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Astrodome Park

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

The Dome at 50

We still don’t know what to do with it.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

The late Judge Roy Hofheinz was a raconteur with a 57-inch waist and affinity for cigars and Diet Dr Pepper with Jack Daniels, a larger-than-life man who hatched the idea of climate-controlled sports with the Astrodome.

He thought his beloved Dome trumped France’s best-known landmark.

“The Eiffel Tower is nice,” Hofheinz once told an ambassador from France. “But you can’t play ball there.”

Ironic then that the Eiffel Tower, which was designed to be a temporary structure, draws roughly 7 million visitors to Paris each year, while the Astrodome, built to withstand hurricane-force winds, has become a civic albatross: an abandoned eyesore that will require millions of dollars to retrofit or raze. The Astrodome turns 50 this week like a loner tooting a paper party horn on his birthday. Which is a shame because the Astrodome remains an icon in a city short on them. It’s a symbol of hope and ambition, a gaudy testament to dreaming big and subverting nature.

Hofheinz’s son, Fred Hofheinz, who, like his father served as mayor of Houston, said “as a building, obviously it’s an icon. But more than that, it also affected a lot of lives.”

The Astrodome is a sentimental landmark for generations of Houstonians, inspiring a T-shirt with its mid-century silhouette and the slogan “Come and take it.” Paul Slayton, the Houston rapper who records as Paul Wall, frequently sat in the Dome’s $1 seats for Astros games. “My mom would always tell me I was watching history,” he said. “The Oilers games were the same way.”

But the Dome also suggests transience. Its original Bermuda grass wilted when its 4,000 Lucite skylights were painted over to help outfielders better track balls. It was notorious for being a pitcher’s park, where fly balls full of promise went to die. Its artificial turf was hard on athletes regardless of their sport. Hofheinz sought a presidential nominating convention at the Dome but didn’t get one during his lifetime. George H.W. Bush’s unsuccessful re-election bid started there.

And now the Eighth Wonder of the World sits empty in the shadow of NRG Stadium.


“To the naysayers and Dome-deniers who claim the unused landmark is embarrassing, I disagree,” said James Glassman, founder and director of Houstorian, a preservation group. “I think our willingness to seek a good solution and not hastily tear it down shows that Houston has grown up, that we’re not the impulsive, past-be-damned community we once were.”

Glassman is in favor of salvaging the Dome itself over a multi-use green space.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett has said “just leaving the Dome in place to deteriorate has never been an option.” He put the annual maintenance cost at $166,000, and wouldn’t rule out demolition, though he seems committed to finding a new use for the space, such as an indoor park and recreation area.

The question becomes: Is the Astrodome better as a landmark and a destination or as an idea? The financial stakes are higher for the former, whereas the Dome already is being used as a city symbol. Local beer maker 8th Wonder Brewery has a popular logo that plays on an old Astros and Astrodome insignia. And a patch featuring the Dome really should be restored to the sleeves on the Astros’ uniforms, even though the team hasn’t played there for more than a decade. Nostalgia for the Dome is rooted in our ever-changing city’s ephemeral relationship to the past.

I feel like we’ve been talking about the Astrodome forever without getting anywhere. My criteria for success still haven’t been met, that’s for sure. Whether you think we need to be bold or you think we need to quit kidding ourselves, we’re not going anywhere until we all have the same answer to that old question “what should we do with the Astrodome?”

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.

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.

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.

How about Astrodome Indoor Park?

County Judge Ed Emmett gives his vision for the Astrodome.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Tuesday proposed turning the Astrodome into “the world’s largest indoor park” and recreation area, a concept he said would honor the reason his predecessor built the iconic stadium 50 years ago: “To provide for traditional outdoor activities in an indoor space.”

“Rather than try to convert the Dome into something it was never intended to be, I think it’s time to look back to the vision of Judge Hofheinz,” Emmett told reporters gathered on the floor of the 49-year-old structure.

Among potential attractions Emmett said he could envision at the domed stadium were a large open green for festivals and other community gatherings, general exercise facilities, an amphitheater, a pavilion for music and other events, and special educational facilities for children, even museums. The Dome also could house permanent or temporary sports facilities, such as an archery range or horseshoe pits, he said.

Emmett said he has discussed the idea with members of Commissioners Court, as well as NRG Park’s major tenants, the Houston Texans and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

He acknowledged his proposal was open-ended and did not include any funding plan, the lack of which has been his major criticism of previous proposals to redevelop the stadium.

“I think it’s important to layout the vision and call on the public and experts to help implement that vision,” he said.

Funding would consist of a combination of private and public funds, including rental fees, Emmett said. He gave no cost estimate for the proposal, saying that would be revealed once the plan is firmed up.

“Let me stress again, converting the Dome into the world’s largest indoor park is a vision worth pursuing,” Emmett said. “But in order to realize that vision, we must look to the public sector, the private sector and the general public for that support.”

Emmett’s statement about his vision for the Dome, which Swamplot notes has some similarity at a high level to the kind of plan that the Rodeo and the Texans were touting as having public support, is here. Getting enough of the public behind a vision for the Dome, enough to overcome the persistent cynicism that many people feel and that I think helped lead to the defeat of the 2013 referendum. People are going to need to be convinced that this is a good idea, that it really will save the Dome, that it’s not just another boring proposal being put before them so Commissioners Court will have cover to do the Rodeo and Texans’ bidding and finally tear it down, and that the value proposition for whatever the county will spend and the taxpayers will be asked to fund is there. The vision is good, but the sooner we have details and some pretty pictures to ponder, the better, especially if the idea is to have something ready in time for the 2017 Super Bowl. Texpatriate has more.

UPDATE: Texas Leftist has more.

Astrodome Park proponents tout a survey showing people like the idea of Astrodome Park

How can you argue with that?

The NRG Astrodome should be turned into a green space similar to Discovery Green downtown, said a majority of people recently surveyed about the future of the former sports arena.

The survey, ordered by the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and conducted by the University of Houston Hobby Center for Public Policy and Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, questioned RodeoHouston committee volunteers, adults in Harris County and Texans season ticket holders about the future of the dome. RodeoHouston and the Texans proposed the idea, which includes demolishing the dome, last month.

Among other findings, the survey revealed 57.1 percent of those surveyed supported the idea of a green space.

Leroy Shafer, RodeoHouston’s chief operating officer, said Thursday he was surprised at the response.

“I wasn’t expecting such a wide wave of approval for it,” Shafer said. “People don’t seem to want to spend public money on renovating the Astrodome and this idea seems favorable.

“The other option is to continue to let it sit there hoping some white knight comes along with money enough to save the thing but that doesn’t seem to be happening,” Shafer said.


After the survey was released Thursday, [County Judge Ed] Emmett was baffled by its contents.

“I hesitate to even call it a survey since the questions asked were so slanted,” Emmett said Thursday evening. “It was designed to get a certain result, which they got.”

“I don’t know why he’s so fixated on tearing down a landmark that doesn’t belong to him. Additionally, how can they call it a reuse plan when it calls to tear something down?” Emmett asked.

Here is the survey and its results and methodology. It’s a YouGov Internet survey, but since they’re sampling adults and not some voting universe, I see no issues with that. Emmett’s complaint is that the survey refers to the Astrodome Park plan as a “Public/Private Reuse Proposal” that includes a “Visitor’s Center/Museum Complex In The Center Of A Green Space”, which conveniently avoids mentioning the fact that the Dome would be demolished in order to create that green space in which the visitor’s center/museum complex would be located. I think it’s fair to say that people, even those that had been following this issue closely, might be misled into thinking that this represents a proposal to renovate the Dome into a museum and not a proposal to tear it down and build the (outdoor, open air) museum on the spot where it used to be.

I can’t say for sure that people might have been misled because for all the information provided, the exact wording of the questions is not there. Still, based on the way the results were characterized, I think Emmett’s complaint has merit. Now, Judge Emmett doesn’t like the Astrodome Park idea, and I do think people will be open to that idea even if it means demolishing the Dome. But I think you’d get a different set of answers if you spelled out just what “reusing” the Dome means in this context.

By the way, if you’re wondering what the inside of the Astrodome looks like nowadays, Swamplot has some photos for you. The Dome is never going to be a sports venue again, so whatever its ultimate fate is just think of this as a transitional stage.

Chron agrees that the Astrodome Park plan is silly

So there you have it.

There is something uniquely Houston about tearing down an historic structure to build a memorial commemorating the history of that very structure. But that is exactly what the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and the Texans have suggested in their recent proposal for the future of the Astrodome.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett minced no words when he called it a “silly plan.”

Those two primary tenants of NRG park pitched their $66 million idea to county commissioners two weeks ago, which involves razing the Dome and replacing it with green space, including historic markers and possible event stages. It seems like a less ambitious version of the steel-skeleton idea proposed by University of Houston architecture graduate student Ryan Slattery.

We’ve previously supported the idea of turning the Dome site into something resembling a “Discovery Green – South,” but only as a last resort. This proposal falls short of that standard, lacking the ambition and easy access, not to mention funding necessary to create a park that can match Discovery Green. This plan also feels far too willing to ignore the potential that continues to exist in the Eighth Wonder of the World.

Emmett has opposed any demolition, and says that this proposal is a “nonstory.” After all, the Dome belongs to the citizens of Harris County, not a professional sports team.

But it is hard to ignore a plan sponsored by the two largest users of the NRG complex, especially given that they’ve remained generally quiet through all the past ideas, but for their own previously proposed demolition and parking lot plan.

See here for the story so far. I do think it’s a little early to completely dismiss the idea, since the Rodeo and the Texans have not said how much of the tab they would be willing to pick up and what (if any) thought has been given to programming and paying for programming. Of course, the longer we go without any word from the Texans and the Rodeo on these subjects, the more reasonable it is to view this idea through a cynical lens. As the Chron notes, the Rodeo and the Texans have made their preference for demolition clear all along. If they’re serious about this being something more than just a way to make demolition more viable, then it’s on them to spell out the details. We’re waiting.

Emmett doesn’t like Astrodome Park

And he’s not afraid to say so.

Hoping to jump-start another discussion about redeveloping the Astrodome, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Thursday called the Houston Texans and the Rodeo’s proposal to demolish the iconic stadium and replace it with a park-like green space “a silly plan” and pleaded with members of the Hotel & Lodging Association of Greater Houston to give repurposing a second chance.

“The Astrodome is the only building in the world that’s 350,000 square feet of column-free space,” he told a luncheon crowd at the Four Seasons Hotel downtown. “There are a lot of creative people in the world who would love to figure out ways to use the space if we just keep it and make it an option for them.”

The county’s top elected official was not advocating for a specific redevelopment proposal and told association members there is not one currently under consideration by the Harris County Commissioners Court, which will have the final say on any plan to renovate or demolish the structure. Rather, he said that tearing it down would be a waste of a valuable taxpayer-funded asset and that demolition would come back to haunt him in retirement.

The 49-year-old structure “is going to become a critical piece of who we are as a community. It’s not about nostalgia,” he continued. “It’s an asset that belongs to the taxpayers of Harris County and it would be a shame, because I know that I would wake up in retirement at my log cabin 10 or 12 years later and somebody would come forth and say ‘If we just had the Astrodome.’ So, I just wanted to bring that out. I’m starting that discussion again.”

In the last week, Emmett has expressed opposition to a $66 million proposal by the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and the NFL’s Texans to demolish the stadium and turn it into a grassy, outdoor space like downtown’s Discovery Green where festivals, tailgating and concerts could take place. He did so again on Thursday.

“It’s a silly plan,” he said after his remarks. “I told them: If you’re going to tear it down, just tear it down. I mean, is anybody going to care this is where Harmon Killebrew hit a home run?”

Well, I think some nod to the history of the place if it gets torn down is the least we can do, but that’s a valid point. Judge Emmett was the only distinctly negative voice on Commissioners Court when the idea first surfaced, so this isn’t a big surprise. I’m happy to restart this conversation as well, but the problem is that after all these years there still isn’t an agreed-upon idea for What To Do With The Dome nor a way to pay for it. You’d think that if it was ever the time for a private investor to come forward with a plan, it would be now while we’re experiencing a huge real estate and construction boom. Alternately, the county could float another bond proposal; Emmett acknowledged in an earlier version of this story that they did a lousy job selling the last one, so maybe the next time, if there is one, they’d do better at it.

I don’t know if this is going to go anywhere. The rest of Commissioners Court appears to be receptive to the Astrodome Park idea, though perhaps their enthusiasm will wane a bit if the Rodeo and the Texans get weaselly about how much they’d be willing to pony up for it. Emmett sort of called them out on that, saying he’d oppose the idea even if they picked up the entire tab, which I’m sure they never had in mind. Things are on hold while the Texas Historical Commission is deciding whether or not to grant the Dome historical status. Like I said, I don’t know where we go from here, but one way or another the matter is still open for discussion. Hair Balls, Texas Leftist, and PDiddie, who does like the Astrodome Park idea, have more.

Astrodome Park: The population isn’t the problem

Greg Wythe addresses one of the central questions about the proposed Astrodome Park in this comment that I thought was worth highlighting on the front page.

As it turns out, there are a number of apartments situated to the east and north of the Dome. Checking Census data, the counts on the area “un-highlighted” in this map view comes to 13,360 for the immediate Dome walking area.

If we look at just downtown, we have only 4,690 total people there to seed Discovery Green with foot traffic. So, on the surface, the Dome area is significantly better situated. If we factor in Midtown and a generous interpretation of EaDo, we get 13,243 people in the “un-highlighted” version of the downtown map. Still less than would be accessible to the Dome park.

Both maps are from roughly the same elevation, so the expanse of territory of those maps should give a good interpretation. Obviously, not all parts of downtown (let alone Midtown or EaDo) are considered “walkable” to Discovery Green and not all parts of the Med Center apartments are going to be “walkable” to a Dome park.

But even if the downtown area were more populated, I don’t think it would make a case in and of itself – highways and a rail line to the Dome generally mean easier access. If there’s a problem with the proposal, proximate population and access aren’t going to be among them.

Greg’s input – and his maps! – are always appreciated around here, so I’m glad he was inspired to do this bit of research. I have three takeaways from it.

1. It seems clear that the residential population around the Astrodome is not an impediment to it becoming a successful park like Discovery Green. Honestly, when you think about it, Houston’s best parks – here we include Hermann and Memorial, for starters – are destinations. People get there by whatever means is most practical to enjoy their amenities. If Astrodome Park is worth going to, people will go to it.

2. That said, I wouldn’t completely dismiss the walkability question, nor the point that Astrodome Park would be a small oasis of green surrounded by a sprawling desert of asphalt, which may have a dampening effect on attendance. Walkability is about more than just distance to travel, it’s about the experience and utility of walking as a mode of transportation. People associate walking with downtown, if only because wherever you’re going downtown, you’re likely going to park a couple of blocks away from it, and once you do park it’s often expensive and inconvenient to move and re-park. That asphalt desert that would encircle Astrodome Park feels like it might be a psychological barrier to the park. I don’t know how to test that hypothesis without actually building the park, and even I will admit that the total effect of what I’d describing here is likely to be minimal in reality, but I do think one reason why people are skeptical of the idea is because of this. It just doesn’t fit with our perception of the place. Of course, there were people saying the same thing about Discovery Green not too long ago, so take this all with an appropriate amount of salt.

3. Really, what Greg highlights here just enhances what Lisa Gray wrote about and I commented on: It’s the programming. The people that conceived, built, and now run Discovery Green have put a ton of work and a few million bucks into making it a place that people want to go. The evidence that we have so far is that other than invoking Discovery Green as an optimistic analogy, the proponents of Astrodome Park haven’t done any of that thinking or planning or fund-seeking. If and when they show their work on this, we can evaluate their plans and compare them to Discovery Green and see how we feel. Until then, it’s just some pictures on a set of PowerPoint slides.

Could Astrodome Park actually work?

Lisa Gray asks a good question about the proposal to turn the Astrodome into green space.

Could that really be a park like Discovery Green? It’s easy to imagine that green space being useful, say, for a Super Bowl party, tailgating during home games, or as an extension of the Rodeo. But outside of those occasional events, what would lure people to an out-of-the-way, surrounded-by-asphalt park? What would it take to convince them to go there seven days a week, even in July?

I asked Barry Mandel, president and park director of Discovery Green.

“What’s their goal?” Mandel said. “Is it to have a space that’s active only during events? Or do they want to draw people in, to have it be active seven days a week? Do they want it to be a catalyst for development?”

If everyday activity is a goal, Mandel says, it has to be baked into the plans from the very beginning. Discovery Green started its planning with the goal of having people come to the park — in what was then considered a very inconvenient, little-used part of downtown — every day of the year. “That was a bold idea,” says Mandel. “Planning started by getting community input. Project for Public Spaces went out to the community and asked two questions: What would it take to bring you here? And what are your concerns?”

Those planners returned with an almost comically long list of features to be packed into the small space: A lake, multiple stages, a dog run, a micro-library, a playground, a quiet garden, permanent public art, green space suitable for Frisbees or ball-throwing, and not one but two restaurants. Only then, knowing what needed to be included, did anyone draw plans.

The park’s baked-in permanent features draw an important steady stream of park visitors: Even when nothing special is going on, people believe the park is an interesting place to be.

In addition, of course, Discovery Green deploys intense “programming” — a dizzying array of events, all through the week, intended to draw people from all walks of life. Concerts. Movie nights. Yoga. Zumba. Dog shows. Temporary public-art exhibits. Kayak classes. Flea markets. Circus performers.

Those events cost money. “Since the park started, we’ve probably spent $5 million on programming,” says Mandel.

Putting this another way, Discovery Green was founded with a lot of foundation money behind it. How much money did it take to make Discovery Green happen? A lot.

The total cost to acquire the land that became Discovery Green was approximately $57 million, and the total cost to build, landscape, and complete the project was approximately $125 million.

The Astrodome Park plan carries a $66 million price tag; the Rodeo and the Texans say they’ll contribute some amount to that, but they don’t say how much. If they’re serious about this, and the invocation of Discovery Green is more than just grabbing for the easy analogy of “urban public parks created from previously unused space”, then I say show me the money. In particular, show me the private and non-profit partners in this venture and their plans for what to do with the place after it opens. I’ll still be skeptical – Discovery Green may have once been in a “very inconvenient, little-used part of downtown” – but it was still close to a lot of people in a way that Astrodome Park isn’t. What’s the plan to bring people there, and what’s the funding source to pay for it? That’s what we need to know.

The Rodeo and the Texans would like to demolish the Dome now, please

Yeah, I don’t know how well this will go over.

County leaders said Thursday they are open to considering a $66 million plan devised by the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and the NFL’s Houston Texans to demolish the iconic Astrodome and turn the nearly 9-acre site into a massive outdoor space reminiscent of downtown’s Discovery Green.

The two organizations – the primary tenants of the South Loop sports complex where the vacant stadium stands – briefed commissioners on their proposal this week.

The project, titled the “Astrodome Hall of Fame,” calls for tearing down the dome, bringing the floor to ground level and installing an open-air structure where the walls once stood, according to a 37-page proposal obtained by the Houston Chronicle. The plan, drawn up by two architecture and construction firms, is designed to pay tribute to “the Astrodome’s history” and realize its potential as an “outdoor fulcrum” of NRG Park.

Renderings show what looks like the ribs of the former stadium circling a vast, grassy space with multiple event stages. Tributes to the various events, athletes and entertainers – from Elvis to Earl Campbell – who have played and performed at the stadium throughout the decades would be installed on each of 72 structural columns that would stand as tall as the 49-year-old structure.

“We think they came up with a tremendous idea and it’s the one thing we don’t have out there right now,” Rodeo Chief Operating Officer Leroy Shafer said of the plan devised by Gensler and Linbeck Construction. “This puts a park right in the center of our NRG park complex.”

Shafer and Texans President Jamey Rootes said they are open to helping foot the bill for the project, describing it as “affordable,” but would not say how much they would contribute.

Mighty thoughtful of them. You can see their proposal – which has a February, 2014 date on it, by the way – here; the embedded image comes from that document. The inspiration for turning the Dome into green space comes from Discovery Green. I love Discovery Green and I’m generally favorable towards more parks, but I am skeptical of this analogy. Discovery Green is a park surrounded by city blocks that are full of people who can walk to it. Astrodome Park would be surrounded by acres of parking lot that abuts a highway on one side. Who’s going to walk to it? I admit, it’s true that a significant number of Discovery Green visitors arrive by car, so I may be overblowing this. But as I look at the renderings, I can’t escape the feeling that this is something that’s being grafted on to the space. It just doesn’t feel natural to me.

Maybe that’s not important to the proponents of this idea, which include at least two members of Commissioners Court, Steve Radack and Jack Morman. (El Franco Lee is undecided but not obviously opposed, Jack Cagle did not comment for the story, and County Judge Ed Emmett is strongly against it.) Perhaps all that matters is that it would be used Rodeo attendees and Texans fans, and would make a pleasing backdrop for Super Bowl LI. I wonder if they’ll be happier about paying to maintain a lightly-used park than they are about upkeep on the aging Dome.

Reactions I’ve seen so far to this range from ambivalence and resignation to outrage, with a healthy dose of the latter on Facebook. I fall more into the first two camps. I’ve never had an emotional connection to the Dome but I don’t relish the idea of tearing it down, and I still think repurposing it is the better way to go. But after the bond referendum was voted down last year, even if one interpreted that as a rejection of that specific idea rather than of preserving the Dome, it wasn’t hard to imagine this kind of scenario playing out. The powers that be would like to have a plan in place to Do Something by 2017, when the Super Bowl arrives. There’s no consensus for a preservation plan, and no funding source, either. Demolition is the easy way to go, and hey, at least this beats more parking lots, right? If you feel strongly about this one way or another, I advise you to contact your County Commissioner and let him know how you feel. Time is running out. Hair Balls and Swamplot have more.