a package of community improvements that are important to delivering the kind of services Houstonians expect and deserve,” Turner said. “Those improvements, whether they are police or fire stations, libraries or community centers or parks, make our city a better place for all of us to live.”

City Finance Director Kelly Dowe said Tuesday the size of the bond package has not been determined, but Houston typically seeks enough leeway to last a bit beyond any one five-year capital plan.


The mayor has pledged to ask Houstonians to repeal a voter-imposed cap that limits what the city can collect in property taxes. That rule is a lightning rod for conservatives, who spearheaded its passage 13 years ago.

Turner’s landmark pension reform bill, which takes effect Saturday, also requires voters to approve the $1 billion in bonds Turner plans to inject into the under-funded police and municipal pensions. Should voters reject it, those groups’ substantial benefit cuts could be rescinded, hiking the city’s costs overnight.

Adding a general bond issue to the ballot alongside the pension bonds and what amounts to a tax hike is risky, said Jay Aiyer, a Texas Southern University political scientist professor.

“The more measures you put on the ballot, the more confusing it becomes for voters and I think the more attention is taken away from selling the one item that absolutely must pass, and that’s the pension obligation bonds,” Aiyer said. “It would make a whole lot more sense to make the pension obligation bonds a standalone and push some of these other items off.”

First of all, “what amounts to a tax hike”? Leave the spin out, please. Four of the five bond issues in 2012, which totaled $410 million, passed with at least 62% of the vote; the fifth drew 55%. That was a very high turnout context – there were over 400K votes cast for each item – while this year will not be. Even if the Supreme Court intervenes and puts city elections on the ballot, far fewer people will vote this year. Still, bond issues usually pass. Especially if there aren’t city elections, all of these issues will come down to how successful the Mayor and his team are at getting the voters they need to come out and support him.

I would push back on the notion, as expressed by the Chron’s Rebecca Elliott, that having these bond issues makes the November ballot “ugly”. We are basically talking three items – revenue cap change, pension obligation bonds, and these bonds, though they will likely be split into multiple smaller items – in an election where there may be no city candidates on anyone’s ballot. Remember, there will be no Metro vote or Astrodome vote – what we have now is all we’re likely to get. Frankly, unless the Supreme Court sticks its nose in and orders city elections this fall, the number of votes people will be asked to cast will likely be smaller than what it usually is in an odd-numbered year. In addition, only the revenue cap vote is one that will be in any way complex – we have bond issues all the time, people understand them, and the pension obligation bonds are just a special case of that. Ugly to me will be having a bunch of campaigns put together on short notice and sprinting towards the finish line with far less time to do the sort of retail-politics outreach that most city candidates get to do. YMMV, but if what we have now is what we end up with, I’ll consider it a relaxing stroll. Campos has more.

No Astrodome vote this fall

This is a bit of a surprise.

All this and antiquities landmark status too

[Sen. John] Whitmire filed a bill that would force the county to get voter approval before spending any money on the Dome.

“It’s a dream and you shouldn’t spend taxpayer dollars on a dream,” Whitmire said.

Whitmire’s bill sailed through the Senate, but hit a brick wall in the House.

After passing the Senate, the bill was sent to the House County Affairs committee.

State Representative Garnet Coleman is the chair of that committee.

“The Astrodome is a symbol of our ‘can-do’ spirit,” Coleman said. “I want it left as a symbol of what my city is and has been.”

The bill never made it out of Coleman’s committee, so it died. Coleman wouldn’t say whether he agreed or disagreed with the Commissioner’s plans.

“I don’t have to agree or disagree because I don’t want it torn down,” Coleman said.

See here, here, and here for the background. I confess I’m surprised, I had expected this bill to zip through based on its easy adoption in the Senate, but like the AirBnB bill, one must never assume that a bill will make it to the finish line. I didn’t care for the Whitmire bill, so this outcome is fine by me.

With the demise this bill, what could have been a very busy November has been scaled back quite a bit. With no Astrodome vote and no Metro vote (this year), what we are left with are the pension obligation bonds and the revenue cap; it remains to be seen if there will be a vote on forcing city employees onto a defined-contribution retirement plan, as the petitions have not yet been verified and the instigator behind the drive says she’s not interested in it any more. Things can still change, and there will be some number of low-profile constitutional amendments on the ballot, but all in all expect there to be fewer campaigns this November than there could have been. Link via Swamplot.

UPDATE: In case you’re wondering what this means from the county’s perspective.

The end of the session on Monday means the county can move forward with a revitalization project that officials say could be the key to the stadium’s long-term preservation, as well as resume a broader study of the maintenance of the NRG park that was set aside as lawmakers considered Whitmire’s bill.

“I don’t see any potential road blocks,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, on the revitalization project.

Emmett said 2020 would be a rough, early estimate of when the project could be completed.

Architects and engineers are working on the first phase of the project. That first phase began in September, and was seen as one of the most concrete steps toward securing the Dome’s future. It has been vacant for years, and hosted its last Astros game in 2000.

Commissioners Court will have to give another green light for the actual construction to begin.

County Engineer John Blount said the architects and engineers are examining the stadium as part of the design process, verifying that the county’s blueprints match how the stadium actually looks. Blount said, for example, that modifications to the stadium’s drainage system made in the 1960s after it was built were not reflected in its original blueprints.

“We might find things that take some time to go investigate,” Blount said.


“There’s no reason why the House couldn’t have taken a vote on this,” said Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who supported Whitmire’s bill.

Bettencourt said the 2013 referendum and general fund money being used by the county to fund the project – estimated to be about one-third of the total cost – necessitates a referendum.

“As long as that’s in there, in my mind they’re going to have to bring this to a vote,” he said.

I take Bettencourt’s words to mean that the fight is not over yet. Don’t be surprised if someone sues to stop things once the county begins spending money on this, and don’t be surprised if another bill like SB884 is introduced in 2019.

Busy day in the Senate

They got stuff done, I’ll give them that. Whether it was stuff worth doing or not, I’ll leave to you.

1. Senate bill would let Houston voters weigh in on fix to pension crisis.

The Senate on Wednesday voted 21-10 to give preliminary approval of a bill that would require voters to sign off before cities issue pension obligation bonds, a kind of public debt that infuses retirement funds with lump-sum payments. Issuing $1 billion in those bonds is a linchpin of Houston officials’ proposal to decrease the city’s unfunded pension liabilities that are estimated to be at least $8 billion.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told The Texas Tribune earlier this month that if the bill becomes law and voters reject the $1 billion bond proposition, a delicate and hard-fought plan to curb a growing pension crisis would be shrouded in uncertainty. He also argued that the debt already exists because the city will have to pay it at some point to make good on promises to pension members.

But lawmakers said voters should get to weigh in when cities take on such large amounts of bond debt.

“Of course the voters themselves should be the ultimate decider,” said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who authored the bill.


State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said at a hearing on several pension bills last week that Houston voters would likely approve the pension bonds – and that she would publicly support the measure. Nonetheless, holding an election on the issue is worthwhile, she maintained.

“The voters want to have a say when the city takes on debt in this way,” she said.

See here and here for the background. The referendum that the Senate bill would require is not a sure thing as the House bill lacks such a provision. We’ll see which chamber prevails. As you know, I’m basically agnostic about this, but let’s please skip the fiction that the pension bonds – which the city has floated in the past with no vote – represents “taking on debt”. The city already owes this money. The bonds are merely a refinancing of existing debt. Vote if we must, but anyone who opposes this referendum is someone who wants to see the pension deal fail. Speaking of voting…

2. Senate OKs measure requiring public vote on Astrodome project.

In a move that could block Harris County’s plans to redevelop the Astrodome, the Texas Senate on Wednesday unanimously approved legislation that would require a public vote on using tax funds on the project.

Senate Bill 884 by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, would require a public vote before Harris County can spend any taxpayer money to improve or redevelop the Astrodome. “Elections are supposed to matter … and this is an example of how a governing body is trying to ignore an election and go contrary to a popular vote,” Whitmire said.


The proposal has drawn opposition from Houston lawmakers who said that move violates the 2013 decision by voters.

Sens. Paul Bettencourt and Joan Huffman, both Houston Republicans, said voters should be given the opportunity to determine whether the new project goes forward because they earlier rejected spending tax money on the restoration.

“The taxpayers of Harris County would be on the hook for this project, and they should be allowed to have a say in whether they want to pay for it,” Huffman said.

Added Whitmire, “After the voters have said no, you don’t go back with your special interests and spend tax money on the Astrodome anyway.”

See here, here, and here for the background. You now where I stand on this. Commissioners Court has to take some of the blame for this bill’s existence, as the consequences of failure for that 2013 referendum were never specified, but this is still a dumb idea and an unprecedented requirement for a non-financed expenditure.

3. Fetal tissue disposal bill gets initial OK in Texas Senate.

Legislation that would require medical centers to bury or create the remains of aborted fetuses won initial approval in the Texas Senate Wednesday.

Because Senate Bill 258 by Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, did not have enough votes to be finally approved, a follow-up vote will be needed before it goes to the House.

In the Republican-controlled Senate, where anti-abortion fervor runs strong, that step is all but assured.


After lengthy debate on Wednesday, the measure passed 22-9. Final passage in the Senate could come as soon as Thursday, after which it will go to the House for consideration.

It is one of several abortion-related measures that have passed the Senate this legislative session. Republican lawmakers supported Senate Bill 8 that would ban abortion providers from donating fetal tissue from abortions for medical research, and Senate Bill 415, which targets an abortion procedure known as “dilation and evacuation.”

Bills also have been filed by Democrats to reverse the 24-hour period a woman must wait to get an abortion and to cover contraceptives for Texans under age 18. The likelihood of those being approved in the GOP-controlled Legislature is considered almost nil.

I have no idea what that second paragraph means; all bills are voted on three times. Whatever. That sound you hear in the background are the lawyers for the Center for Reproductive Rights loosening up in the bullpen.

4. Texas Senate approves ban on government collecting union dues.

A controversial bill to prohibit state and local governments from deducting union dues from employees’ paychecks was tentatively approved Wednesday by the Texas Senate after a divisive, partisan debate.

The Republican author, Sen. Joan Huffman of Houston, denied the measure was anti-union or was designed to target a historical source of support for Democrats, even though she acknowledged that Republican primary voters overwhelmingly support the change.

Police, firefighter and emergency medics’ organizations are exempted from the ban, after those groups had threatened to kill the bill if they were covered the same as teacher groups, labor unions and other employee associations.

Groups not exempted will have to collect dues on their own, a move that some have said will be cumbersome and expensive. Those groups include organizations representing correctional officers, CPS workers and teachers, among others.

I’m going to hand this off to Ed Sills and his daily AFL-CIO newsletter:

Huffman, knowing she had the votes, repeatedly fell back on the argument that government should not be in the business of collecting dues for labor organizations. She never offered any justification for that view beyond ideology. Nor did she provide evidence of a problem with using the same voluntary, cost-free payroll deduction system that state and local employees may steer to insurance companies, advocacy organizations and charities.

Huffman tried to make the distinction between First Responders, who are exempt from the bill, and other state and local employees by saying police and firefighter unions are not known to “harass” employers in Texas. But she had no examples in which other unions of public employees had “harassed” employers.

“One person’s harassment is another person’s political activism,” Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said while questioning Huffman about the bill.

Watson noted the main proponents of the bill are business organizations that do not represent public employees.

Huffman was also grilled by Sens. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, José Rodriguez, D-El Paso, John Whitmire, D-Houston, Royce West, D-Dallas, and Borris Miles, D-Houston. Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, offered several strong amendments, but they were voted down by the same margin that the bill passed. The senators relayed testimony from a variety of public employees who said SB 13 would be a significant hardship to them and they could not understand why the Legislature would pursue the bill.

At one point, Huffman declared, “This is a fight against unions.” But it was beyond that, even though the measure was first conceived by the rabidly anti-union National Right to Work Foundation and even though the Texas Public Policy Foundation published a report estimating a substantial decline in public union membership if the bill becomes law. It’s a fight against teachers, against correctional officers, against child abuse investigators and against most other stripes of public employees who only want what most working people would consider a routine employer service.

Particularly galling was Huffman’s general assertion that correctional officers, teachers and other dedicated public employees fall short in some way when it comes to meriting payroll deduction, which state and local governments basically provide with a few clicks of a keyboard.

Huffman was under certain misimpressions. In questioning by Whitmire, she repeatedly declared that it would be “easy” for unions to collect dues through some automatic process outside payroll deduction. Whitmire stated, however, that many state employees make little and do not have either checking accounts or credit cards. Huffman was skeptical that some union members essentially operate on a cash-in, cash-out basis.

Despite her assertion that it would be easy to collect dues from public employees outside payroll deduction, Huffman clearly recognized that when other states approved similar bills, union membership dropped.

To use an oft-spoken phrase, it’s a solution in search of a problem. And as with the other bills, further evidence that “busy” is not the same as “productive”. See here for more.

Whitmire Astrodome bill passes out of committee


All this and antiquities landmark status too

A Senate committee voted Monday in favor of a bill that would require Harris County residents to approve a county project to renovate the Astrodome by raising its floors and installing parking underneath.

The bill could effectively could torpedo the county’s $105 million project to raise the ground level two floors to fit in roughly 1,400 parking spaces.

County officials had said when the proposal was unveiled in September, that the plan would make the Dome suitable for festivals or conferences and usher in potential commercial uses in the more than 550,000 square feet that surrounds the core.

It had been viewed as a potential saving grace for the aging stadium, designated earlier this year a state antiquities landmark.

State Sen. John Whitmire is looking to put the brakes on the renovation plan, saying Harris County voters should weigh in.

See here and here for the background. The later version of the Chron story notes that Judge Emmett testified against the bill, not that it made any difference. I still think this is dumb and unnecessary, but all of the Senators who represent Harris County are coauthors, so I figure its passage in the upper chamber is a formality, and in the lower chamber a strong likelihood. What that means in November – in particular, who shows up to support this forced vote, and who shows up to oppose it – will add another dimension to an election season that’s shaping up to be a lot more interesting than we might have expected. Swamplot has more.

More on the Whitmire Astrodome bill

I still don’t care for this.

All this and antiquities landmark status too

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett voiced concern Tuesday that a bill filed by a veteran state senator jeopardizes the county’s plan to revitalize the Astrodome, adding that county representatives would continue to try to persuade legislators to support the $105 million project.

Emmett said state Sen. John Whitmire’s bill, the Harris County Taxpayer Protection Act, was misleading and that Whitmire’s statements that some Astrodome renovation funds could be spent on Minute Maid Park or the Toyota Center were “demonstrably incorrect.”

“This bill is an example of state government making it more difficult for local government to do its job,” Emmett said.


At a press conference Tuesday in Austin, Whitmire and other state senators from the Houston area gathered to express their support of legislation that would effectively block – or at least delay – Emmett’s plan.

Whitmire noted that voters four years ago defeated a $217 million bond package that would have renovated the Astrodome and transformed it into a street-level convention hall and exhibit space,

“With the dire problems we have with home flooding, too few deputies, roads still in disrepair … I have to represent my constituents and say, ‘Go back and get voter approval,'” Whitmire said. “This puts in a very good safeguard that the public vote be honored.”

Whitmire was joined Tuesday by Democratic Sens. Borris Miles and Sylvia Garcia and Republican Sen. Paul Bettencourt, whose districts include parts of Harris County.

“This is a vote that the public expects to take,” Bettencourt said. “They’ve taken it in the past.”

Garcia took issue with the county’s plans to spend $105 million to create new parking before deciding how the Astrodome would be re-purposed. Voters need to hear the entire plan before any construction starts, Garcia said.

“I’ve always loved the Astrodome. I would assist the county commissioners court and anybody who wants to keep it alive,” Garcia said. “However, I don’t think this is the right way to get there.”

See here for the background. I guess I’m in a minority here, but I still disagree with this. When the time comes to spend money on NRG Stadium improvements, as some people want us to do, will we vote on that? (To be fair, not everyone is hot for Harris County to spend money on NRG Stadium.) If bonds are floated, sure. That’s what we do. (*) If not, we won’t. I don’t see why it’s different for the Astrodome. And however well-intentioned this may be, I’m still feeling twitchy about the Lege nosing in on local matters. I can also already see the lawsuit someone is going to file over the language of the putative referendum, however it may turn out. So I ask again, is this trip really necessary? I’m just not seeing it.

(*) Campos notes that we did not vote on Mayor White’s pension obligation bonds, as apparently there’s a state law that doesn’t require it. I’m sure there’s a story that requires at least two drinks to tell behind that. My assumption that we always vote on borrowing authority may be wrong, but my point that we don’t usually vote on general revenue spending still stands.

We don’t need another vote on the Astrodome

Not for this we don’t, anyway.

All this and antiquities landmark status too

Less than five months ago, the future of the Astrodome seemed to be more secure than it has been in the decades since it hosted its last Astros game, with Harris County commissioners moving forward on a massive renovation project they said would usher in festivals, conferences and commercial development to the aging stadium.

Now, that future again might be getting hazier. Veteran state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said Friday he plans to introduce legislation next week that would require the county to hold a referendum on its $105 million project to raise the floor of the stadium and create 1,400 parking spaces, a move many thought would be its saving grace.

Citing concerns about how the county is spending taxpayer dollars, Whitmire’s move is the latest in a series of skirmishes over the stadium, the world’s first multi-purpose domed stadium for sporting events. It comes more than three years after voters rejected a $217 million proposal to turn the Dome into a street-level convention hall and exhibit space, which many believed doomed it to demolition.

“I’m trying to allow the public to have a vote, the taxpayers to have a vote, before we spend over $100 million on the Dome with no stated purpose,” Whitmire said.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who has long championed repurposing the Dome and was one of the chief advocates of the $105 million plan, said Friday that Whitmire’s proposal “risks derailing” that solution, which he called a “fiscally prudent decision.”

“The Dome is a vexing issue,” he said. “But to me, it’s an asset.”

Emmett said he had not heard about Whitmire’s plans to file the bill before Friday.

“It’s a little unusual for a legislator to file a piece of legislation that affects a specific piece of property that’s totally paid for,” Emmett said. “I have never heard of that before. It’s also unusual to have legislation filed directly that tells a county how tooperate without talking to the county.”


The exact language of Whitmire’s bill, which he said he is calling the Harris County Taxpayer Protection Act, will not be finalized until it is filed next week. He said it would be worded to target projects like the Astrodome that had been targeted by referenda in the past. He said it had “broad bipartisan support.”

Gov. Dan Patrick could not be reached for comment. But state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Patrick confidante and Houston Republican, said he supports Whitmire’s proposal.

“It’s a good idea,” Bettencourt said. “We had a referendum. The vote was no. Everyone was promised they would not use property tax money in that project. And now that’s effectively what they’re proposing to do.”

Whitmire also said: “I just think it’s a very hazardous way and irresponsible way to deal with taxpayer monies.”

He said he took issue with different components of the funding, saying that some of the funds used for the $105 million project could also be used for other facilities, like NRG Stadium.

See here and here for some background. I do not support this bill, whatever winds up being in it. We require a vote when a government entity like Harris County wants the authority to borrow money via bonds, which was the case with that $217 million proposition from 2013. We do not require a vote on individual budget items, any more than we require a vote on (say) the county’s budget as a whole. We elect people to write those budgets, and if we don’t like the way they do it we can vote them out. Requiring a vote for how a county government spends county money is a gross incursion on local control, which is something we’re already had way too much of. I will not support this.

Now to be sure, part of the problem here is that the stakes of that 2013 referendum were never made clear. “The people rejected this specific plan that was put forward to rehab the Dome” and “The people rejected the idea of rehabbing the Dome and want it demolished instead” are both valid interpretations of that vote. Commissioners Court and Judge Emmett did not communicate to the public what their intentions were if that referendum was voted down as it was, and as a result we have been in a state of confusion since. Many ideas continue to be put forth for the Dome, which has since gained Historical Antiquity status, making demolition that much harder to do if that’s what we wanted to do. There’s no clear consensus. That may be the best argument for requiring a vote, but it’s still a violation of local control, and any such election would occur in either a low-turnout context (as in this November) or one where it was overshadowed by other campaigns, as would be the case next year. I say let Commissioners Court move forward with what they are doing, and if you don’t like it take a lesson from your friends and neighbors who are busy raising their voices on many other issues and tell the Court what you think. Isn’t that the way this is supposed to work? Swamplot has more.

Astrodome gains antiquities status


All this and antiquities landmark status too

The aging behemoth billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World has joined the revered ranks of the Alamo and State Capitol as an honored historical site.

Just days before a crowd of more than 70,000 files past for Super Bowl LI in neighboring NRG Stadium, the long-vacant Astrodome has won the coveted designation as a state antiquities landmark.

The distinction – which has been awarded to the Alamo, the Capitol and the Cotton Bowl, among others – brings special protection against demolition for the nation’s first fully enclosed, domed sports stadium.

But it won’t hinder the $105 million plan to renovate the once-proud facility, which has been officially closed to the public since 2009, officials said.

“It is an iconic structure,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who has long championed the venue. “The Astrodome literally changed the world of sports and entertainment and it helped put Houston and Harris County on the global scene.”

The Texas Historical Commission voted unanimously Friday to grant antiquities status, which had been sought for nearly three years by two Houston-area residents who hoped to preserve the facility.

“I was jumping up and down and running around my house telling my husband and everybody when I saw it on Twitter,” said Cynthia Neely, a writer and film producer who along with former Exxon engineer Ted Powell of La Porte filed the voluminous application, paid the fee and lobbied around the state to save the dome.

“It was a total surprise,” she said. “We’re just your average citizens.”


The designation will mean the dome cannot be “removed, altered, damaged, salvaged or excavated” without first obtaining permission from the commission, officials have said.

This process got started back in 2014, though it’s been in limbo since then as well. I’m not sure what the practical effect of this designation is since there are no current discussions about demolishing the Dome, but if that does ever come up again, it will be a lot harder to do. In the meantime, the parking lot plan moves forward, presumably with the blessing of the Historical Commission, and the Dome will play a minor part during the Super Bowl. So at least there’s one nice thing happening in the world. Swamplot and Houstonia have more.

Astrodome architects chosen

For the first phase.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Harris County commissioners on Tuesday chose Kirksey Architecture to design a project to retrofit the Astrodome by raising its floor and installing parking spaces underneath.

Commissioners designated the Houston-based firm as their top pick to conduct the architecture and engineering on the $105 million renovation of the Dome, a sweeping project that could secure the stadium’s future by using it for event or commercial space.

County Judge and vocal proponent Ed Emmett said Kirksey’s selection was “one more step toward re-purposing the Dome.”

“This is doing the engineering, moving the whole process forward,” Emmett said.

The architecture and engineering – the first phase of the overall renovation project – is expected to cost around $10.5 million and take roughly a year. Kirksey Architecture still has to be awarded the final contract, which will finalize the cost of the first phase. County officials said that vote could come in January.

Kirksey Architecture has designed many commercial, residential and public properties around Houston, including the YMCA building downtown and the 26-story luxury Belfiore Condominiums in Uptown.

The firm has also done work for Harris County, including the restoration of the historic Sylvan Beach Building in La Porte that was damaged by Hurricane Ike.

See here for some background. A lot of people are skeptical of this project. It seems reasonable to me, but you do have to wonder why it took so long to get to it. Easy to say in retrospect, I suppose. I look forward to seeing what the official designs eventually look like.

No Astrodome laser light show for the Super Bowl


Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Organizers have nixed a proposal to use high-tech lasers to project dazzling images of Houston’s culture and history onto and through the roof of the Astrodome during Super Bowl LI.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said the NFL turned down the proposal — the brainchild of two recent Rice University graduates — over security concerns of having people enter and exit the dome around game time.

“We made all the intros and this, that and the other, but it wasn’t a great surprise,” Emmett said. “The NFL once they locked down that whole campus out there, they just don’t want people coming in and out.”


NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the league had looked into the light show idea “but are now considering lighting the outside of the building for the entire week and on Super Bowl Sunday.”

“We have not finalized plans, but this remains under consideration,” McCarthy said.

Emmett said officials were briefly considering holding a reception in the dome during Super Bowl festivities, but that’s not happening now, either. He said the Dome will mostly be used for storage and staging purposes during the sporting event.

A Super Bowl host committee spokeswoman said “there will be no official events at the Astrodome” during Super Bowl weekend, and said she had no information about how the Astrodome might be used during Super Bowl weekend or why the light show was nixed.

See here for the background. Too bad, this sounded like a fun idea to me, but you know how the NFL is. Maybe some of us can get together before the game, hold up lighters, and sing “Another Brick In The Wall”. It’s the thought that counts.

Commissioners Court approves Astrodome parking plan

Here we go.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Harris County commissioners approved the first piece of a $105 million plan to transform the stadium into part parking garage and part event space for things like concerts and trade shows.

After years of indecision, advocates for preserving the Dome are hailing the move as one that might breath new life into the stadium’s future long after many Houstonians had written its obituary.

“We’re really happy to see some concrete action taken,” said David Bush, acting executive director of Preservation Houston, which has been advocating for the Dome’s preservation for 16 years. “This is a significant first step.”

The $105 million plan, first unveiled by county officials in June, calls for the floor of the Astrodome to be raised two floors, or 30 feet, to ground level. Two levels of parking or 1400 spaces will be installed underneath.

The new ground floor could be used by conferences like the Offshore Technology Conference, or for music festivals or other events. Officials from OTC wrote a letter earlier this month in support of the plan with the Houston Auto Show, Houston International Boat, Sport and Travel Show and the Houston Ballet Nutcracker Market, a ballet fundraiser, among others.

In the future, the 550,000 square feet that surrounds the core could be used for retail, commercial or other options, though none have been determined yet.

No events have yet made any formal commitments to use the re-purposed dome, a point acknowledged by Precinct 1 Commissioner Gene Locke whose precinct includes the Astrodome.

“I’m more confident that doing this is better than doing nothing,” he said.


Despite Tuesday’s vote, not everything is final. [County Judge Ed] Emmett and other county officials believe as the $105 million project enters the design phase, the overall price tag will go down, especially if other funding sources like Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone funds or tax credits can apply.

But the cost could also go beyond $105 million, something several commissioners have said they will watch out for.

Regardless, commissioners will have to vote again likely next year to spend the rest of the money on the actual construction.

See here for the preview. To address some things I’ve seen here and elsewhere, the point of this is to begin the process of making the Astrodome viable for other uses, whatever those may turn out to be. The extra parking would presumably make the space more amenable for the Texans and the Rodeo as well, though those two entities have remained firmly uncommitted to the whole idea so far. As there is no money being borrowed to pay for this, there is no need to hold a public vote. If and when we get to a point where financing is needed, then there will have to be a referendum to get the public’s approval to borrow the money – in other words, a bond referendum. While the rejected 2013 referendum was often seen as a vote for demolition, it was in the strictest sense just a rejection of that financing/renovation plan. Not everyone will agree with that last statement, of course. If you’re one of those people, you’ll either get another chance to vote against a bond issuance, or you’ll get to (have to) take comfort in the knowledge that any financing will be done by a private entity.

In the meantime, there’s always the possibility that the bill will go up once design phase begins, which may lead to further reckoning. If we get past that with no worrisome cost estimate increase, then Commissioners Court will need to commit to an actual design, of which there have been many. One presumes it would be some version of the Urban Land Institute plan, though that isn’t exactly fully-formed, and besides, the county has gone through Astrodome plans like Spinal Tap has gone through drummers, so who knows what we’d get. For now, what we’re getting is underground parking. At least that is something we can all comprehend. KUHF and Swamplot have more.

The Astrodome parking proposal is about to get real

Here it comes.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Harris County commissioners are poised to make their largest investment yet in the Astrodome’s future next week.

They are slated to vote on the first piece of a $105 million plan to raise the ground level two floors to fit in roughly 1,400 parking spaces, which would make the Dome suitable for festivals or conferences and usher in potential commercial uses in the more than 550,000 square feet that surrounds the core.

A majority of the county’s governing body indicated support for the plan Friday. If approved, it would begin to provide a future for the stadium more than 16 years removed from hosting its last Astros last game.

“This is making something happen, finally, with the Dome,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.


Tuesday’s vote would be on whether to allocate $10.5 million of the “design phase” of the parking project. If approved, the county would hire an architectural and engineering team and, over 12 months, lay out the blueprints of the overall project. It’s not another study, Emmett said.

“No, this is actually doing the engineering to raise the floors, put the parking in,” he said.

The county also, for the first time Friday, detailed how it plans to pay for the stadium’s $105 million redevelopment. Budget officer Bill Jackson said about one-third of the project, or roughly $35 million, would come from the county’s general fund, made up largely of property tax revenue.

Another third would come from hotel taxes, with the remaining third coming from county parking revenues. These new covered spaces inside the Dome could generate top dollar.

Emmett noted the general fund component, around $30 million, is roughly equivalent to the amount the county estimates it would cost to demolish the Dome. In other words, money the county would have to spend even if it wanted to get rid of the facility.

Currently, the Dome costs close to $170,000 a year to maintain, Jackson said.

“There are some that just really don’t want to save the Dome. They want it torn down,” Emmett said. “This saves it in a very conservative way that makes it useful and preserves options for the future.”

There are still several unknowns. It’s possible, Jackson said, that after the design phase, the cost for construction might push the project above the $105  million goal, at which point commissioners would have to decide whether to move forward.

What happens to the 550,000 square feet of space surrounding the area where the field was is also still not firmed up. Emmett said it likely will be hammered out over the next year.

The plan still would have to be approved by the state historical commission, which currently considers the Astrodome a “state antiquities landmark,” meaning it cannot be “removed, altered, damaged, salvaged, or excavated without a permit from the Texas Historical Commission,” a spokesman said.

See here, here, and here for the background. It sounds like the Texans and the Rodeo aren’t fully on board with this, but I don’t know that it’s worth worrying about that. The idea behind this is that once the underground parking is available, then other redevelopment plans for the Dome become more feasible. I guess we’ll find out. The Chron editorial board, which supports the plan, has more.

Astrodome parking plan coming

Better get ready.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Harris County officials on Friday unveiled a $105 million plan to raise the floor of the Astrodome and build two new levels of parking beneath it, the strongest signal yet that the county plans to maintain and find another use for the one-time architectural marvel.

The proposal, which the county has been studying for months, would represent a critical step toward repurposing the stadium, which has sat vacant for decades as the community has debated its fate.

“This ensures that it’s protected for future years,” said Joe Stinebaker, a spokesman for County Judge Ed Emmett, who strongly backs transforming the 51-year-old structure, once dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”

The plan would allow some 240,000 square feet of ground-level space to be used for events or for an indoor park. County officials envision attracting retail, commercial or hospitality uses to the more than 550,000 square feet of space that surrounds the core.

County government offices could even be housed in the retrofitted stadium, said County Engineer John Blount.

“What we do next, it becomes an open tablet,” Stinebaker said.

Commissioners will be publicly presented with the proposal for the first time Tuesday and could vote on authorizing design and construction by as early as September, said county budget officer Bill Jackson.


Stinebaker said the commission is currently reviewing the parking proposal, which would raise the floor by two levels and convert those levels into parking with 700 spaces each. Any other changes would likely have to go before the historical commission.

See here and here for the background. We’ll know more on Tuesday, but the main piece that’s missing from all this is how it will be paid for. I feel confident saying there will be no bond referendum, for what I assume are obvious reasons, but beyond that we’ll just have to wait. The late El Franco Lee liked this plan, so one presumes it will receive support from current Commissioner Locke. There’s nothing about this that would prevent any of the multiple proposals for repurposing the Dome from happening along with this. Perhaps having this in place would make the whole thing more attractive to the long-hoped-for private investor. Who knows? I look forward to seeing what gets presented tomorrow.

Hey, look, it’s another Astrodome proposal

Meet A-Dome Park.

A Houston architect is touting a new idea for the Astrodome’s overhaul, urging the county to avoid an indoor park concept and instead strip the structure down to its bones.

The concept, dubbed “A-Dome Park,” is being advanced by James Richards and Ben Olschner, architects who previously worked at Herzog & de Meuron, the firm behind London’s Tate Modern and the Olympics stadium in Beijing.

As Richards sees it, Harris County’s current plans for the stadium — essentially, an indoor park and events space — aren’t particularly unique, especially given the proliferation of world-class parks in Houston and abundant event space that already exists at the NRG Center complex.


Richards, who moved to Houston in 2014, isn’t a fan of the current concept, with its emphasis on indoor activity, and he thinks the 2013 vote is a testament to the fact that Harris County residents aren’t either.

He believes that despite the region’s brutal summer heat, few Houstonians will want to spend their free time within an indoor park — especially given the relatively mild weather Houston enjoys the rest of the year — and he’s skeptical that the plans for vast amounts of plant life inside the facility are realistic. He also doesn’t think restaurants and others vendors on the first floor of the Dome (part of the ULI proposal) will actually be financially viable, based on the number of people who will visit the indoor park on a regular basis.

So instead, Richards and his partners on the “A-Dome park” proposal are envisioning something totally different. The idea isn’t to just preserve the Astrodome but to highlight — and even expose — the architectural elements that made it world famous.

Richards wants to strip the structure down to its steel bones. The idea is to remove the non-structural surfaces of both the Astrodome exterior and interior, leaving only the dramatic steel frame, which would be painted to prevent decay. The plan, Richards argues, highlights the innovative engineering that went into the dome structure itself while also creating a space that offers a completely unique experience.

The A-Dome Park website is here, and you can see plenty of pictures of the proposal at the Urban Edge post. If some of this sounds familiar, it’s because it is similar in nature to Ryan Slattery’s strip-the-Dome-to-its-skeleton idea from 2013. The first comment on the Urban Edge post deals with that, so good look and see what you think. I’m not enough of a design nerd to comment on the merits of one versus the other or the current Harris County plan. I will just say again, generating ideas for the Dome is easy enough – I’ve long since lost count of the plans and proposals that have been floated, and every time anyone writes about the Dome more people will chime in with “what about this…” suggestions. The hard part is finding one proposal that can get enough support to be politically and financially viable, since the stumbling block all along has been how to pay for it. Maybe this is it, maybe the county’s plan is it, maybe it’s something else, who knows? I’m sure Judge Emmett would like to have whatever it is in motion by the time he steps down. Swamplot has more.

A way to use the Astrodome while we figure out what to do with it

How does a Super Bowl light show grab you?

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

The future of the Astrodome still might be in the dark, but that doesn’t mean the iconic building can’t return to the spotlight for at least a few minutes.

A pair of 25-year-old Rice University graduates came up with an idea to display a light show on the building’s roof that could come to fruition for the Super Bowl in February. The technological feat would use “projection mapping” to cast images of Houston culture onto the ceiling and through the hundreds of windows of the long-vacant Astrodome in yet another effort to redefine the structure as its fate is debated.

“I was just so interested that we not tear down the Astrodome, that we find a way to repurpose it and make it exciting again,” said Phoebe Tudor, who heads a group called Friends of the Dome and has worked on the light show initiative. “There are probably other things that could potentially happen in it in the future, but this would be such a great thing for now, and relatively easy and relatively inexpensive, compared to other things that may have been considered.”


Beyond the general concept of Houston history, show specifics have yet to be determined. During the demonstration in March, projectors cast Astros and Oilers logos onto the ceiling and even a picture of an astronaut.

People could come inside to watch a show, while images also could shine through the roof to the outside as nationally televised cameras pan over NRG Stadium during the Super Bowl, [County Judge Ed] Emmett said, potentially creating advertising revenue.

If successful, it likely would be only one of several possible uses of the Astrodome during the Super Bowl festivities, including another proposal to project images onto the outside walls.

The two Rice grads, one with expertise in engineering and the other familiar with projection mapping – a technique that uses multiple projectors to cast shapes and images onto uneven surfaces – came up with the light show idea.

One of the men, Alex Weinheimer of Houston, said he’s always had an interest in baseball, architecture and history. He said he was watching a Texans game one night when the broadcast showed a blimp passing over the Astrodome with its white indoor lights on.

“It’s a very pretty, geometric design,” Weinheimer said. “It’s also fairly unique.”

Weinheimer thought that something more could be done with the stadium. He got in touch with Joshuah Jest, and they began working up a light-show concept.

Tudor took notice of their work and helped put them in touch with the county. Over the past year, they’ve been working out the particulars of the show on a scale model, Tudor said, until they tested their idea in the Dome in March.

“We’ve sort of tried to prove the concept,” Weinheimer said.

Sounds pretty interesting. I confess I’m having “Pink Floyd laser light show” flashbacks here, and the urge to make stoner jokes is strong, but I will remain steadfast. Assuming everyone involved approves this, I could see it being a cool addition to the Super Bowl spectacle. Having a useful purpose for the Dome, even for a one-time event, is a good thing. I wish everyone luck in getting this done.

State of the county 2016

This year’s theme is cooperation and meeting challenges.

Judge Ed Emmett

Judge Ed Emmett

In his ongoing effort to revive the Astrodome, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Tuesday proposed using the aging landmark for an outdoor light show when Houston hosts the Super Bowl next February.

Emmett discussed the future of the Ddome and touched on the challenges the county faces in health care during his ninth “State of the County” address before 1,100 business leaders at NRG Center.

He floated the idea of a projected light show on the exterior of the Astrodome to coincide with the Super Bowl. Emmett also laid out a long-term plan to convert the nine-acre interior into an indoor park with underground parking or storage and retail facilities above.


He also touched on another of his key themes, the county’s duty to meet fundamental health care needs of residents while it grapples with the cost of providing services without help from expanded Medicaid funds that state leaders refuse to pursue.

“So long as the county property taxpayer has to bear the cost of health care, we will have trouble meeting the challenge. Refusing to accept federal dollars available for indigent health care makes no more sense than turning down federal highway funds,” Emmett said. “Those who now reject federal dollars for health care are not only punishing individuals and families who need access to better care, they are increasing property taxes for all taxpayers.”

Emmett ended by pleading with business leaders to “push back against those who want to play politics with county government.” People vilify government, he said, but then they expect high-quality emergency services, flood control and a smooth commute.

The full speech is here. In his discussion of how senseless it is to reject federal dollars for indigent health care, he recalled his time in the Legislature when some of his colleagues wanted to turn down federal highway dollars because they didn’t want to mandate seat belt usage. It took a visit from Dr. Red Duke to convince them to come to their senses. “We need another Red Duke to bring reason to the issue of indigent health care,” he said. I love the parallel Emmett draws, but I respectfully disagree with his prescription. What we really need is fewer Republicans in Austin, beginning with the Governor and Lt. Governor, who would refuse to listen to what Dr. Red Duke would be telling them. It’s not like we don’t have plenty of other respected authorities – doctors, business folk, economists – who have been saying the same thing. The problem is the hammerheaded and entirely partisan unwillingness to listen.

Anyway. As always, the full speech is worth your time; background on the Dome stuff is here. Judge Emmett was introduced by Mayor Turner, which again bodes well for city/county cooperation going forward. Your Houston News and Swamplot have more.

Under the Dome

The latest plan to save the Dome takes a step forward.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Harris County Commissioners Court moved forward on Tuesday with one piece of the Astrodome revival that needs to happen whether or not the park plan is achieved, according to County Judge Ed Emmett.

The court asked for an internal cost assessment for building two floors of underground parking, or a large underground storage facility, beneath the ground floor of the Astrodome.


Edgar Colon, an attorney who serves as the appointed volunteer chair of the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation, has been managing this undertaking. He estimated the task force of engineers, architects, designers, cost estimators and financial advisers has logged more than 200 hours on Astrodome conversion planning.

He said Emmett took the lead, and the late Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee also took great interest in the process.

Under the broader plan, the Astrodome would remain county property, and the park inside it would be a county park. The conservancy would help raise the funds for the project and assist in designing it.

By the end of June, Colon said, the plan for the conservancy’s structure and its role in developing an indoor park should be finalized.

But first, Emmett wants to address the more pressing matter of raising the floor of the Astrodome to ground level and making use of the 30 feet of space underneath it.

“My first goal is to put the Dome into usable condition, whether it be for the rodeo for their food court or the Offshore Technology Conference, or for festivals, gatherings or merely for picnickers in the park,” Emmett said.

“The Dome’s a building. We can’t just leave a building sitting there unusable.”

See here for the background. Basically, the plan is a public-private partnership overseen by a conservancy, similar to Discovery Green, but with more moving parts. Among the attractions of this setup would be the ability to fundraise as a non-profit, which would sidestep the need to put another bond issue before the public. I can’t wait to see what the structure of the conservancy will look like. One presumes the incoming County Commissioner (the Dome resides in Precinct 1) will take a lead role in getting this off the ground, and one presumes that Judge Emmett, who is known to want to retire after this term is up at the end of 2018, will want to have it well in motion by then. KUHF has more.

The Chron on the El Franco Lee successor selection process

First, a lamentation.

El Franco Lee

Not even a month has passed since Sylvester Turner was sworn in as Houston’s new mayor, and already the next election cycle is just around the corner. Early voting for party primaries is about a month away, running from Feb. 16 through Feb. 26. Election Day is March 1. Safely gerrymandered districts often mean that these party primaries serve as the functional election for the state Legislature, Congress and other positions. It can be frustrating to know that the November election has a predetermined outcome for all too many politicians, but this version of democracy feels practically Athenian in contrast to the process for replacing the late El Franco Lee, the longtime Democratic county commissioner for Harris County Precinct 1.

Because Lee died after the filing date to get on the ballot, his name will remain voters’ only choice. Republicans and Libertarians offered no opponent for the general election and the Green Party candidate has withdrawn. Under state law, Democratic Party precinct chairs for Lee’s precinct will select his replacement. At no point in this process will voters in Precinct 1 have a direct say about who will represent them on Commissioners Court.

This election-free appointment should be anathema to the values of our representative republic, but the problem isn’t new. County government has a history of avoiding an active electorate. In fact, Lee never faced a serious challenger throughout his 30-year career as county commissioner. If his successor has similar luck, it is possible that people could live their entire voting lives without seeing a single competitive race in Precinct 1.

I don’t disagree with any of this, but it should be noted that the process to select a party’s nominee when the filing deadline has passed is prescribed by the Legislature. You may not like the idea of having such a small group of people (myself included) picking the next Commissioner, but look at it this way – if Commissioner Lee had died in, say, October, he would have remained on the ballot and then his spot on the Court would have been filled by Judge Emmett, all by himself, as was the case when Jerry Eversole resigned. That person would have gotten to serve for two full years before having to run to serve the remainder of the four-year term, and would have been a heavy favorite to not just win but be essentially unopposed at that time. It is what it is.

We certainly could do this process differently, and now is as good a time as we’ll ever get to discuss what if any alternative methods might be better. One obvious possibility is that we just declare a special election to fill the seat for the next term – Judge Emmett can appoint an interim Commissioner as he sees fit for the rest of the year – and let whoever wants in file for the now-vacant position. Of course, given the timing that may either cause vacancies in other races, or may prevent someone who might have jumped at the opportunity had it presented itself at another time to let it pass. It also all but guarantees that the winner would be decided in a much-lower-turnout December runoff. Is that better? Is there another way that’s better than that? You tell me. It would have been nice for the Chron to offer a suggestion to go along with the complaining.

Oh, and one more thing: On the matter of people possibly living their entire voting lives without ever having the chance to vote in a real Commissioners race in Precinct 1, I have five words: “Term limits”, and “campaign finance reform”. Either of them would address the issue. As above you need to take that up with the Legislature. I don’t care for term limits, but if they’re good enough for City Council, they’re surely good enough for the much more powerful office of County Commissioner.

After some griping about the, um, flexible ethics standards for County government, the Chron gets to what they would like from the next Commissioner in Precinct 1.

Normally editorials urge voters to select good candidates, but now that duty falls upon Democratic Party officials. We encourage them to follow County Judge Ed Emmett’s example and reject the politicians who rushed at first word of Lee’s untimely death to ask for an appointment. Harris County needs commissioners who are mindful of the future. There’s nearly as many people living in the unincorporated county as there are in the city of Houston, and county governance wasn’t designed to handle that burden.

Precinct chairs should look for someone ready to tackle this issue, and that should include discussions about incorporation in the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, merging city and county services, and bringing greater transparency to county business. The next commissioner of Precinct 1 also will have the responsibility of saving the Astrodome.

You know what I’m looking for. Again, I basically agree with the Chron list, though again some specifics from them would have been nice. Precinct 1 is overwhelmingly part of the city of Houston, so it’s reasonable that the Commissioner there be a leader in forging city-county relations. I’ll give this some more thought and write it up when I have something to say.

Highlighting wages in the Mayor’s race

From the inbox:

Coalition Calls on Next Mayor to Raise Minimum Wage for Publicly Funded Projects

Today, a coalition of community and labor organizations staged a tour of of sites that received tax dollars to tell the story of how the city subsidizes the creation of poverty jobs.

“Of the City of Houston’s 35 economic development tax-incentive deals with developers between 2004 – 2014, only 7 had any job promises,” said Feldon Bonner, a member of the Texas Organizing Project at the press conference that kicked off the tour. “None of the deals included language about the quality of the promised jobs, and only one has provided reports to the City on its job creation deliverables. This is unacceptable.”

The tour started at the Westin Downtown, formerly known as the Inn at the Ballpark, for which Landry’s received $2 million dollars in tax giveaways, and despite failing to provide the 125 jobs promised, the city council voted to allow Landry’s to keep the incentives.

“These tax deals are not going to mom and pop businesses. They are not going to small, women-owned, minority owned or disadvantaged businesses,” said Pastor David Madison, a TOP leader. “Tillman Fertitta, CEO, chairman and owner of Landry’s has a net worth of $2.3 billion. Yet Landry’s is one of the region’s largest poverty job creators paying its more than 10,000 service and restaurant workers in the Houston area low wages.”

The next stop was at Ainbinder Heights, a development anchored by Walmart, and includes a McDonald’s and Taco Cabana. The city awarded Ainbinder $6 million in tax breaks for property improvements. The agreement between the city and Ainbinder spans 48 pages, yet the city failed to negotiate any specific commitments for the number and quality of jobs or any other meaningful community benefits.

“Let’s not forget that Walmart is the largest corporation in the world! And the Walton family is the richest family in America with a net worth of $149 billion dollars. Do you think they need our tax incentives?,” Florence Coleman, a TOP leader, asked the community members present. “Do they deserve our tax incentives? The average Walmart associate makes just $8.81 per hour. Nationally, taxpayers are already footing a $6.2 billion bill in public assistance including food stamps, Medicaid and subsidized housing for Walmart employees who can’t provide for their families because of the low wages Walmart pays them.”

The final stop was at the Astrodome, a project that will probably receive tax dollars. County Judge Ed Emmett has traveled around the world to put together a plan for its reconstruction that includes water park, theater & trails. But there is no plan to assure that the jobs created by this project pay well and have benefits.

“The Astrodome was built by union workers back in the early 1960s, and we’re proud to have contributed to it,” said Paul Puente of the Building Trades Union. “And our elected officials have the obligation to leverage our public dollars effectively so projects like the Astrodome redevelopment provide good jobs that pay at least $15 dollars per hour or prevailing wage, whichever is higher. Jobs that provide training and benefits. And to make sure African American and Latino families in struggling neighborhoods have access to these jobs by including local hire requirements and second chance provisions.”

The coalition staged the tour today to so that Houston’s next mayor makes higher wages a priority.

“We are here today to make sure the mistakes of the past are not repeated with publicly funded development projects like the ones we visited earlier today,” Puente added. “Our local economy cannot afford one more poverty wage job. Our communities cannot accept one more poverty-wage job.”

The following organizations participated in today’s tour: Texas Organizing Project, SEIU Texas, AFL-CIO, Fe y Justicia Worker Center and Working America. Pictures can be downloaded from here:

That came out the same day as this story about Houston not being the affordable city we are used to it being. High housing costs are a big factor in that, but so are low average wages. Attacking that problem can have an effect on the bottom line as well. There’s only so much a Mayor can do directly about this – we already have an executive order in place establishing a higher minimum wage for companies that do business with the city, thanks to Mayor Parker – but talking about the issue and making it a point in negotiations over real estate deals like the ones cited above are two of them. I’m glad to see this coalition call attention to it.

Katrina, ten years after

Hurricane Katrina made landfall ten years ago this weekend. The Chron looks at the role Houston played in the aftermath, and the changes that resulted.

Before and after Katrina’s Aug. 29 landfall as a strong Category 3 storm, more than 1 million people fled Louisiana and coastal Mississippi. As many as 250,000 landed in Houston – more than 27,000 of the most traumatized arriving at the Astrodome and other Houston shelters in a 500-bus caravan from the drowned Big Easy. By October 2005, approximately 100,000 evacuees temporarily had made Houston their home.

Today, perhaps heeding the oft-tendered advice of Katrina-era Mayor Bill White to “look forward, not backward,” as many as 40,000, by some estimates, permanently have settled in the Houston metro area.

“We no longer think of them as evacuees,” said Mayor Annise Parker. “They are Houstonians in every sense of the word and we are happy to have them.”

In the excruciating days after Katrina’s onslaught, Houston responded with open arms. As many 60,000 residents volunteered to help. From a downtown command center, White, assisted by then-Harris County Judge Robert Eckels and business, civic and faith leaders, oversaw a multi-million dollar campaign to house, feed, train and provide health care for the newcomers.

“Houston,” said White, “showed how to combine competence and compassion, and that was done at a time when public officials at the federal and other levels fumbled the ball.”

For his leadership, White later received the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum’s Profile in Courage Award.

But throughout the city there were largely unremarked instances of kindness.

Within weeks of arriving in Houston, the Rev. Gary Mack, a pastor at New Orleans’ Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, was contacted by Houston First Baptist Church with an offer of assistance. Mack was offered use of a chapel to preach to his displaced congregation and a salary. Food and furniture were collected for church members in need.

“Coming from New Orleans, we had pretty much been living in our own communities,” Mack said. “Seldom have African-American churches and Caucasian churches gotten together in this way. Katrina tore down those walls. It was a totally new perspective of worship and God’s goodness.”

Still, for thousands of the displaced, overcoming Katrina’s hardship was daunting.

The storm flooded 80 percent of New Orleans, killed more than 1,800 people in five states and caused more than $135 billion in damage. Federal and private insurance companies paid more than $57 billion in claims, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency pumped more than $131 billion into stricken states for public works and other recovery efforts.

By July 2006, New Orleans’ 2000 population had dropped by more than half. And while the city’s population has rebounded to 80 percent of its pre-storm total, vast tracts of low-lying inner city neighborhoods remain derelict and virtually unpeopled.

Full coverage from the Chron is here. I don’t have any wisdom to offer here. I’ve been spending the week reading what other folks have been saying about this disaster that was as much political as it was natural. See Jamelle Bouie and this three part series from D.R. Tucker for some of the stronger examples. I also recommend this Urban Edge story debunking the myth that there was a crime wave in Houston following the arrival of Katrina evacuees. I fear we still haven’t learned what this tragedy should have taught us. Texas Leftist, Vice, and TPM have more.

Is this the plan that will save the Dome?


Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

A few months ago Ed Emmett had a breakthrough moment about how to save the Astrodome, a goal he’s been chipping away at for the better part of eight years. The Harris County judge was driving out of the county administration building lot headed straight for the historic 1910 courthouse in downtown, and he thought, “There’s a building we completely re-purposed without bond money.”

Meanwhile, the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation was mulling over a 38-page report by the Urban Land Institute outlining details for transforming the Astrodome into an indoor park with 1,200 parking spaces underneath it. What remained unclear was how to fund it.

And that’s where Emmett’s idea comes in. His plan has now become the blueprint for a public-private partnership overseen by a conservancy that would unite the city, county, the sports and convention corporation and other governmental entities with private investors to revive the Astrodome without requiring voter approval. Under the conservancy model, Emmett said, the Dome would earn tax credits, which would help significantly with covering expenses for renovation.

The details for the partnership – and who will commit to covering what percentage of the costs – are being discussed in meetings between representatives of various stakeholders, including during a session on Tuesday and another one scheduled for Friday.

The finished funding plan will come before county officials likely before year’s end, and, if the majority of the five-member Commissioners Court backs the proposal, the Astrodome revival will commence.


The two newest commissioners, Jack Cagle and Jack Morman, said in interviews Tuesday that they might ultimately support a conservancy to oversee a Dome project; however, neither could say for certain without reviewing the actual proposal.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said he would want to hear comments from the public, adding that “a plan that does not involve taxpayers’ money is certainly going in the right direction.”

Commissioner El Franco Lee expressed wholehearted backing for Emmett’s new strategy.

“I support and am pushing for the conservancy approach,” he said. “It gives philanthropic givers an opportunity to participate, and it takes us down the road much faster by doing some creative things.”

Lee said participants in the conservancy discussions are fully aware that the majority on Commissioners Court does not support taxpayer money going toward the Astrodome project, and he said the planning group will certainly keep that in mind as it crafts a proposal.

“At this point, I’m very optimistic,” Emmett said, “that it’s going to happen without a bond issue. That’s the direction we’re moving in. People seem to be coalescing around the idea of re-purposing the Dome as a green space, adding parking underneath, and adding a conservancy to oversee the upper parts.”

That’s the key right there, no bond issue, which would mean no vote need be taken. I mean, there’s not a whole lot of reason to be optimistic about any further Dome-related votes, so avoiding that would be a big deal. As Judge Emmett notes, this is the same concept that the Houston Zoo and Discovery Green use. That would require some kind of board that would be responsible for management and – more importantly – funding, with some operations money coming from the county and likely the city. I expect that would be easy enough to work out. This makes so much sense that you have to wonder why no one thought of it before. Better late than never, I guess. What do you think about this? Texas Leftist has more.

The Euro-Dome

What can the Germans teach us about saving the Astrodome?

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

For years, Ed Emmett has been trying to figure out what to do with the Astrodome, one of the world’s grandest and wackiest-looking civic arenas. This week, he is on an expedition to see another of the world’s wacky wonders, a massive blimp hangar at a former Luftwaffe airfield in Germany that has been converted into the world’s largest indoor rainforest.

The Harris County judge and two aides have ventured seven times zones into the future to witness how the proprietors retooled their defunct steel barrel-bowl dome — one of the world’s largest freestanding structures — and transformed it into a climate-controlled tropical water park extraordinaire. Emmett made it plain that he planned to fund his “fact-finding” trip with campaign funds rather than taxpayer dollars. He also explained that the goal was not to copy the entire concept of the interior, but rather to debrief the engineer and horticulturist about the basics and talk to the folks who deal with upkeep of the dome’s exterior.


An outfit called CargoLifter AG built the domed structure, a dirigible hangar called the Aerium, in 2000. The oblong dome could fit the Statue of Liberty upright and Eiffel Tower tipped onto its side, though perhaps not both at the same time. CargoLifter embarked on “one of the most ambitious projects of German postwar aviation,” according to the German news site WallStreet-online. The idea was to use the hangar as a workshop to engineer a CL160 airship that could handle deliveries of oversized and heavy objects using “lighter than air technology.” The blimp building enterprise declared insolvency in 2002. Investors who had pumped $300 million Euros into the venture were likely deflated when CargoLifter sold the giant tin can to Tanjong, a Malaysian company, for a mere 20 percent of construction costs.

The Tanjong company debuted its Tropical Islands resort inside the Aerium in 2004. Its business model posited that if the resort could attract 1.25 million visitors per year, it could turn a profit. This happened for the first time in 2008, Wikipedia states, but only after Tanjong dropped the entrance fees substantially and added more cabins and huts for overnight guests. The annual reports online, Tropical Islands operated at a loss from 2006-2010, but the loss shrank by 67 percent. Emmett seems to think the place is viable.

See here in case you need to be reminded of the story so far. I’m sure this is a great facility and the entourage will come away with some nifty ideas, but unless they include how to get the damn thing approved by the voters and funded by somebody, I’m not sure how much difference it will make. But hey, good ideas are good ideas, so who knows.

ULI releases its Astrodome plan

Feast your eyes on what the Urban Land Institute has in mind for the Astrodome.

A final assessment by a group focused on sparing the Astrodome from the wrecking ball sets the price tag of reusing the iconic stadium at up to $242 million, and lays out a multi-step process to gin up the political will and business investment needed.

“Their challenge is, we need to think boldly and not be timid,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said of the Urban Land Institute report. “Then we have to figure out how to pay for it. This is the hard part that everybody has to put their hands around.”

The ULI panel said the next step is for local officials to flesh out a more detailed plan and see who is interested in joining forces.

The group’s concept somewhat mirrors an idea Emmett pitched last year to convert the Dome into “the world’s largest indoor park,” the latest in a 12-year search for a way to reuse the aging and deteriorating stadium. Previous ideas have included an indoor amusement park, film studios, even razing it and creating a green space amid acres of parking lot outside NRG Stadium. None of the ideas to redevelop the site has included what officials deem credible financing.

The ULI report is an extension of a December presentation where a national panel of preservationists proposed turning the former home of the Astros and Oilers into an indoor park and commercial complex while adding parking at the surrounding NRG Park. The 40-page report estimates more than half the cost, $126.6 million, would be borne by retail and commercial development within the 450,000-square-foot building.


The ULI proposal, the latest in a handful aimed at finding a use for the “8th Wonder of the World” before it crumbles into the ground, is more expensive than a county proposal voters rejected in 2013 to spend $217 million in bond money to convert the Dome into convention space.

“The past bond referendum did not provide enough detail about the redevelopment programs to the citizens, which, from the panel’s perspective, was part of the reason the bond failed,” ULI’s team said.

Emmett, a vocal supporter of saving the Dome, said it is crucial people understand public agencies and the private sector will partner on any plans. He shied away from discussing final costs.

“I know it sounds like a cop out, but it depends on what you put in it,” Emmett said of what taxpayers could expect to be asked to chip in. “That’s the conversation we need to be having.”

See here for the background, and here for the report itself. It’s not very different from the preliminary report in December. Jeff Balke is not impressed.

The problem is the ideas weren’t all that creative or bold, and they came from disparate parties without any central, nevermind determined, leadership. And there are legitimate questions that spring to mind when reading the 40-page report: Who are these 75 mystery tastemakers they surveyed? How were they chosen? What is their stake in this process?

That’s worth knowing when you consider the $243 million price tag the group estimates a project like the one proposed with cost. At least this time, the recommendation is a public-private partnership given the fact that every private investor who has come forward with a big idea has been more about trying to get the county to fund their venture.

The idea of funding renovations with public money hasn’t fared much better and has been met with skepticism from residents who clearly want to save the Eighth Wonder of the World, but only if it is really the right idea. Unfortunately, no one has managed to come forward with something to inspire the voters and, speaking of skepticism, I’m not certain this plan is going to light any fires either.

Perhaps the bigger issue is handling the other tenants of NRG Park. It’s no secret that were the Rodeo and the Texans to have their way, the Dome would have long gone from architectural marvel to rubble to additional parking spaces. Both have, since NRG Stadium was built, regarded the Astrodome as a nuisance rather than a historical landmark.

That is why it is both disappointing and unsurprising that the ULI’s report leans fairly heavily on making those entities happy. Frankly, who cares what the Rodeo or Texans want? The public spent hundreds of millions of dollars on NRG Stadium and the surrounding park and the biggest benefactors are the tenants, not the taxpayers. Generally, you don’t ask your tenants for permission when deciding to make changes to your property, but that is clearly not the case here and there are plenty of goodies in here for both.

There’s also the whole indoor park concept pushed by County Judge Ed Emmett and, naturally, a tip of the ol’ ten gallon hat to the oil interests via the space for the OTC. It’s a patchwork quilt of ideas shoehorned into one concept that feels less like a vision for the future than a way to placate a bunch of people who probably shouldn’t have a say in the matter in the first place.

I agree, the ideas are familiar, but I’m OK with that, as I think they’re also good ideas. The accommodation of the Texans and the Rodeo is an acknowledgement of political reality. The question, as always, is how to get the funding. Maybe having the Texans and the Rodeo on board – by which I mean, actively campaigning in favor of any future referendum to spend public money on this – and maybe having other money in hand up front will help. I don’t know how many more shots we’re going to get at this.

The NFL would like us to spruce things up for the Super Bowl

It’s only $50 million. What else do we have to spend it on?

Before Houston hosts Super Bowl LI in 2017, NRG Stadium needs upgrades, including Wi-Fi installation and improvements to suites and club seats, according to Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s senior vice president of events.

O’Reilly said Thursday the improvements should be paid for by Harris County. Wi-Fi was guaranteed in Houston’s Super Bowl bid that was voted on by NFL owners in 2013.

The cost could be more than $50 million, including $5 million for Wi-Fi, according to those familiar with the situation.

NRG Stadium, which opened in 2002, was the site of Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004. The stadium has undergone enhancements, including new scoreboards on each end, but more are necessary before the 51st Super Bowl will be played in February 2017.

“The 2004 Super Bowl was a huge success and a (source) of great pride for this city,” O’Reilly said. “There’s a blueprint for making the investment and ensuring you’ve got the Wi-Fi coverage across this building. It’s been done by many, if not all, of the similar-aged stadiums.

“Comparable stadiums of this age have been helped by updating, (including) suite facilities (and) club facilities. That’s lacking. In 2004 and those early years, it might have been right at the top of the league, but there’s a drop-off now.

“There are investments that need to be made to have that special Super Bowl experience – those commitments that were made within the bid when Houston was awarded the Super Bowl.”

O’Reilly was part of a five-person group from the NFL that toured the downtown area and the facilities at NRG Park on Wednesday and Thursday.

“That burden rests with the county, the folks that own the stadium and (were) part of that bid as well,” he said in regard to who should foot the bill for the improvements. “I’m surprised a bit, but there’s an opportunity to remedy that, an opportunity for people to work together, find a solution and get this done.”

Before I get to what the county has to say about that, let me refer you to what Jeff Balke has to say about it.

What is most galling about the request demand that taxpayers foot the bill for upgrades to a stadium for one single event is where they want the money to go, namely club seats and luxury suites, the areas of the stadium reserved for the wealthiest Texans fans and, in the case of the Super Bowl, only the luckiest super rich people able to finagle tickets to the “big game.”

And this is on top of the fact that NRG was the most expensive — by a mile — stadium built in Houston, the only one that did not require voter approval and, in the rush to submit a proposal to the NFL for an expansion franchise, received very little in the way of legitimate negotiation between McNair and the county, and virtually no transparency. Both Minute Maid and Toyota Center were subject to city-wide referendums, two of those in the case of the Rockets arena.


Wi-fi is a practical upgrade that will directly benefit the tens of thousands of people who attend events at NRG Stadium and the cost of around $5 million seems reasonable, considering we’ve known for some time it was an NFL requirement. But the league must be laboring under the false assumption we desperately need (never mind want, which is debatable) the Super Bowl here if it thinks Harris County citizens consider it a good use of funds to fork over $45 million in tax revenue for cushy new digs for the richest football “fans” on earth.

And, don’t bother threatening us. The city has received more than our fair share of those from sports league officials over the years, from David Stern to Paul Tagliabue and Bud Selig. Owners from Bud Adams to Les Alexander and Drayton McLane have threatened to move their teams — Adams followed through — without new digs. But at least in most of those instances, the threat was something tangible — build a new stadium or the team will leave — and the reward provided a legitimate benefit to the city (stadiums that have helped to revitalize downtown, after all).

This threat is just a bunch of jackasses in a suits extorting cash subsidies for the top one percent — not of the general populace, which would be bad enough, but the top one percent of people who will go see one game on one day in 2017. Sure, maybe these upgrades will be a nice perk for the season ticket holders who fork over hundreds of thousands a year to Bob McNair, Inc. for the privilege of cheering from the comfort of a luxury suite. But, it sure as hell isn’t doing anything for the average Houstonian, most of whom can’t afford to go to a single NFL game and many, I would wager, who have never set foot inside NRG.

It’s insulting. It’s idiotic. And it will probably get paid for anyway. Because, let’s face it, they agreed to this kind of oversight when they bid for the game. Either the county didn’t read the fine print or they all just hid it from us so we would be too far down the road to be able to argue.

So, yeah. According to the Chron story, Edgar Colon of the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., disputed the notion that Harris County ought to be on the hook for fifty million bucks. I personally would be fine with passing the bill along to the Texans. I agree with Jeff that springing for Wi-Fi updates is a reasonable request with a tangible benefit for a decent amount of people. The rest, not so much.

State of the county 2015: Please cooperate more

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett makes his eighth State if the County address.

Judge Ed Emmett

Judge Ed Emmett

In his eighth State of the County address, Emmett had choice words for both Austin – which is weighing a reduction in property taxes that form the backbone of county revenue – and for Houston – which has adopted a strategy of limited annexations of suburban areas but Emmett said will not adequately provide for its poor.

“County government must have the tools and resources necessary to improve those areas because I do not see a scenario in which the city steps up and improves the situation,” Emmett said at NRG Stadium to several hundred business leaders brought together by the Greater Houston Partnership.

A city spokeswoman said the limited annexations were two-sided agreements with utility districts, not city land-grabs.

Emmett nevertheless called for a “new model of urban governance” that would work for a booming unincorporated Harris County that is becoming increasingly urbanized. The county judge expressed concern that the unincorporated part of the county could struggle to provide health care for its indigent and build roads and railways for its economy.

Harris County, which soon will have more people living in these unincorporated areas than in Houston, has been mischaracterized by outside groups and policy makers as merely an urban core, Emmett said.

The city’s governance plan has included limited-purpose annexation of unincorporated areas. Those agreements strip suburban areas of possible revenue, and Emmett said he was prepared to spend some political capital to fight the city as it tries to bring neighboring areas into its jurisdiction.

“Suburbs and close-in areas that have been skipped over are struggling,” Emmett said. “For lack of a better term, suburban blight is staring us in the face.”

Equally menacing, Emmett said, is a state government that looks to implement “arbitrary limits” on the revenue or spending of the county, which is an arm of the state. While he supports lower taxes, Emmett derided proposed property tax caps Friday as merely “good sound bites.”

The state also should take some responsibility for health care for the indigent and the mentally ill, Emmett said, rather than relying solely on county resources.

“Should indigent health care really be a responsibility solely of the county?” Emmett asked. “Or is it time for the state to establish regional health care systems that support public and private clinics, hospitals and programs?”

Here’s the full text of Judge Emmett’s address. Just as a reminder, expanding Medicaid (which Judge Emmett supports) would go a long way towards addressing those needs. I don’t know enough about the annexation issue to have a strong opinion about it, but I wonder if going back to doing more full annexations might be a better way forward. As for the threat to the county’s revenue stream coming from Austin, the main problem there is too many Republicans in Austin that don’t really care about governing but are there to implement an ideological agenda. The Judge’s suggestion is for more November voters to get involved in the primaries. That may help, but I’d point out they could also make some different choices in November, too. Anyway, the end of the speech was about the Astrodome and the ULI plan for it. Whatever else happens, here’s hoping that gets some traction.

Losing our sports history

This is sad.

The original championship banners for the Rockets and the WNBA’s defunct Comets remain on display at Toyota Center, as do banners saluting both teams’ representatives in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

After that, Houston’s legacy of pro sports banners gets a little fuzzy.

The latest collection of banners to depart the city left in 2013 with the Aeros. The minor hockey team was moved by the NHL’s Minnesota Wild to Des Moines, Iowa, when the team could not reach agreement on a new Toyota Center lease with the Rockets.

Team officials said the Aeros’ 2011 banner for winning the American Hockey League’s Western Division title is on display at the Wild’s training center in Des Moines.

As for the other Aeros banners, they are presumed to be in storage in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, although team officials could not provide details on their location. A team spokesman, in fact, was not familiar with any banners that existed other than the 2011 flag.

Regardless, Toyota Center once was home to banners commemorating the 2003 Calder Cup title, the 1999 International Hockey League Turner Cup title, the 1974 and 1975 Avco Cup titles won by the World Hockey Association team, and the retired No. 9 jersey worn by Hall of Famer Gordie Howe, who played for the WHA Aeros.


NRG Park spokeswoman Nina Jackson, asked this week about the location of the Astros memorabilia, said, “Nobody knows anything about any banners.”

There was no indication whether the banners were sold during the Astrodome “garage sale” in 2013 and, if not, whether they still are stored somewhere within the building.

Similar questions surround the Oilers’ championship banners and retired number banners. The Oilers left Houston after the 1996 season for Nashville, Tenn., and a spokesman for the Tennessee Titans said the Oilers banners have not been seen in storage in Nashville.

So thanks to two relocated (and renamed) franchises plus one that changed its home stadium, a lot of tangible pieces of Houston’s sports history are at best in unknown locations. The obvious solution to this would seem to be a local sports museum, whose first task would be to try and track down these things that no one will admit to having at this time. Maybe this story will be a catalyst for someone with the money and the inclination to pursue that. Until then, at least we still have people who remember that these things did once happen.

More on the ULI Astrodome plan

From Tory Gattis:

This was not a presentation of, “well, if the all the stars line up you might be able to make this work.” The theme was more, “this is an absolutely incredible opportunity and you would be fools to not seize it.” In fact, Tom Murphy, former mayor of Pittsburgh, was the anchor speaker and threw down the gauntlet, challenging us to step up to the plate, think big, and make this happen.


Here are my thoughts on aspects of it:

  • Brilliant putting 1,500 to 2,000 parking spaces in two levels at the bottom of the dome’s bowl, which makes it a lot easier to sell to the Texans and Rodeo. In general, they said they bent over backwards trying to accommodate their needs, as well as the OTC.
  • They smartly called for refreshing the different tenant agreements at NRG Park, rather than just trying to stay within their limits that never envisioned re-purposing the dome.
  • Clever idea of making a good part of the interior green space removable like the turf trays at NRG Stadium. That allows it to be converted to hard floor space for events like the OTC, or a dirt floor for the Rodeo.
  • They did look at using it for fixed-seating concerts/events, but determined there were already plenty of venues in Houston for that, so that functionality was not included. There certainly may still be concerts in there, but they will be more of the festival lawn variety.
  • They very explicitly did not recommend a replacement for the NRG/Reliant Arena, whose functionality they believe can be included inside the revamped Astrodome. Boom – $150 million saved right there! That may give the Rodeo a little heartburn, but – as I’ve said before – it’s the right call.
  • In any discussions of finances for this, that $150 million savings of an Arena replacement should absolutely be factored in, including communications with the public. They mentioned a ballpark potential cost number of $200 to $300 million (a bargain compared to similar scale projects elsewhere, they said), which means the Arena savings gets us more than halfway there!
  • They believe it might be possible for operating costs to be covered by revenues, so it won’t be an ongoing burden. The capital costs are the trickier part, although they laid out a lot of options there.

Overall it was far better than I had hoped or expected.

From CultureMap:

The plan calls for an oak-lined promenade leading from the METRO light rail station on Fannin to the Astrodome, which will be repurposed into the “world’s largest room” on the third floor of the structure — “a grand civic space in which to shine,” said Amy Barrett, a South Carolina urban planner.

The grand space could be used for a variety of functions including, but not limited to, a park, sustainable farm, farmer’s market, festivals and museums with an educational component. The top area of the Dome could include a viewing area as well as an Adventure Park, with zip-lining, hike-and-bike trails and indoor rock climbing.

The plan calls for the first two floors of the Dome to be converted into a parking garage for more than 1,500 cars, including spaces large enough for horse trailers and large vehicles, providing a source of steady revenue. Other sources of income could come from naming rights to various areas of the complex, sponsorships and admission charges for the Adventure Park and other attractions.

Additional funding sources could include solicitations from philanthropic organizations, federal and state grants, joining the city on a TIRZ district, seeking a share of hotel occupancy taxes, and a county bond issue, if necessary, ULI panelists suggested. They were hard to pin down on the potential cost of the project, although one said it could be in the $200 million to $300 million range.

“Our conclusion is that the Astrodome can and should live,” said Los Angeles real estate developer Wayne Ratkovich, who chaired the panel. “We believe that the Dome can serve all of Harris County and beyond. It can be a scene of many more historic moments and the home of many activities that will enhance the quality of life for all Houstonians.”

The panel made special efforts to address the concerns of two major tenants at NRG Park — the Texans and the Rodeo. They emphasized that the repurposed Dome could provide additional opportunities for the Texans on game day and for the Rodeo during the month of March. A Rodeo representative said they were studying the plan; a Texans representative declined to comment.

“The work really begins now,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett. “The main thing about this morning’s announcement from the ULI is they unanimously came back and said the dome needs to be saved. Yes it’s usable. Now go do it. That begins the hard work. The rodeo has to be part of that. The Texans have to be part of that. But the community at large has to be part of that. That building — the dome — belongs to the taxpayers of Harris County.”

Emmett added that he gave this plan “almost 100 percent” chance of succeeding and awaits the final report, which is due within 90 days. “At that point we can really go out and start seeing other entities and say, ‘Here’s the concept,'” he said. “It will be a constant conversation between me and the commissioners from now on. In the meantime we are proceeding with the washing of the building and cleaning it up.”

See here for the background and here for the full Urban Land Institute report. What I like about this is that they’ve directly addressed the concerns that the Rodeo and the Texans have brought up before, because getting those entities on board will be critical to success, and while there’s still a lot of “could be used for” language there’s also a lot of specifics. Tying the space in to the Rodeo and football game day experience is a good idea as well, and I have to agree in looking over the document again that it’s got some bold, big-thinking ideas. I got a little excited imagining it, and that’s not something I’d have said before. We just might finally have a winner here. What do you think? Next City has more.

Urban Land Institute report on the Astrodome

Is this, at long last, The Plan for the Astrodome?

The iconic, yet aging Astrodome is worth saving from the wrecking ball and could find new life as a massive indoor park and green space, a national land use group said Friday.

A panel of experts with the Urban Land Institute released a preliminary proposal for the former Eighth Wonder of the World that would convert it into a public space that includes an indoor lawn, outdoor gardens with a promenade of oak trees, and exhibit space for festivals and community events.

It would also include a play area with zip lines, trails and rock climbing walls.

“The Astrodome can and should live on,” said panel chairman Wayne Ratkovich, president of Los Angeles-based Ratkovich Co., which specializes in urban infill and rehabilitation projects.

The panel that included urban planners, designers and economists from around the country, spent this week interviewing stakeholders and Houstonians about the former home of the Houston Astros. It presented its preliminary findings at a public meeting at the NRG Center and will present a final report to Harris County within 90 days.

The study by the non-profit education and research institute was paid for by the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation and a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which named the Astrodome a National Treasure in 2013.

While the costs and details were not firm, the panel agreed that the structure is worth saving. The panel proposed a public-private funding structure that would include a mix of philanthropy, historic tax credits, hotel occupancy tax funds, money from tax increment reinvestment zones and county funding, possibly in the form of a bond proposal.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who previously proposed an indoor park idea, said he did not know if the proposal would require a bond initiative to fund. Yet, Emmett said, the proposal has an “almost 100 percent chance” of succeeding.

“They unanimously came back and said, ‘The Dome needs to be saved. Yes, it’s usable. Now, go do it,'” he said. “Now begins the hard work.”

Ideally, Emmett said, a portion of the park project would be completed in time for 2017 when Houston hosts the Super Bowl at NRG Stadium.

You can see the presentation here. The ULI got involved in September. The plan is basically a synthesis of a number of ideas that have been advanced before, and there is a lot to like about it. As has always been the case, the question is how to fund it, and how to get public support for it if it comes to a vote. The one bit of recent polling evidence that we have is not positive on that latter point, but we haven’t had a plan that everyone with a stake in it has bought into and worked together to sell. If Commissioners Court and the Rodeo and the Texans and the preservationists are all on board and pulling in the same direction, we could have something. I don’t know how big an “if” that is yet, but we’ll see. What do you think of this?

KHOU poll shows little support for Astrodome Park plan

Another result of interest from that KHOU/KUHF poll.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

The plan to turn the Astrodome into the world’s largest indoor park is politically unpopular with Harris County voters if the transformation requires any taxpayer dollars, according to a new poll released this week.

Fifty-one percent of those surveyed by KHOU/Houston Public Media said they opposed spending any public money to convert the stadium. The plan hatched by County Judge Ed Emmett could include both public and private dollars if approved, but the poll suggests that voters would only support something that is entirely privately funded.

Thirty-one percent of Harris County voters said they would support spending taxpayer dollars to create the park, and 17 percent said they didn’t know. The poll of 325 likely voters has a margin of error of 5.4 percentage points.

To be clear, this is about the Ed Emmett Astrodome Park plan, in which the Dome would be transformed into a giant indoor park. It differs from the original Astrodome Park plan in that it would not involve demolishing the Astrodome. It also doesn’t have much in the way of specifics, which may be why people are skeptical of it. KHOU takes a closer look.

“Voters in this county are simply not comfortable spending any money on the renovation or restoration of The Astrodome,” said Bob Stein, the Rice University political scientist and KHOU analyst who supervised the survey.

Polls conducted by KHOU and Houston Public Media in years past have shown an interesting divide, indicating people old enough to have seen events at the Astrodome were more likely to support saving the stadium. Now that generation gap has disappeared.

“It’s pretty much across the board,” Stein said. “We couldn’t find a group of voters who are significantly more likely to support spending county money on the renovation of the Astrodome as an indoor park.”

Another curious statistic popped out in the poll. Almost all of the undecided voters were people who didn’t vote in the 2013 Astrodome referendum. As Stein crunched the numbers, he came to an interesting conclusion: If the dome park plan were put on the ballot next month, it would probably fail by roughly the same margin as last year’s proposal.

Of course, Emmett’s idea hasn’t yet been fleshed out and, most important, nobody knows its proposed cost. But the survey indicates voters are wary of any plan to spend more money on The Astrodome.

My concerns about this poll aside, this makes sense to me. As I suggested before, it’s going to take a detailed and specific plan, which clearly shows the benefits of the proposed park or whatever they decide to call it, and a sustained persuasion effort to get voter approval. It should be noted that the Rodeo and the Texans put out their own poll in August that claimed widespread support for their plan. It was basically a push poll, and their description of what was being proposed was not entirely accurate, but the point is that an effective sales job combined with a worthwhile product could be a winner. There’s a lot of work to be done, both in putting together a plan that can be sold to the public and in getting all of the players on board with a commitment to make it work, before any campaign can get off the ground with a hope to succeed. If the goal is to do something in time for the Super Bowl in 2017, time is of the essence. Swamplot has more.

KHOU: Abbott 47, Davis 32

A new poll to open Early Voting.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

As early voters head to the polls for a landmark election in Texas, a new survey conducted for KHOU-TV and Houston Public Media shows Republican Greg Abbott with a commanding lead over Democrat Wendy Davis in the race for governor.

Abbott’s supported by 47 percent of likely voters surveyed for the poll, compared to Davis’ 32 percent. Another 15 percent were undecided.

Green Party candidates Brandon Parmer carried 1.4 percent and Libertarian Kathie Glass .7 percent. About 2 percent of surveyed voters wouldn’t say who they’re supporting.

This latest poll dovetails with other surveys conducted earlier this year showing Abbott with a double-digit lead over Davis, indicating few voters have changed their minds during the course of the campaign.

“There always could be a crisis, a major gaffe, something like that,” said Bob Stein, the Rice University political scientist and KHOU analyst who supervised the poll. “But it’s very hard to imagine that you can reverse a double-digit lead.”

In the lieutenant governor’s race, Republican Dan Patrick also has a double-digit lead over his Democratic opponent, Leticia Van de Putte. Patrick’s supported by 36 percent of surveyed voters compared to Van de Putte’s 24 percent.

Libertarian Robert Butler had 1.8 percent in the lieutenant governor poll and Green Party candidate Chandrakantha Courtney .9 percent. Another 3.3 percent said they were voting for someone else, while about 2 percent declined to answer the question.

Democrats hoped Van de Putte’s presence on the ballot would energize Hispanic voters, but the survey indicates that hasn’t happened. About 36 percent of Hispanic voters told pollsters they didn’t know how they were voting for governor, and about 34 percent said they were unsure how they’d vote for lieutenant governor.

“If Leticia Van de Putte has a name that’s recognizable, it’s not moving what we consider to be core Democratic voters,” Stein said. “Self-identified Hispanics and self-identified Democrats are still undecided.”

Clearly, there are a lot of “undecided” voters in this poll. It’s a little hard to know what to make of that this late in the game. Some poll data is here but I can’t find crosstab information, so there’s only so much analysis one can do. I will say that most of the polls KHOU has done in the past have been for Houston Mayoral races, and their results have been mixed, to say the least. They also polled the 2013 Astrodome and inmate processing facility referenda, and the 2012 Presidential race in Harris County, with the latter being fairly accurate and the former two not so much. My main complaint with their non-Presidential year methodology has been having too broad a sample. That may be part of the issue here, though obviously I’d like for as broad a sample as possible to be an accurate reflection of the electorate, but without seeing full data I can only speculate.

One more point: Despite the 15-point lead they show for Abbott statewide, they show Davis leading Harris County by a 40-35 margin. (They have Patrick and Van de Putte tied in Harris County, 30 to 30, and show a meaningless one point lead for Devon Anderson over Kim Ogg, 23-22.) I don’t know how you can reconcile a five-point lead in Harris County for Davis with a 15-point lead statewide for Abbott. But hey, the only poll that matters, as they say, has begun. Greg has the latest look at the mail ballots, and by Friday or so we should have a decent inkling of what’s happening based on the early vote rosters. Get out there and vote.

The Historical Commission, the expert panel, and the Dome

And Judge Ed Emmett, the connection between them all.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

As a group of national experts convenes to figure out what is best to do with the Astrodome, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Tuesday briefed the chairman and staff of the Texas Historical Commission about his proposal to turn the vacant stadium into an indoor park and about the repair he says is needed no matter what happens to the 1965 structure.

Emmett met with the Urban Land Institute earlier this month, the week after unveiling his proposal to turn the county-owned Dome into the “world’s largest indoor park” and recreation area. Last week, he told reporters he hopes the county will hire the respected nonprofit to organize a panel of experts to conduct a holistic analysis of the iconic stadium and figure out how it might be reused.

On Tuesday, Emmett said the institute’s panel will convene in December. In the meantime, the panel has asked the county to prepare a series of questions it would like the panel to answer.

Emmett says he will not attempt to look for investors until the panel comes back with recommendations.


Emmett said he plans to ask the commission for permission to sell seats and continue asbestos abatement and other potential work, including power washing. He said he was told those things should not be a problem since they do not alter the appearance of the stadium.

“We’ll run everything by them,” he said. “I wanted to establish a clear line of communication so that when there are things that need to be done we don’t get stuck for months, you know, going back and forth and I think we’ve accomplished that.”

The Urban Land Institute panel should be a good way to answer my first question about Judge Emmett’s indoor park idea for the Dome. It’s great to say there are many possibilities for What To Do With The Dome, but until we can identify one compelling option we’re just flailing about. As for the Historical Commission, opening a channel of communication is a good idea. Let them know what’s going on so they can offer their input without forcing delays. I look forward to hearing what the Urban Land Institute panel comes up with.