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Cynthia Neely

Astrodome gains antiquities status

Nice.

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 preservationists make their case for historic landmark status

Ted Powell and Cynthia Neely, the driving forces behind the push to designate the Astrodome as a national and state landmark, write an op-ed outlining their reasoning.

Not historic but still standing

As the Texans and the Rodeo view a third-party investor as not boosting, but rather siphoning off their revenue streams, we believe they have and will continue to dismiss any third party idea submissions no matter how well financed.

The hastily assembled $217 million bond ballot initiative, which was narrowly defeated during the low turnout election in November, was a face-saving move following the county’s swift dismissal of more than 22 third-party submissions.

It is our belief that public funding (i.e., bond issue), is the only path forward that the Texans and the Rodeo will accept as it is the only way that guarantees that they will not have to share park decision-making and revenue with a third party in the future.

We believe the national and state landmark designations can break the stalemate. Their legal statute permit requirements bring the Texas Historical Commission to the table, who, if invited, will assist with developing a comprehensive plan that optimizes the economic benefit and historical preservation aspects in repurposing the Astrodome. Even if the commission is not invited to the planning table, the agency has veto power over any ill-conceived Astrodome plan.

The landmark designations also offer tax saving opportunities to third-party investors, increasing the pool of potential investors and re-purposing visions.

It is true that a state landmark-designated building can be delisted and a demolition permit can be granted, but this requires the owner to show due diligence as to why no economically viable plan exists.

It is doubtful that the commission would grant a demolition permit based on “existing contractual obligations.”

See here, here, and here for the background. It’s tough to put much detail into a 700-word op-ed aimed at a general audience, but I don’t feel like I learned anything new from this. It’s interesting that they have concluded that public financing is the only non-demolition path forward, since previous statements made by the likes of Commissioner El Franco Lee and County Judge Ed Emmett suggest they think that a private investor is the ticket. I wonder how much Powell and Neely’s perspective was shaped by that stakeholders meeting a few weeks ago. I agree that landmark designation will make it more difficult, politically as well as procedurally, to demolish the Dome. That may force the recognition that an imperfect plan is better than no plan, which may help move something forward, and it has value on its own if you’re passionate about saving the Dome, as Poweel and Neely clearly are. Beyond that, I’m still not sure what this will do.

Let’s talk about the Dome

Time for a come to Judge Emmett meeting about everyone’s favorite historic yet threatened local landmark.

Not historic but still standing

Emmett said he wants to use the meeting next Wednesday to clear up any confusion surrounding last week’s unanimous vote by the state’s Antiquities Advisory Board to forward an application for landmark designation to the full commission, acknowledging that approval is “likely.” The vote will occur at the commission’s quarterly meeting on July 30 and 31 in Alpine, commission spokeswoman Debbi Head said.

Emmett said many people do not understand that the county-owned Dome has had protected status since February when the historical commission agreed to consider the application, submitted by two Houston residents.

“We’ve got a lot of people who are saying different things about what they think is happening and this is just to make everything clear as to what’s going on,” Emmett said. “There is no answer, there is no proposal out there right now, but it’s just to have the conversation because once the historical commission filing was made, then the county’s hands are tied to a degree already. Some people don’t understand that.”

Representatives from the Rodeo and the Texans – the primary tenants of NRG Park, where the Dome is located – are among those on the guest list. Others include Ted Powell and Cynthia Neely, who submitted the antiquities designation application earlier this year, and Dene Hofheinz, daughter of former Houston mayor and county judge Roy Hofheinz, who is credited with building the dome.

In a statement, Rodeo officials said they remain eager to find an “acceptable resolution to a closed and rotting building that sits at the center of their operations.”

[…]

Neely, part of a group that proposed turning the Dome into a movie studio, said Tuesday she is glad Emmett is holding the meeting, but that she still is wary the county ultimately may resort to demolition, which inspired her to seek the antiquities designation in the first place. She and Powell, a retired LaPorte chemical engineer who led the fight to save and restore the Hurricane Ike-damaged Sylvan Beach pavilion, successfully pushed for the Dome’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places earlier this year, making it eligible for placement on the state list.

“I’m going in with a positive attitude hoping that now something good will happen,” said Neely, owner of Black Gold Productions, a Houston film company.

See here and here for more on the Dome’s historic landmark designation, which at the very least would seem to take demolition off the table. Maybe. Anyway, let’s be honest, the problem has always been money. There’s no shortage of ideas of what to do with the Dome, ranging from compelling to wacko, but what they all have in common is no readily identifiable way to pay for them. I thought the 2013 bond referendum would have settled this, but I was wrong. I’m still not sure whether the reason for its defeat had more to do with people just not liking the New Dome proposal, people not wanting to pay for anything, people being distrustful and cynical about a process that has taken forever to go nowhere, or some other thing. What I do know is that if we’re ever presented with another plan that requires public funding and a vote, the powers that be need to do a much better job selling it. I also think the Rodeo and the Texans need to put some skin in the game and pledge to pay for at least a little bit of whatever gets proposed; part of the cynicism I mentioned before comes from the Rodeo and Texans are driving an agenda of demolition and that they’ve gotten all of the benefit of Reliant Stadium on our dime. A private investor would solve a lot of these problems – assuming they are sufficiently capitalized, of course – but in the absence of a sugar daddy, everyone else needs to put an oar in the water and start rowing in the same direction. Maybe then the public will go along with it.

The historic Astrodome

Not sure what effect this will have.

Not historic but still standing

The National Park Service has added the Astrodome, the world’s first domed stadium, to the National Register of Historic Places, making it eligible for tax breaks to aid in its rehabilitation but offering no real protection from the wrecking ball.

Historical preservationists, who successfully pushed for the Dome’s inclusion on the National Register, pledged Friday to continue their battle to save the Houston icon by asking the state to declare it an antiquities landmark – a designation that could limit Harris County’s power to alter or demolish the 49-year-old structure without a permit from the Texas Historical Commission.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett responded through a spokesman that he would “oppose anything that would tie the hands of officials elected by Harris County taxpayers, who own the Dome.”

The National Register’s decision Thursday to add the Astrodome, which opened in 1965, makes it eligible for inclusion on the state list. The historical commission normally takes six months to rule on such nominations, but once the process starts, a site is protected until a decision is reached. In recent years, said Gregory Smith, the agency’s national register coordinator, commissioners annually have granted fewer than six landmark designations to buildings.

[…]

Nominating the Astrodome for the national register were Cynthia Neely, owner of Black Gold Productions, a Houston film company, and Ted Powell, a LaPorte retired chemical engineer who led the fight to save and restore the Hurricane Ike-damaged Sylvan Beach pavilion.

Through the efforts of Friends of Sylvan Beach Park & Pavilion, the 1950s-era building was saved from demolition and restored in a $4.9 million project funded largely by federal hurricane recovery funds.

Neely and Powell confirmed Friday that they plan to push for the protective antiquities landmark designation.

The issue as always is whether someone – Harris County or a private investor – is willing to put up the money to Do Something with the Dome. Being added to the Register makes the Dome eligible for various tax breaks, but I don’t know how much effect, if any, that may have on the financial calculations for this. I suppose designating the Dome as a nationally historic structure might add to the pressure to not demolish it, but that doesn’t move it forward otherwise. But hey, every little bit helps.

The Dome’s status is complicated

Is it a landmark or not? If so, what kind?

We still have the memories

Mayor Annise Parker this week called an effort by the city historical commission to designate the Harris County-owned Astrodome a city landmark “ill-advised,” and said she had no plans to put the item before City Council for approval.

The Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission on Thursday is expected to vote to seek landmark designation for the 48-year-old stadium, where the county currently is carrying out $8 million worth of work, including asbestos abatement and demolition of exterior pedestrian towers added in the late 1980s.

[…]

City Attorney David Feldman said that if the commission votes to start the designation process, “the Astrodome would be subject to the requirement to get a ‘certificate of appropriateness’ for almost any activity affecting the exterior of the structure, including demolition, unless the county establishes that the ordinance does not apply to them.”

The historic preservation ordinance specifically applies to property owned by “a political subdivision of the state of Texas; provided such entities are not otherwise exempted from this article by law.”

In a memo sent to City Council members on Monday, however, Parker suggested it would be inappropriate for the city to impose landmark status on a building owned by another governmental entity.

“While a resolution supporting preservation of the Astrodome might have my support, the Astrodome is a Harris County facility, and imposing a city historic designation on it without approval of the property owner would be unprecedented,” Parker wrote.

The historic landmark idea came up shortly after the election. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett has said it likely won’t make any difference since the main thing that designation does is put a halt on demolition for 90 days, and as we know they’re in no hurry to do anything permanent. There are other possibilities as well.

Meanwhile, a separate effort is afoot to get the Dome designated a national historic landmark, which would make it eligible for federal funding and also for designation as a state historic landmark – like the Alamo – which would bar demolition.

“That’s the ultimate goal,” said Cynthia Neely, who helped prepare an application to nominate the 1965 stadium for placement on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Texas Historical Commission approved the application in October. Neely said she expects the National Park Service to add it to the register in January.

Ms. Neely has a long history with Astrodome advocacy. I think I remember seeing something about the Texas Historical Commission taking action, but this is the first I can recall hearing about the National Register of Historic Places possibly being involved. If that happens, I wonder what the implications would be for any private investors that may be lurking out there. Like I said, it’s complicated.

Is it finally time to do something with the Dome?

A few days ago, a woman named Cynthia Neely took to CultureMap to demand that we Do Something about the Astrodome.

Regardless of whether you love or hate the Astrodome, the building is owned by the county and in effect belongs to all of us taxpayers. And you are paying for it.

Consider these options:

  • It would cost about $128 million to tear it down — that’s $128 million of public funding (which includes the existing $40 million bond debt that has to be satisfied no matter what is done).
  • To repair the Dome just enough to become habitable (and able to produce at least some revenue), the Sports and Convention Corp says it would cost $30 million (though some reports say less).

Hmmm …$128 million to end up with nothing versus $30 million to stop the bleeding and still have an historic building with both revenue and jobs potential.

The Commissioners have allowed it to deteriorate, not protecting our investment — even though it is likely the county’s biggest asset; the Astrodome’s doors were slammed shut in July 2008 due to fire code and building inspection violations.

Had somebody been on the ball, these problems would not have come as a surprise. Modifications could have been made all along to maintain its certificate of occupancy and thereby its ability to create revenue. It could have been self-supporting, or on its way towards being self-supporting, and not have wasted at least $3 million in taxes every year to do nothing.

Instead, since the Astrodome has been permanently closed in 2008, taxpayers have forked over a minimum of $9 million for it to collect dust. If the Commissioners had begun correcting those violations three years ago, some of that money could have gone into repairs, not down the toilet.

Most property owners and landlords who have the means fix their leaky roofs, have their furnaces checked before turning on each winter, repair a broken window to keep the rain out, and that kind of thing. It’s called upkeep. It is the responsibility of the County Commissioners to do the same, particularly since we are entrusting them with our money. It is their fiduciary responsibility.

Neely, in case you’re wondering, had previously been with the company that had proposed turning the Dome into a movie studio. I don’t know if she had a wire on this or what, but it appears that someone was listening.

Harris County should move this year to renovate the Reliant Astrodome into a special events arena, County Judge Ed Emmett told a Greater Houston Partnership luncheon audience Friday.

Emmett said he favors a “minimalist” approach that would see the Dome’s roof replaced, its seats removed, its shell intact, and grass laid down. He did not have a cost estimate for the idea.

“Anything we do to or with the Dome is going to be expensive, but it really is time to move forward,” he said during the annual State of the County speech to roughly 1,100 people at the Hilton Americas-Houston Hotel. “I think we owe it to future generations to preserve the Dome as a gathering place for special events.

“The taxpayers have to be engaged early in the process, for it is their Dome,” he continued, “but now’s the time to make a decision.”

Houston’s major festivals could be held at the Dome, he said, rather than in a less-than-ideal spot around downtown’s City Hall, where property is hard to secure at night.

“I think people would flock to it,” Emmett said. “Is that a revenue generator, enough to pay for the Dome? No. It would have to be a decision that the community said, ‘You know what? We want this to be part of our community.'”

Emmett said he hopes Commissioners Court will reach a decision “in a matter of months” to be presented to the voters of Harris County, perhaps a year from now, in a bond referendum.

The main thing I take away from this is that Judge Emmett, at least, no longer thinks getting a private investor to turn the Dome into a movie studio or convention center/hotel or whatever is viable. A corollary to that is that the fabled three options are no longer in play – the Emmett Option is far more minimalist than any of them. It’ll be interesting to see how the County Commissioners react to this – Steve Radack is quoted expressing skepticism about spending money on the Dome while the economy is still weak; none of the others were quoted having a reaction. Beyond that, I don’t have any strong feelings about this as yet. I don’t have the sentimental attachment to the Dome that many people have, Judge Emmett apparently included, but we have always needed to do something about this sooner or later. The only real complaint I have about this is that we’re still paying off bonds from the Dome’s 1987 facelift. It would be nice to be off the hook for this thing once and for all.

Anyway. The West U Examiner has some good coverage on this and the rest of Judge Emmett’s State of the County address, which you can read in full here. As I have called on Judge Emmett to push back against looming cuts in mental health services by the Legislature, I’m glad to see this from his speech:

Harris County is home to the world’s greatest medical center, a hospital district that is a model for the nation, and many neighborhood clinics and organizations supported by thousands of dedicated people. Yet we have far too many residents with no medical home, so they come to our emergency rooms. That is tragic and costly. Fortunately, the Greater Houston Partnership, working with the Houston Galveston Area Council, is working toward a regional concept to provide better care for more people at lower cost in the long run. Ultimately, the Legislature and, to a degree, the federal government must provide the framework to make a new system, but Harris County will be a driving force.

Now is not the time to cut funding for such efforts. Now is the time to move forward.

While on the subject of health care, mental health issues are a top priority to be addressed. Let me rephrase that. We have a lot of Harris County residents who suffer from mental health conditions, and we must do a better job of caring for them. Far too many of these people end up in our county jail – time after time. The cost of incarceration and treatment in a criminal justice setting is staggering compared to proper preventive care and treatment.  

Now is not the time to cut funding for mental health programs. Now is the time to move forward ‐ fully funding those programs so that the taxpayer reaps huge benefits in the long run and our residents receive better care.

From your lips to the Lege’s ears, Judge.

Finally, I note that while Judge Emmett spoke about the need to do something with the Dome a little more than a month ago, his press release in advance of the State of the County address gave no indication that it was going to be a topic for discussion. Way to keep us all on our toes, dude.