Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

demolition

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.

Help a brick out

From Swamplot:

AN INDIEGOGO PAGE has just been launched to crowdfund the removal and reuse of an unexpectedly large group of well-preserved 1930s bricks from thenow-under-deconstruction Yale St. bridge over White Oak Bayou. The group calling itself Friends of Houston’s Yale Bridge Bricks says the funds will be used to preserve the bricks for reuse both around the bridge and elsewhere around the city.

The fundraising effort shares some organizers with Friends of the Fountain, which launched the late-February campaign to crowdfund the de-restoration and subsequent repair of the Mecom Fountain following its short-lived experiment with limestone couture. That effort raised more than $50,000 toward a $60k goal in one month; Bill Baldwin (of both Friends groups) says it the fountain’s fundraiser received over $100k in total, including offline donations. This latest round of online crowdfunding the preservation of National Register of Historic Places structures is starting the bar higher, with a goal of $100,000 shown on the fundraising page.

Here’s a fuller description from the fundraising page:

Because of the bridge’s status on the National Registry of Historic Places, the bridge was technically eligible for publicly funded relocation. After investigation by several local and national historians and engineers, it became unfortunately clear that preserving the entire bridge through relocation would be unfeasible, though the design of the new bridge would incorporate some bricks under its asphalt surface and historical elements from the balustrades and lampposts.

TxDOT originally reported that, “The condition of the bricks would not be known until the asphalt is removed before demolition starts…it is likely that the bricks would be damaged during removal of asphalt layer. The use of bricks on the new bridge would add deadload to the bridge and thus would require increasing support requirements, as well as cost of construction.”

However, once the asphalt of the bridge was removed last week, a treasure trove of beautifully intact, original brick greeted workers spanning the length of the bridge. Over 40,000 bricks dating back to at least the 1931 construction of the bridge are in prime condition to be used elsewhere and saved from the landfill. This has been astonishing discovery that opens up a world of possibilities.

Through a partnership with the Houston Parks & Recreation Department, the Houston Parks Board, the Historic Preservation Office of the Planning Department, TxDOT, the Mayor’s Office, and others, Bill Baldwin and friends are seeking to privately fund the careful removal and storage of these historic bricks.

The bricks will be used in surrounding infrastructure and beautification projects, not just in the immediate area, but in other historically significant locations throughout the city as well.

The fundraising goal for this project is $100,000. Fundraising efforts will be led by Baldwin, who recently co-chaired with Phoebe Tudor the astonishingly successful Friends of the Fountain crowdfunding campaign to restore Mecom Fountain, which raised over $100,000 including off-line donations.

This is a worthy cause, and we would love to have your support!

They’re off to a slow start. I suspect this is the kind of project that will need a few deep pockets, because I don’t think there will be enough small-dollar donations to make the cut. I don’t know what the deadline is for this, but if it’s the sort of thing that floats your boat, have at it.

Want to buy a big piece of land near the Medical Center?

Here’s your chance.

A single tract of land large enough to hold multiple office towers, high-rise residential buildings and a hotel doesn’t often come available inside Loop 610. One near the Texas Medical Center is even more uncommon.

After 45 years, Shell Oil Co. is selling 21 acres it owns at the southwest corner of Old Spanish Trail and Greenbriar, just south of the Medical Center’s main campus and directly west of the Woman’s Hospital of Texas.

The site houses a midrise office building, a parking garage and several warehouse structures.

As far as most people in real estate development would be concerned, they’re all teardowns. The value of the property is in the land, which is likely worth tens of millions of dollars.

The land is next to a giant parking lot owned by the Medical Center that is the proposed location of a medical research project to be called the TMC3 Innovation Campus.

The facility would bring together several Medical Center institutions and for-profit commercial components, such as hotels, shops and restaurants. It would have a large plaza shaped like a double helix, a nod to intertwining strands of DNA.

The Shell property is along the light-rail line and represents the largest contiguous redevelopment site in the Texas Medical Center area, according to Cushman & Wakefield, which has the listing.

I used to work out that way, and I can tell you, the stretch of Old Spanish Trail from 288 to where it meets up with Main Street, just to the west of this property, used to be mostly run down and vacant lots but is now packed with new Medical Center complexes and residences. The “giant parking lot owned by the Medical Center” referenced is in front of the Smithlands light rail station, which is two blocks from the main entrance to the for-sale tract. That lot is always full – there was a dedicated traffic light put in for it on OST between Greenbriar and Stadium – so I have no idea what will happen when it gets developed as well. I would also note that the large tract of land at Main and Greenbriar where The Stables once was is still a vacant lot after just shy of a decade has passed. In other words, just because a large tract of land is coming on the market, doesn’t mean something will get built on it any time soon. Anyway, if you have a few million bucks lying around, this might be a nice piece of land to pick up.

RIP, Yale Street post office

It’s gone.

Clues could have been the overgrown landscaping, multiple notices taped to the doors and, for the keenest observer, the bare pole without a U.S. flag or clanging metal cables.

Headed back to his SUV on Thursday, one man with an envelope threw up his hands and yelled to a lady scurrying to the door with a package: “They moved!”

Indeed, the plan for the Yale Street post office in the Heights at 11th Street to relocate operations has come to pass.

The new station opened this week in a remodeled annex at 1300 W. 19th Street, though the consumer entrance and drive-up drop box is on 18th Street. The location is near where 18th, 19th and 20th streets pitchfork near East T.C. Jester.

[…]

In January 2015, a posted notice on the Yale Street station indicated a pending “disposal action.”

Which I noted at the time. Since then, both of the adjoining locations that were under development have opened. The former Citgo across Yale is now Eight Row Flint, which looks promising, while the large space across 11th at Heights is now one of those walk-in emergency clinics, which I hope to never need. (It’s gotten mixed reviews on the neighborhood chat boards, for what it’s worth.) No idea at this time what the Yale post office location will become, I’m just rooting for something interesting.

As for the new post office on W 19th, I try to avoid that part of town precisely because that three-road “pitchfork” is a pain to deal with. Besides, the location on Cavalcade is a bit closer. Neither is more convenient to me than the old station was, but that’s the way it goes.

Three I-45 updates

From The Highwayman:

Texas Transportation Commission members on Thursday approved a $3.6 million contract with Main Lane Industries, based in Houston, to replace the entrance ramp from Allen Parkway to southbound I-45. The ramp, which whips drivers through a steep curve before they merge into the fast lane of the southbound freeway, is a well-known bottleneck. Many drivers consider it hazardous.

“It is a confusing entrance and doesn’t work very well,” Jeff Weatherford, Houston’s deputy public works director, said in January.

The project shifts the entrance to the right lanes of southbound I-45 and creates a dedicated lane from Allen Parkway to prevent traffic from backing up. Work is set to begin on the new ramp later this year, and numerous closings and changes to freeway access are planned as work proceeds. The exit ramp from I-45 southbound to Dallas and Pierce could also close. As of earlier this month, the details of the closings were still being worked out.

See here for the background. This work will be done in conjunction with the other work being done on Allen Parkway. As someone who takes the Dallas/Pierce exit to get to work, I’m a little leery of that penultimate sentence. I hope there’s a “temporarily” in there somewhere.

From Jim Weston of the I-45 Coalition on Facebook:

There was a meeting Monday 8/24 & TxDOT showed some updates! This is a work in progress BUT it appears that TxDOT may be listening! NONE OF THESE CHANGES ARE COMPLETE! However, there are indications that TxDOT is listening to the citizens and several changes are planned. Here is a summary of some of the changes, all for Segment 2 (between North of I-10 & South of 610)

1. Houston Ave is back to being 2 way! TxDOT is proposing a ‘roundabout’ (similar to the one at Washington Ave & Westcott). (see drawing)

2. TxDOT has added back the Southbound entrance to I-45 at Houston Ave (TxDOT had deleted it at the April meeting). (see drawing)

3. TxDOT has added an U-Turn lane from the feeder street Southbound to Northbound just before N. Main. (see drawing)

4. TxDOT has removed the proposed connection / roadway from Houston Ave to North Street nearest to I-45.

5. TxDOT has added back the Northbound entrance to I-45 from Quitman.

6. TxDOT WILL NOW provide the crossbeams on the section of I-45 that will be below grade. This is GREAT! Now we just need the ‘slab’ that goes on top of the crossbeams. If we can convince TxDOT to include that, it will be much easier to create green space in this area.

7. TxDOT will create a service road on the East side of I-45 from Quitman to N. Main.

8. The North St. bridge might NOT be replaced. TxDOT does not know yet if there is sufficient clearance for a vehicular bridge. If not a vehicular bridge, then a pedestrian/bike bridge will replace it the existing bridge.

9. Traffic from the Southbound exit from I-45 near 610 was exiting at Link Rd – TxDOT has changed that to Cavalcade exit instead.

The changes, which will generally be welcomed by folks in my neighborhood, have not yet been posted to the TxDOT website, but they will be. The comments on the post indicate there were notes on the other segments of this proposed project, so if you’re affected by it you might want to keep an eye out on the webpage, or find someone who attended that meeting.

And finally, a Chron story about the potential effects of I-45 construction in downtown.

The owner of a 375-unit upscale multifamily complex stands to have a third of its apartments taken for the project. And a nearly century-old building that just this week received a designation from city preservation officials as a protected historic landmark appears to be around the edge of the project’s proposed right of way.

Unveiled by the Texas Department of Transportation earlier this year, the freeway project proposes to add managed lanes to Interstate 45 from the Sam Houston Tollway in north Houston to U.S. 59 south of downtown. Additionally, plans call for removing the Pierce Elevated and realigning I-45 to be parallel to U.S. 59 east of the George R. Brown Convention Center. It is expected to cost more than $6 billion and take years to complete.

Some freeway segments have been designed as depressed roadways with local street traffic flowing above them. Plans show green space above the freeways east of the convention center and between Cavalcade and Quitman streets.

TxDOT is still in the analysis and environmental impact assessment phases of the project and its plans are subject to change. Spokesman Danny Perez said it would not begin acquiring property until TxDOT had “officially determined the recommended alternative, completed the environmental impact review and have a record of decision.”

“We are working toward getting environmental clearance in 2017,” Perez said in an email. “The date of clearance would be the earliest we could start acquiring right of way.”

[…]

David Denenburg recently bought the historic red brick building, a sliver of which is behind the red line on the map, and he’s already started restoring the five-story structure at the corner of Preston and St. Emanuel.

David Bush, acting executive director of Preservation Houston, said federal and state projects take precedence over local historic designations.

“We feel confident we can work around a matter of a few feet to save one of Houston’s historic buildings still standing,” said Denenburg, who owns the property with other investors.

Another block within the proposed right of way contains a large apartment building, one of three structures that make up the Lofts at the Ballpark complex.

Stacy Hunt of Greystar, which manages the property, said the project appears to be a long way off, but the owner of the complex, a pension fund adviser out of Boston, is aware of the possible repercussions.

“The people we represent are very concerned,” Hunt said.

It’s a big change, though as we have seen there are still a lot of pieces to it that are not yet finalized. The environmental impact assessment is where much of those details will be worked out. I’ll say again, this is something all the Mayoral candidates should have an opinion about, because whatever happens will take place on their watch. What kind of changes, good and bad, do they want to see or are they willing to accept in downtown? We need to know.

More on the proposed I-45 changes

Offcite reads the documents and provides some bullet points.

1. I-45 Would Rival I-10 in Width

The plan would dramatically widen I-45 to more than 30 lanes in certain sections. North of 610, I-45 would rival the Katy Freeway in its expanse. Though the west side of I-45 at Crosstimbers is largely vacant, TxDOT plans to take major right of way east of I-45 where many businesses thrive, including the Culinary Institute. The greater capacity to move automobiles might be accompanied by increased cancer risk and asthma for Houstonians generally, and for those living close to the path in particular.

2. I-69 Would Be Sunken through Midtown and Museum District

All of I-69 from Shepherd to Commerce Street would be sunk as deep as 20 feet below grade. That is to say, all the above-ground sections in Midtown and the Museum District (Greater Third Ward) would be sunken and widened, radically transforming the landscape in these neighborhoods. As Tory Gattis notes, the plans would eliminate the bottleneck at Spur 527.

3. TxDOT Would Demolish Apartments, Public Housing, and Homeless Services in EaDo

Lofts at the Ballpark, Clayton Homes (public housing), and the SEARCH building (a 27,000-square-foot facility for services to the homeless that is just now breaking ground) are in the path of the widened I-45/I-69 freeway east of Downtown, and will be torn down at the expense of taxpayers.

[…]

6. New Slimmed-Down Bridges for Cars to Cross Buffalo Bayou

The section of the “Pierce Elevated” over Buffalo Bayou would be rebuilt with new Downtown connectors that TxDOT alternately describes as “parkways” and “spurs.” Though the official rendering is dull, the public-private partnerships that have rebuilt the parks along the bayous might help bring about new iconic bridges for cars. A Sky Park in this location is unlikely because moving traffic across the bayou is considered a major priority for many stakeholders.

That’s a lot of real estate that could be sacrificed for this project, if it comes to pass – as the story notes, funding has not yet been secured for it. The bridges will be a contentious issue, at least in my neighborhood. Already there’s a disagreement between those who applaud and advocate for the closing of the North Street bridge, and those who want to maintain it so as not to cut off a large segment of the neighborhood from the east side of I-45. There are also some potentially good things that could happen, as item #2 points out. I’ll say again, if this goes through it will be the most consequential event of the next Mayor’s tenure. Sure would be nice to know what that Mayor thinks about it, wouldn’t it?

I-45 Coalition gives its feedback to TxDOT

Jim Weston of the I-45 Coalition sent the following feedback to TxDOT regarding their plans for remaking I-45 in and around downtown.

Through-out all Segments:

1.1 – All existing sound barrier walls must be replaced. Past agreements to install sound barrier walls, must be installed as part of this project.

1.2 – Sound Mitigation – There must be noise barrier walls for residential neighborhoods that are adjacent to the freeway, with landscape/beautification included. Consider a design that is appropriate for some of the oldest districts of Houston. Consider both vertical and horizontal caps and a slight inward angle towards the freeway instead of vertical walls to further remove sound from entering neighborhoods.

1.3 – Utilize ‘quiet pavement’ techniques and materials to lower the sound decibel levels generated from the roadways.

Segment 1 (610 to Beltway 8)

1.1 Proposed plan has additional R.O.W. taken from the east side of I-45 south of Crosstimbers. This east side is populated by well-developed and thriving businesses, while the west side has many vacant or closed businesses. It is more desirable to utilize the additional R.O.W. from the WEST side in this section, instead of the east. Conflicts with floodway can be mitigated by retention / detention basins, channel adjustments and by building above grade.

1.2 There need to be curb cut entrances from frontage roads so customers can gain access to businesses.

Segment 2 (I-10 to 610)

2.1 – All bridges removed and rebuilt (Cottage St., N.Main, North St.) should be rebuilt as architectural-styled bridges that have physically (concrete barrier, for example) separated, wide pathways for pedestrians and cyclists. They should have pedestrian friendly lighting. This section of I-45 passes thru some of the oldest districts of Houston and the bridges should reflect that character. They should give our neighborhood a visual identity (similar in concept to the “red-ball” bridges over US-59 at Mandell, Dunlavy, Woodhead, Hazard). Perhaps an artist design competition?

2.2 – Houston Ave. must continue to be a two-way street. Otherwise, it will force additional traffic onto neighborhood streets. Keep Houston Ave two lanes southbound, two lanes northbound and then a designated barrier-separated entrance ramp (at grade level) to I-45 south. This separated entrance ramp can be merged with additional vehicles from Houston Ave north bound (similar to current). This layout completely eliminates the dangerous cross-traffic intersection that is currently in place.

[…]

Segment 3 (Downtown) West

3.1 – I strongly support the Pierce SkyPark concept and request that TxDOT incorporate this concept at the Pierce Elevated. In particular, I would like to be able to use existing portions of the Pierce Elevated infrastructure for a hike-and-bike connectors, green spaces and parks. This will also provide a reduction in demolition costs to the project for TxDOT.

3.2 – I want connectivity from I-45 to and from Memorial Drive. Memorial Drive is an important East-West connector and needs to have connectivity with I-45. Without Memorial connectors, west side inner-loop residents will be adding to congestion on I-10, 610 and or US-59 while accessing I-45 North or South.

There’s a lot more, so go read the whole thing. The deadline for submitting feedback to TxDOT on this project is tomorrow, May 31. This deadline has already been extended once thanks to a request from Rep. Jessica Farrar, so don’t blow it. Go here to submit your feedback. TxDOT can’t know what you do or don’t want if you don’t tell them. It would also be nice to know what the Mayoral candidates think about this, wouldn’t it? I wonder if any of them submitted feedback to TxDOT about this. That’s a question that may show up in a future interview.

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?”

Robinson Warehouse, eight years after

From the Free Press Houston Worst of 2014:

What once was there

WORST WASTE OF SPACE: CORNER OF ALLEN PARKWAY AND MONTROSE

In 2006, The Aga Khan Foundation purchased the massive swath of land at the Southeast corner of Allen Parkway and Montrose. This sprawling piece of property is centrally located, is adjacent to some of Houston’s most beautiful natural landscapes, and could serve so many important purposes.

For nearly 10 years, there have been rumors that this property would be developed into one of the largest mosques in Texas, and I am excited for the controversy that will most definitely ensue once that begins to happen. But that said, having such a huge property with huge potential stay dormant and fenced off in the interim is a missed opportunity.

If I had my way, folks would be allowed to play soccer there, a massive urban garden could be temporarily installed, and the space could serve as a rad destination along the Art Car parade route.

It was just before Thanksgiving in 2006 when I first noticed the demolition equipment out in front of this old, abandoned warehouse at the aforementioned corner. It had been a sad bit of urban decay for as long as I’d been aware of it, and as I obsessively documented over the ensuing two months, it vanished, leaving behind a large green field and the promise of something that would eventually be built. For awhile, the space – which goes all the way from Allen Parkway to West Dallas – was open, and was used a few times as parking for the Art Car Parade. Now it has that ugly hurricane fence around it – presumably, for liability insurance purposes – and Lord only knows what its future might hold. I’ve never heard a peep about its status in all this time.

Personally, I like author Omar Afra’s vision for the space, but there are plenty of other possibilities as well. Just about anything would be better than the unusable nothing that is there now. I wish there were something the city could do to entice the current owners to either do something with it or sell it to someone else that will.

Say goodbye to the Yale Street post office

The Heights real estate boom continues apace.

The next hot property to hit the market in the Heights is nearly 1 acre in size, boasts a large shade tree and fronts two busy commercial streets. The current owner is motivated to sell.

On Monday, the U.S. Postal Service confirmed that it intends to sell the brown-brick post office property at 1050 Yale, at 11th Street, and consolidate operations with another station 2.3 miles away.

“Plans are underway to relocate the retail services of the Heights Finance Station to the T.W. House Postal Station,” the service said Monday in a brief statement. “The Heights Finance Station has been placed on the real estate market and will be sold in the near future.”

In a public notice date-marked Friday and posted prominently near the front door of the Heights Finance Station, the agency says the parcel has been determined “excess” and is “no longer necessary” to its mission. If the “disposal action” goes through, the Heights property would join more than 100 other relocation projects announced nationwide as the Postal Service has had to cope with declining revenue in recent years.

Developers will be eager to pounce, said Bill Baldwin of Heights-area real estate firm Boulevard Realty. He said several commercial developments have recently been completed in that area, and more are under construction or on the books.

“The retail people will be vying for it left and right,” said Baldwin, who is also on the Woodland Heights Civic Association board. “That is too valuable of a corner and too much quantity of land. It’s a very desirable location.”

Swamplot first reported this. I should note that the former Citgo station across the street on Yale is set to become a restaurant, and there’s a commercial development going on across Heights at 11th as well, so this immediate area is about to become something very different. I’m not thrilled by losing this post office – I still pay a few bills the old-fashioned way, and we send out homemade-by-the-girls birthday cards to various friends and family, all of which it is most convenient for me to drop in the drive-by mailboxes at this station – but it is what it is. I hope we at least get something interesting out of the sale and transformation of this property, and not another CVS or fast food-oriented strip center.

More on the Emmett Astrodome Park plan

Good to know that an architect thinks its feasible, but it will need more than that to become reality.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Kinder Baumgardner, president of SWA Architects, the firm behind several public projects in Houston involving parks, said plenty of big-idea architectural concepts that have been successfully carried out around the world initially were dismissed as impractical, including an indoor ski resort attached to a Dubai shopping mall.

“It is ridiculous, but it’s also very successful,” he said of Ski Dubai. “People love it.”

Baumgardner said he was excited and inspired by the concept Emmett proposed, but that “whatever this thing is,” or turns out to be, should complement, rather than duplicate, amenities the city offers, such as pavilions, amphitheaters, exercise facilities and hike and bike trails.

Emmett mentioned all of those as possibilities Tuesday when he announced his vision for the former “Eighth Wonder of the World,” which has not housed a professional team in 15 years.

Preservationist Ted Powell, who helped prepare an application to have the state designate the Dome a protected historic landmark, said “at face value, it seems like a reasonable repurposing plan.” He said he is concerned, however, that the plan is a last-ditch effort by the county, and that the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo or the NFL’s Texans – NRG Park’s two primary tenants – could block it or at least scare away private investors. Another bond election likely would fail, he said.

Last November, voters rejected a $217 million bond issue to turn the Dome into an events center that would have increased the property tax rate by half a cent.

“If it comes down to another bond issue, then is that it?” Powell said. “Is that when the county says ‘No, there’s no other way to do this?’ ”

Emmett refused to speculate Wednesday about what would happen if his plan does not succeed, calling it “a hypothetical I can’t consider right now.”

“It’s gained traction,” he said. “The question is, how do we make it happen?”

See here for the background. I think at a minimum, three things are needed:

1. A clear statement of what the final product will be. After all this time and all the various plans that have been floated – some boring, some exciting, some completely hair-brained – you will have to be able to say “This is what it will be, and this is what it will do”. Saying this is what it can be or what it could do won’t cut it. It would be nice, and would make for an easier sell, if what it will be is something people are enthusiastic about, but I think a sense of cautious optimism will suffice.

2. A clear statement of how this will be paid for, and how it will maintain itself going forward. If there is a bond issue involved, be very clear about the plan to pay it off. Will it rely on a future revenue stream? Is that projected revenue stream realistic or pie in the sky? Don’t create another Reliant Stadium parking revenue situation, is what I’m saying. If there’s any chance this could have an effect on property taxes, be up front about it, but do everything possible to avoid the need for even a tiny increase in property tax rates so that you can decisively crush any fearmongering about it. I believe cynicism about the 2013 plan was a major factor in its defeat (as was the lack of a real campaign in its favor), but the usual anti-tax hysteria surely played a role as well. Learn from the defeat of the 2013 referendum is the lesson here.

3. Have everyone on board, not just in the “won’t oppose it” sense but in the genuine, holding-hands-and-singing-Kumbaya sense. What drives the cynicism I’m talking about is the sense that the Texans and the Rodeo are just sandbagging until they can force the demolition of the Dome, and that Commissioners Court is playing along with them. The only way to counter the view that this is all a game is to have all the stakeholders front and center in support of the plan, and to communicate that support by all means possible. Have I mentioned that the lack of a real campaign in 2013 was a factor in that referendum’s defeat? Because it was, and that’s a mistake you don’t want to repeat. Be loud and proud about the fact that everyone wants this to happen and that good things will result if it does. That will also mean talking about what happens if the plan goes down. If this is the last chance to save the Dome, say so. Don’t do so to frighten, just to be clear. Let people know what the choices are.

I make no guarantees about any of this. There’s plenty of ways that this can all fall apart, even if all the stakeholders do get on board, for which there’s also no guarantee. But if you want a path to success, where “success” is saving the Dome and using it for something useful, then this is the way I would want it to go. What do you think? PDiddie 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.

Yale Street Bridge replacement set to begin

And inevitably there’s an issue.

Time is running out for the historic Yale Street bridge over White Oak Bayou as its condition deteriorates and surrounding development places increasing demands on it.

Some in the Heights- area community believe more should be done to preserve the 1930s-era structure, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

But state transportation engineers say it can’t handle the required loads.

The bridge, just south of Interstate 10, was teetering on closure in 2012 when Texas Department of Transportation engineers lowered its load limit – the maximum weight of a vehicle – to 3,000 pounds per axle. A large, loaded sport utility vehicle could exceed that limit, not to mention the delivery trucks becoming a more common sight as commercial development flourishes along Yale and nearby Washington Avenue.

The lowered weight limit concerned neighbors, who pressed for answers.

“What was agreed upon then was, ‘When we can make it happen, we need a new bridge,’ ” said City Councilwoman Ellen Cohen, who represents the area. “We have got to be able to accommodate the traffic.”

[…]

Construction of a replacement bridge is scheduled to begin in September 2016. Yet some are not convinced that this is necessary.

“I take the position that the bridge can stay and it has been improved,” said Kirk Farris, a local historic preservationist who has worked with TxDOT to preserve other bridges.

Farris, president of Art & Environmental Architecture Inc., and the Texas Historical Commission prepared the 2011 application that placed the Yale Street bridge on the National Register of Historic Places.

In the application, preservationists said the bridge “is one of a few remaining examples of bayou crossings constructed during the city’s street improvement bond program of the 1930s.”

The last update I had was last January, though I know there’s been action since then. Far as I can recall, this is the first time the subject of preservation has come up. I have to say, as someone who has driven over this bridge many times, I’m not clear on what the historic architectural features of it are. If it’s the exterior barriers, then surely something can be done to save at least a piece of them. If it’s something underneath the bridge, I gotta say, I’m not sure what the value of preservation is. I’d value a bridge that we can all feel comfortable will not collapse under the weight it’s now bearing. If there’s a sensible way to avoid demolition while making it safe, then sure, go for it. If not, well, I can’t say I’ll mourn the loss. I value preservation, but I’m not sure what the value of it is here. In any event, there’s a public meeting tonight at 6:30 at 7600 Washington Avenue to discuss the possibilities. That’s the place to be if you want to know more.

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.

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.

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.

They don’t make historic landmarks like they used to

If it can still be demolished, it’s fair to ask what was the point.

Not historic but still standing

The impending designation of the Astrodome as a so-called “state antiquities landmark” has offered new hope to those who want to save the iconic stadium, but the special title would not outright protect the former Eighth Wonder of the World from the wrecking ball, even though it would make it far more difficult.

At an “Astrodome Stakeholder’s Meeting” on Wednesday convened by Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, preservation groups pointed out that the county still could seek a demolition permit from the Texas Historical Commission, even if the 13-member body votes this summer to deem the dome an antiquities landmark. Emmett noted that the county, under state law, could also make the case that redevelopment is too much of a burden on taxpayers in asking the commission for permission to tear down the now-empty structure.

[…]

“If we can’t find a group or a solution to use that building, we’re going to get to demolition eventually,” said Beth Wiedower, a senior field officer for the National Trust. “Yes, this is great that it’s been recognized as historic but our efforts are going to be focused on reusing the building because that’s ultimately what’s going to save it.”

Emmett said he organized the Wednesday meeting because he wanted everyone to be “on the same page” about where things stand with the dome, particularly the antiquities designation he says will impose added difficulties as the county tries to figure out what to do next.

The historical commission is slated to consider the designation at its meeting July 30-31.

[…]

Emmett said Wednesday the goal – as it was before the failed bond proposal – is to find a private entity to redevelop the dome at its own expense, something the county has been seeking for years now to no avail. He also said demolition still is not on the table, although he mentioned a provision in state law that would allow the county to make the case to the commission that demolition is necessary because redevelopment is too costly, if no plan pans out.

“Part of this antiquities landmark process later on could be going to the historical commission and saying ‘Look we’ve tried we’ve tried, we’ve tried. We’ve not come up with an answer and this is too great a burden on the taxpayers of Harris County and that is a provision in the law that you can take into consideration,” he said.

Emmett said he expects the commission will approve the designation, preventing demolition at least for the “short run.”

“If they grant the landmark status then I think that will force some people to come to the table and say, ‘OK, we’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do with the dome’ because I think it would be unlikely then, in the short run, that the historical commission would approve tearing it down,” he said.

See here, here, and here for the background. Not sure we’re any closer than before to agreeing on What To Do About The Dome. Well, at least now we agree that it can still be torn down. Whether or not that’s what we want to do is a whole ‘nother question. So I guess we’ll just keep talking.

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.

More demolitions coming

Good.

DemolitionMap

Houston next week will launch an effort to scoop up dangerous properties left to rot in so many aging neighborhoods, raze them and resell the land.

Officials say the program, approved unanimously Wednesday by the City Council, could more than double the number of buildings demolished each year, help the city recover more of the money it spends fighting blight and get the lots back on the tax rolls more quickly.

“Many of these properties have sat vacant and tax-delinquent for many years, some of them for 20 years,” said Katye Tipton, director of the city’s Department of Neighborhoods. “They’ve got a really rotten building on them, nobody is interested in buying this thing; I wouldn’t. So, the city goes in, we clean up the property. Within 60 to 90 days we’ll take it back to sale. Now, it’s a much more appealing property.”

[…]

Of Houston’s 4,317 blighted houses, strip centers and apartment complexes, most of which are clustered in poor and minority neighborhoods like Settegast, the city is on track to raze only 153 this fiscal year.

Hurdles have included a lack of resources, state laws that limit the city’s ability to interfere with private properties, and often muddled ownership that makes it hard to hold someone responsible for a property’s poor state.

The program approved Wednesday would apply only to the roughly 40 percent of dangerous buildings that are tax delinquent.

Those that do not sell at auction for at least the delinquent taxes, penalties and interest, can be acquired by the city and cleaned up for resale. The city would be responsible for maintenance, but would be first in line to recover its cleanup costs before other local governments get the taxes owed them.

Typically, Houston gets back less than 1 percent of its cleanup costs when it condemns and demolishes a property without taking ownership, because the city is last in line to recoup its costs under state law. When it has taken lots into inventory in the past, however, the city has recovered about 40 percent of its costs.

“Really, anything over the 1 percent is gravy right now,” said Kelly Dowe, the city’s chief business officer, adding the dollars recovered will be set aside for more demolition work. “The real benefit to the city is to get them back on the tax rolls and get them redeveloped.”

I grabbed a screenshot of the Google map from the story and embedded it above. Not surprisingly, nearly all of the properties in question are east of the I-45/US59 dividing line inside the Loop. Tearing them down will be a boon for their neighborhoods, since properties like that tend to attract crime and stand in the way of other development. Given the proximity of many of these properties to downtown, and the high demand for such real estate, I’d like to see the city require that at least some of these places get developed as moderately priced housing. It’s the cost of the land itself that tends to dictate what gets built and how much it costs, so since these are going to sport low prices for whoever buys them, then what gets built on them should ideally reflect that. I don’t know what the best way to do that is, but it would be nice if what ultimately gets built doesn’t price the existing residents out of their homes.

Back to private investors for the Dome

Sure, why not?

We still have the memories

Commissioner El Franco Lee, whose Precinct 1 is home to the county-owned Dome, said Commissioners Court is “not under any time constraint” in deciding what to do with the vacant stadium.

“The only constraint we’re under is spending any public money,” Lee said.

[…]

Lee noted that about $8 million worth of cleanup work, including asbestos removal, is underway to prepare the Dome for redevelopment or demolition and said that work would be sufficient to prepare the structure for the Super Bowl.

“We’ll be ready for that,” Lee said. “That’s a pretty low bar to meet.”

A memo to the court from the county engineer states that “no major activity can occur until asbestos removal is completed” by next September.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said Tuesday the Super Bowl is “a critical date” when it comes to the Dome’s fate but said the county will allow private parties another shot.

“People continue to come and say, you know, if you give us a little time we’ll have $100 million or $200 million or whatever, and I think Commissioners Court is of a mind that if they show up here and they’ve gone through the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp. and they have the money and they want to convert it, then we’ll certainly listen to ideas,” Emmett said.

[…]

Private funding is “the only thing you got left, and that is where we wanted to be in the first place,” Lee said.

Emmett said he, too, is hopeful, even while noting the private sector has “had 10 years to come up with the money” to no avail.

The “we’re in no rush” meme appeared immediately after the election, so this is no surprise. Private funding has always been the preference, since it (theoretically, at least) reduces the county’s exposure and most likely avoids the need for any further input from the voters, who needless to say can sometimes go off-script. There’s already a proposal to turn the Dome into a fitness center, with a promise from the proposer that given a couple months’ time he can scare up $200 million or so to do it. Not sure how I feel about that particular idea, but then like all of the others that preceded it, it’s unlikely to ever become anything more than an idea. If we wait around a little longer, and all indications are that we will, I’m sure plenty more ideas of varying levels of practicality will turn up. The question is what will happen if one of them comes with enough money to make a go of it.

Not in a rush about the Dome after all

We’ll get to deciding what to do with the Dome when we get to it.

We still have the memories

Harris County leaders are in no rush to decide what to do with the Astrodome, leaving the empty and decaying stadium to languish further following last week’s voter rejection of a $217 million plan to convert the iconic stadium to an events center.

Although a majority of court members said prior to Election Day that demolition would be the obvious choice in the event voters turned down the event center plan, not one of them is championing a tear-down.

“I’m kind of over it. I mean, I’m going to go do other things for awhile and see what happens,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said Monday. “This really isn’t the top priority in my life.”

The delay could give historic preservationists time to gain some type of landmark status for the 1965 Dome, which could block its demolition or place limitations on what could be done with it.

Even Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, who has suggested turning the sunken floor of the Dome into a detention pond in an effort to mitigate flooding and slash the cost of filling the 35-foot-deep hole, said he has no plans to push for a vote to demolish the dilapidated stadium.

“I do not intend to put that on the agenda anytime soon,” Radack said. “We’ll see what other ideas emerge.”

[…]

Commissioners Court will have some built-in lag time: Dome asbestos abatement, slated for approval Tuesday, is expected to begin in December and will take an estimated six months to complete.

“I have no deadlines in my mind,” Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said last week after the election.

Look, I voted for the Dome resolution. I myself suggested that the referendum didn’t specify demolition if it failed. I’m as happy as anyone that we’re not fitting it up for the wrecking ball right now. But something needs to happen, and Commissioners Court needs to make up its mind. We can’t go back to the status quo, if only because the 2017 Super Bowl is looming, and there will for sure be plenty of pressure from the Texans and the NFL to Do Something. If demolition is in the future, then let’s be clear about it and not raise any false hopes. If Commissioners Court really doesn’t want to demolish the Dome, then they need to get another plan out there pronto. There is a deadline, and we can’t just sit around and wait any more.

In the meantime, other groups that do know what they want to do are taking their own action.

The city of Houston’s historical commission has voted unanimously to consider an effort that could give landmark status to the endangered Astrodome.

Maverick Welsh, chairman of the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission, put forward the motion at the agency’s monthly meeting last week.

“I think it was the right thing to do,” Welsh said. “We have to focus on saving this building.”

The move, however, was principally symbolic. Such a designation would only put a 90-day hold on any demolition.

“It’s the only thing we can do as a commission to try and raise attention of saving the dome,” Welsh said.

If the commission decides to move forward, City Council would have final say on the historic designation.

I don’t know that this is anything more than a symbolic gesture, but at least it’s a direction. If the stakes in this election were “vote for the New Dome Experience or we’ll be forced to try and figure something else out” and not “vote for the New Dome Experience or the Dome goes bye-bye”, then Commissioners Court needs to get cracking on figuring out that something else. If it was the latter, then I’d rather get it over with quickly than string it out. But please, we’ve had the vote. Please tell us what it meant and then do something about it. Campos and Texpatriate have more.

So what happens now with the Dome?

It’s mostly dead, but I suppose it’s not all dead just yet.

We still have the memories

The board of the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., the county agency that runs Reliant Park, passed a resolution in April saying that if a vote were to fail, the agency would ask Harris County Commissioners Court to allow it to “prepare a plan to decommission and subsequently demolish the Reliant Astrodome.”

“That still stands,” said Willie Loston, sports corporation executive director. However, he said, “there’s nothing we have to do now. We’re awaiting direction. That’s the bottom line.”

All eyes now are on the five-member Commissioners Court, which holds the power to determine the fate of the vacant stadium, which has served as nothing more than a storage facility since city inspectors declared it unfit for occupancy in 2009.

[…]

“We said before the vote that absent a vote to transform the Dome into something useful that didn’t bankrupt the county or the taxpayers, then the likely result would be for the Dome to come down, but that’s not my decision – that’s the decision of Commissioners Court,” Emmett said this week.

Asked about demolition on Tuesday, Emmett said the event center plan was “the only option that was viable and, so if the voters rejected the only viable option, then I wouldn’t know where to go next.”

Strictly speaking, I don’t think Commissioners Court is required to authorize demolition at this point. Someone check me if I’m wrong, but I see no reason why they couldn’t choose to pursue another bond referendum next year, perhaps with one of the creative and unfunded plans that had been rejected. I also see no reason why they couldn’t continue to seek out a private investor, or just leave things as they are. They won’t do nothing, but it won’t surprise me if they take a little time before moving forward with something.

What that something is, even if it is the threatened demolition, remains unclear.

County engineers have estimated it would cost $20 million to demolish the dome and create an “open space.”

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, who voted against the bond and predicted its failure, said he plans to push an idea to turn the dome into a detention pond after it is torn down, eliminating the need to fill in the hole – and the cost – and exempting the county from having to pay a controversial city drainage fee.

“We spend millions every year digging holes, so why would we spend $200 million covering up a pretty good hole that can help with flooding? It makes no sense,” he said.

If that happens, then I believe the very least we can do to commemorate what used to be there is to come up with an appropriate name for what follows. Something like “Lake Hofheinz” or if you prefer formality, the “Judge Roy Hofheinz Memorial Retention Pond”, for instance. Or maybe just call it “Radack’s Hole”. I think The People should be left to settle the question on this, too. Feel free to leave your own suggestion in the comments. Houston Politics, PDiddie, Swamplot, Burka, Mean Green Cougar Red, and Hair Balls have more.

Election results: Harris County

The big story: RIP, Astrodome.

We still have the memories

A $217 million bond measure to fund a massive Astrodome renovation failed by several percentage points, a decision expected to doom it to the wrecking ball.

Proposition 2 would have allowed Harris County to issue up to $217 million in bonds to turn the beloved but bedraggled stadium into a massive event and exhibition center.

County commissioners have said they would recommend the wrecking ball if the bond failed.

“We’re going to have to do something quick,” County Judge Ed Emmett said afterward. “We can’t allow the once-proud dome to sit like a rusting ship in the middle of a parking lot.”

He called it “an interesting evening to say the least” and added, “We have an electorate that is for whatever reason anti-bond.”

The news came as a blow to representatives of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“There’s no disputing this building is an icon,” said the Trust’s Beth Wiedower. “Its legacy will live on even if it doesn’t. It seems like it’s fate is sealed obviously we are disappointed in the outcome.”

I voted for the Dome, and I’m sad to see it end this way. I saw a lot of mourning about this on Facebook and Twitter last night. I wonder how many of those folks were Harris County residents, and how many of them voted. I will be very interested to see what the precinct data says about this one.

Thankfully, the joint inmate processing center passed, though by a very close margin. My theory on the Astrodome was that in the end, this effort came too late. I think too many people had become cynical about the whole thing, and perhaps the somewhat staid New Dome proposal, chosen over a number of imaginative but fanciful alternatives, turned people off. I’m just guessing here. The pro-Dome campaign wasn’t particularly high-visibility, either, and that probably didn’t help. Like it or not, the people have spoken.

The Pasadena power-grab redistricting plan was passed in a squeaker as well, 3290 to 3203, with the No vote carrying Election Day, just not quite by enough. There were three other Pasadena proposals on the ballot, and they all passed with 64% or more of the vote. Expect the lawsuit against this to be filed any day.

Finally, in a race I paid only passing attention to, voters in Katy ISD rejected a $69 million bond proposal that included a massive new stadium by a solid 55-45 margin. I had no opinion on that one, but as an AP wire story I spotted on the Chron website said, it was a bad day for stadiums yesterday.

Ashby lawsuit to proceed

I’ll be darned.

Sue me!

A judge has declined to dismiss a key piece of a lawsuit against the developers of 1717 Bissonnet, a proposed 21-story residential building widely referred to as the Ashby high-rise.

The developers were denied a request that would have thrown out the plaintiffs’ attempt to seek a permanent injunction to halt the project.

The case is now headed for a jury trial set to begin in November.

[…]

State District Judge Randy Wilson issued a denial for partial summary judgment requested by the defendant on Sept. 20.

In a written statement, Buckhead said the petition’s claims are without merit and could lead to a “chilling effect on the development of new real estate projects.”

“This lawsuit is a serious threat to urban growth and economic prosperity throughout the state of Texas,” it said. “If successful, the resulting lack of predictability and uncertainty in the law would invite a flood of similarly styled litigation aimed at stopping projects subjectively deemed as inappropriate or undesirable by any individual or like-minded group of would-be plaintiffs.”

The lawsuit was filed in May. I didn’t think much of its chances, and to be honest I still don’t. But who knows? The old apartments on the Ashby site have been demolished, the developers have their permits, and they vow construction will begin this fall. We’ll see if they’re right.

Endorsement watch: Saving the Dome

The Chronicle gives its blessing to the Astrodome renovation referendum.

There has been a lot of finger-pointing over the Astrodome’s mismanagement, but come Election Day it only matters that voters point their fingers to the ballot button and approve the $217 million bond initiative to save the Dome.

[…]

The eyes of the nation are already upon Houston. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has just opened a field office in our city. What Victorian homes are to San Francisco, or Art Deco is to the New York City skyline, Mid-Century Modern is to Houston – and our greatest example is the Astrodome.

But in the wake of failed leadership, the Dome has been listed as one of the top 11 most endangered places in the nation. St. Louis would not tear down its Gateway Arch. Sydney would not tear down its Opera House. Houston: We should not tear down our Astrodome. We have the power to save it, not merely as a museum piece or historic memorabilia, but as a refurbished and fully functioning part of Reliant Park. And for one-third of the cost of building such a structure from the ground up.

[…]

Preserving the Dome should be the first step of reshaping the entire Reliant Park. If this passes, we urge the county to think bigger about transforming one of world’s largest parking lots into a comprehensive expo, hotel and green space – a Discovery Green South.

Harris County’s finances are in good shape, and after years of economic doldrums, now is the time to save the Astrodome – Houston’s one famous landmark.

Until now, we’ve viewed the boondoggle of the Dome’s decline as a sort of Shakespearean drama. It looked like politicians were scheming behind the scenes, putting forward a bright face while plotting to stab the Dome in the back. It has been a tangled yarn of good and ill, but in the end, all’s well that ends well. Vote to save the Astrodome.

The Chron had previously expressed concerns that the process was rigged to set up a situation where demolition was inevitable but blame for the decision to demolish was avoided. I guess their concerns have been assuaged. There’s a PAC in place to advocate for the referendum, there’s still no visible opposition, and initial polling is favorable. If it doesn’t happen now, it was never meant to be.

Who’s advocating for the Dome?

Some old familiar names are getting back in the game.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Tuesday after the Commissioners Court meeting name-dropped two former county judges — Jon Lindsay and Robert Eckels — who will lead the charge on a campaign to garner support for an Astrodome renovation project.

A $217 million bond referendum to turn the vacant stadium into a massive, energy-efficient convention hall and exhibition space will appear on the ballot this November.

“You know, I know former Judge Eckels, former Judge Lindsay, people at the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., are talking about it,” Emmett told reporters. “Now, how it gets formed, they have to wait and see.”

Lindsay confirmed on Wednesday that he and Eckels, who will serve as treasurer, are, indeed, planning to lead the charge. He said they have had one meeting with the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., which conceived the renovation proposal, and are planning another for next week.

“All I can say right now is we’re working on it and trying to get organized,” Lindsay, first elected in 1974, said, describing the effort as “preliminary.”

He said that Edgar Colón, chairman of the sports corporation, the county agency that runs Reliant Park, likely would chair the campaign.

I believe this is the earlier story to which that refers. Eckels and Lindsay, who offered some warnings about the two of them being a bit out of shape for fundraising and campaign-running, are likely as good as anyone to do this. They know the county and they ought to be credible to a large segment of the electorate. Both Judge Emmett and Commissioner El Franco Lee will be on board with them as well. Honestly, I don’t know that you could have gotten a better team, all things considered.

More from that KHOU story:

“I think it’s going to take some sort of organized effort,” said Bob Stein, the Rice University political science professor and KHOU analyst. “Bond proposals of this sort usually succeed when there’s an overwhelming majority of campaigning and spending on behalf of a bond.”

Emmett said a number of people have talked about leading the effort, but nobody’s grabbing the ball to run with it.

“Typically, right after Labor Day is when things crank up,” Emmett said. “And so we don’t know who all is going to be involved, frankly.”

Among people who’ve watched with dismay as the dome has fallen into disrepair, this only fuels suspicion that a failed bond election will give county leaders political cover to destroy the dome. Even a Houston Chronicle editorial recently opined, “The Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation comes to bury the Astrodome, not to praise it …We’ll see it on the ballot only with the intent of it being voted down.”

That suggestion leaves Emmett visibly annoyed.

“No, I don’t think that’s right at all,” Emmett said. “I think that we spent so much time trying to find a private use for the dome and none of those were funded. Then we had to decide what the best public use is, and I think that’s what’s before the voters right now.”

As before, I’ll side with Judge Emmett on this. Harris County was set to move on a privately-funded plan for the Dome in 2008, but that fell through when the economy bottomed out. Maybe the Court could have acted last year, but not much earlier than that. They also could have waited for another private investor with sufficient capital to step up, but despite the plethora of suggestions for what to do with the Dome, no one with financing in hand has come forward. I don’t know if Eckels and Lindsay can fully quiet the conspiracy-minded, but they ought to muffle them a bit.

Whether the referendum passes may depend largely on the age of the voters who turn out in November. Polling conducted during the past few years for KHOU and KUHF Houston Public Radio has shown a curious generational pattern. The strongest supporters of preserving The Astrodome tend to be older voters, who are more likely to have seen games in the historic stadium. Younger voters are more likely to oppose spending bond money on saving the dome.

Generally speaking, off year elections skew in the direction of older voters. I don’t know what the dividing line is in the poll cited, but I feel pretty comfortable predicting that the average voter this year is likely to be north of 50. When I said earlier that Eckels and Lindsay ought to have credibility with a chunk of the electorate, these are the people I had in mind. Who better to talk to a bunch of old voters than a couple of old politicians, right? PDiddie, John Coby, and KUHF have more.

Astrodome referendum officially on the ballot

It’s been a long, strange trip, but at last you will get to vote on the fate of the Astrodome.

The Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously voted to place a bond election for up to $217 million to convert the iconic stadium into a massive, street-level convention hall and exhibit space, saying residents should take part in deciding the historic structure’s fate.

Should voters reject the bonds, County Judge Ed Emmett and Precinct 2 Commissioner Jack Morman said Tuesday they see no other alternative than to demolish the former “Eighth Wonder of the World,” which has sat vacant since city inspectors declared it unfit for occupancy in 2009. The Reliant Astrodome has not housed a professional sports team since the Astros moved to Minute Maid Park in 2000.

“If it does not pass in November, then that should be the death knell for the Dome,” Morman said.

[…]

While the vote to put the measure on the ballot was unanimous, court members’ personal support for the project is not.

Only Emmett and Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee said they definitely will cast a vote in favor of the bond referendum. Both, however, said they have no plans to launch – or, in Emmett’s case, participate in – campaigns to get the measure passed.

“There needs to be some plans made to do it, if it’s going to be a success,” Lee, who wants to save the Dome, said of a campaign. “The judge is our leadership, so we’ll just see what occurs from there.”

The Commissioners Court on Tuesday also approved $8 million for work that needs to be done to the half-century-old stadium regardless of whether it is torn down or renovated. That work includes asbestos abatement, demolition of the exterior spiral walkways and the sale of signs and other salvaged items that qualify as sports memorabilia.

County engineers and consultants, who estimated it would cost $217 million to repurpose the Dome, also determined it would cost $20 million to demolish it, not including the $8 million.

If the bond fails in November, Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said it “would make no sense to me at all” to spend millions of dollars demolishing the structure.

“There’s another day to have another election,” he said. “Why are you going to spend $8 million and then tear it down?”

The vote to call the bond election was made with one condition championed by Radack: That the ballot language explicitly say that the project would require an increase to the county property tax rate, which has not been raised in 17 years.

See here for the last update. We were headed towards a referendum in 2008 back when Astrodome Redevelopment was proposing a convention center as the Dome replacement, but the economic collapse knocked that off track, and so here we are now. The big question at this point is who lines up to oppose this. The Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation, whose renovation plan is what the Court approved for the ballot, will take the lead in communicating the referendum and the reasons to vote for it to the public. I have no idea how much money they’ll have to mount a real campaign, however. It’s certainly possible that some deep-pocketed types could show up to fund a campaign in favor of this, or in opposition to it. It’s also possible that there will be little more than earned media and some online presence to inform the voters. If I had to guess, I’d say this passes, but who knows? How do you plan to vote on this? Leave a comment and let’s get a totally unscientific data point to bat around. Texpatriate and Swamplot have more.

Astrodome referendum headed for the ballot

If you’ve been waiting for the chance to vote on the fate of the Astrodome, your wait will soon be over.

Commissioners Court next Tuesday is expected to approve a measure asking voters to authorize the county to spend as much as $220 million to transform the vacant stadium, County Budget Chief Bill Jackson said Wednesday.

County engineering staff, with the help of hired consultants, determined that the conversion project the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp. proposed in June will cost $217 million. The sports corporation, which runs Reliant Park, had estimated its plan to turn the decaying structure into an energy-efficient meeting hall dubbed “The New Dome Experience” would cost $194 million.

Engineers also determined that it would cost $20 million to demolish the Dome and create an open space and identified $8 million worth of additional work – including asbestos abatement and selective demolition – that needs to be done no matter whether the structure is revamped or torn down.

The last demolition estimate, released in March by the NFL’s Texans and Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, showed it would cost $29 million to implode the structure and build a 1,600-space parking lot.

Jackson said the county may be able to come up with other kinds of revenue to offset how many taxpayer dollars would have to be spent.

[…]

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said he not only wants to see the plan on the ballot but that he will vote in favor of it – even if it means a tax rate increase – because it will generate revenue.

“Would I build that building today? No, but it’s an iconic structure, it’s a part of our history, I think we can put it to use,” he said. “We can make Reliant Center, and Houston in general, a unique destination for exhibits and special events, and I think that’s worth doing just for the money that will come our way.”

Whether a bond would pass is debatable, court members and county staff say.

Commissioners Court had previously authorized the budget office to give the HCSCC plan the once over. If Harris County winds up borrowing the full $220 million, there could be an increase in the county’s property tax rate of up to a half of a cent. Because there could be a tax rate increase, you can be sure that there will be some opposition to this, though at this point it’s unclear which of the usual suspects will take the lead. Given that the county spends $2 million annually on Dome maintenance, no one really disputes the need to do something. The question is whether people will openly advocate for demolition, which is the alternative and the much cheaper price tag to renovation. Commissioners Court is set to approve this item on Tuesday, so we’ll get a better idea of the politics of this after that.

Commissioners Court approves HCSCC Astrodome plan for further review

I noted this briefly in an update to my interview with Willie Loston, but on Tuesday Harris County Commissioners Court unanimously approved the proposal by the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation to redevelop the Astrodome for further study.

Commissioners did not comment on the proposal before or after the vote, but County Judge Ed Emmett said the court wanted to refer it to budget staff “to analyze what exactly the financial impact is, because if there is a bond, there will be a tax and everybody needs to understand that, but the level of that tax right now is still undetermined.”

County Budget Chief Bill Jackson said he and his staff will review the cost of building, maintaining and operating the facility, and then look at ways to pay for it, focusing on the “non-public property tax items first” in an effort to lessen the amount of any bond referendum sent to voters.

Court members said Tuesday they would like to see a plan on the ballot this November so the 30-month project could be completed in time for the 2017 Super Bowl at Reliant Stadium.

Jackson said options to be examined include naming rights and selling salvaged parts, including the nearly 60,000 seats.

When Astroworld was dismantled about eight years ago, Jackson noted, “people were paying ridiculous amounts for things that they remembered as kids.”

“I just feel that people, if they do take parts and pieces out of this thing, people will be willing to spend something for that,” he said.

The review should be complete by Aug. 1, Jackson said.

That would cut it close for the deadline to place an item on the November 6 ballot, but there would be sufficient time to do so. The Infrastructure Office and the County Attorney’s office were also asked to review the plan. This is basically what Loston said would happen in the interview. Hair Balls elaborates.

The court voted unanimously to send the plan to the county budget office, the county attorney and the public infrastructure department. The budget office will tell them how much this plan will actually cost tax payers, and the county attorney’s office will tell them how quickly everything needs to move to get this on the November ballot, if that’s possible. It’s going to the infrastructure department because Pct. 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle asked that it be sent to that department as well. Now the court has to see what the budget office, the county attorney and the public infrastructure department all have to say before looking at the issue again.

Back in April, the HCSCC said tearing the Dome down would become an option again if whatever option they ended up recommending (which ended up being this one) failed to get approved. Now, [HCSCC Chair Edgardo] Colon notes that if the commissioners decided not to vote for the plan or voters decided against it, demolishing the building would be one of the options, but they would still be looking to the court for guidance and other options for what to do with the building.

Once things really get rolling, Colon says his organization will move in and start working to get the public informed on this project enough to vote on it if and when it gets on the ballot.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said he wanted to see a variety of bond referenda on the ballot, according to the Chron story, including a demolition option. I’m not exactly sure how that would work, though he is correct to note that just because a bond referendum is approved that doesn’t mean the money has to be borrowed and spent. Still, if we’re going to ask the people to vote we ought to be giving them the final say, not just narrowing the choices for a final determination by Commissioners Court. Let’s have one up-or-down item on the HCSCC proposal, and if it fails then Commissioners Court can then decide what the next move is.

In the meantime, County Judge Ed Emmett met with the Chron editorial board to discuss the plan and its status. Two items of interest from their talk. Item one:

In a somewhat heated meeting with the Houston Chronicle editorial board on Wednesday, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett took credit for the timeline the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp. set in April for deciding what to do with the decaying Reliant Astrodome, describing it as an attempt to put an end to a nonstop stream of private reuse ideas that don’t have financial backing — and to force a decision on what to do with the vacant stadium.

“The private groups kept coming and coming and coming and I started chewing on… the Sports and Convention Corp. to set a deadline,” Emmett, who took office in 2007, explained. “This was more a deadline to make sure that those who kept talking actually came to some end and namely that they either had money or they didn’t have money or they had a definite plan or they didn’t have a definite plan.”

Rebuking a Chronicle editorial last Thursday that described the process as rushed and set up to end in demolition, Emmett went on to say that “there’s no plot that I’m aware of.”

“It wasn’t anything to try to short circuit the system,” he said. “In fact, it was trying to put an end to a system that had been going on for years.”

See here for my previous comments on that Chron editorial. As I said earlier, it’s fair to question whether the HCSCC plan will have the full political backing of Commissioners Court, which could be a difference maker in getting a referendum to fund the proposal passed. Judge Emmett appears to be on board, but as we know, the Court is composed of individuals with their own agendas. If one or more Commissioners actively works to undermine the referendum, or otherwise works towards a goal of demolition, people will have a right to be upset about how the process has played out. It’s too early to know how this will play out.

Point two:

Emmett said he “wasn’t keen on the idea” of having the vote this year because there won’t be any other county issues on the November ballot, other than state constitutional amendments. But he said it has to happen if the project is to be done in time for the 2017 Super Bowl at Reliant Stadium. It also has the greatest chance of passing, he said.

“If we don’t have it this year it won’t be ready in time for the Final Four and the Super Bowl and I hate to miss those opportunities,” Emmett said. “And the political reality is I think it’s more likely to pass when you don’t have the whole county voting because I think the people in the city of Houston probably have more of an attachment to the dome than people out of the suburbs. It’s just a guess; We haven’t polled that yet.”

Having a vote this year is the right thing to do. This has gone on long enough, and having the 2017 Super Bowl as a deadline for completing the necessary work ought to keep everyone’s eyes on the ball. The bit about whether there’s a difference of opinion between the city and the ‘burbs is fascinating, and I for one would love to see some polling data on it. I hope whoever does the eventual Chronicle/KHOU poll makes a note of that. Anyone want to critique Judge Emmett’s hypothesis?

Astrodome-palooza

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

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

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s a difficult image to resist.

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

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

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

(more…)

Big week for the Dome

This week things start to get real for the Astrodome.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Monday is an important deadline for those who are determined to save the historic Astrodome, as private firms turn in renovation proposals to the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp.

But the agency that oversees Harris County-owned Reliant Park is also crafting its own plan, possibly a new one, which Executive Director Willie Loston said will be revealed to the board of directors at a meeting on June 19.

“Even if we get a privately funded proposal that meets all the requirements, we’re still going to do a public recommendation as well,” Loston said.

He would not describe the public plan, or say whether it is different from a half-billion dollar proposal the agency recommended to Harris County Commissioners Court last summer. That plan would have renovated the Astrodome and replaced Reliant Arena.

Whatever plan the agency comes up with will go to county commissioners – along with private proposals – on June 25.

County officials have said a “public option,” so called because it would be paid for using tax dollars, could end up on the ballot this November.

In other words, the most recent What To Do With The Dome report, which was put together last year at this time and then put aside by Commissioners Court, is being revived by the HCSCC as a plan for Commissioners Court to consider. The three options presented were to renovate the Dome as a more modern sports arena for $270 million; do the same but also tear down Reliant Arena and replace it with a less-grody 10,000 seat arena for smaller events, for $385 million; and tear the Dome down, for $64 million. Unless prices have gone up, calling this a “half-billion dollar proposal” is therefore a bit of an overbid. Well, I suppose the HCSCC could have spiced it up some since last year, and thus driven up the price tag. We’ll know soon enough.

The rest of the story is about some of the private proposals that are in circulation – Astrodome Tomorrow, Ryan Slattery’s park proposal, and one I hadn’t heard of before to turn the Dome into a business incubator. All private proposals need to have financing lined up in order to be considered by Commissioners Court. That brings up a point that I don’t think has been sufficiently clarified. Any vote in November would be about a public proposal – that is, a proposal to spend public money, presumably via a bond issue – and it has to be a straight yes-or-no vote, so if the public/bond proposal fails, the Dome is doomed to demolition. What that says to me is that private proposals will be considered first, and if one or more of them are considered acceptable to Commissioners Court, then they will choose among those proposals, and that’s what will go forward. The only circumstance under which there will be a vote is if there are no acceptable – i.e., adequately financed – private proposals. If you’re rooting for the Dome to be preserved, you want a private proposal to go forward so that you don’t have to sweat out the result of an election.

The fault lies not with Commissioners Court

Chron columnist Ken Hoffman fired a shot in his Sunday column.

What to do with the Astrodome? It’s had its day. Let it go before it becomes even more of an embarrassing money pit. Dump the Dome!

M. Meagher, Houston

I figured out why the Astrodome is just sitting there falling into disrepair – because the ones who are making all of the decisions on the fate of the Dome are all men – and men can’t throw anything away!

Judy Koch, Houston

What’s wrong with making the Astrodome into an amusement park? Everyone misses AstroWorld, so why not combine the two venues? With all the young and inventive minds we have here in Houston, I know it would be great!

Laura Knowles, Houston

Seen any unicorns lately? Stop expecting the politicians in charge to do anything with the Dome. They will let it rot there, burning millions of dollars each year. They don’t care. They’re political cowards. I dare them to take action on improving or renovating or removing the Dome.

And in short order, fire was returned.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett responded to my note last week calling county officials “political cowards” for allowing the Astrodome to rot and become an eyesore burden on taxpayers.

Emmett wrote: “We have set a deadline – June 10 – for all of those with ideas for the Dome to come forward with the finances to support their ideas. If none have finances, the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp. is to present their suggestion for the future of the Dome on June 25. I wish you had taken the opportunity to report what is actually happening rather than just calling us names.”

I have to go easy here, because Emmett is one of our most effective officials – and I bump into him at Bubbles Car Wash. But give me a break. You’re just getting around to this now? Architects began work on Reliant Stadium in 1997. Groundbreaking took place on March 9, 2000. The Astros moved to Minute Maid Park later that month. That was more than 13 years ago. County officials have done nothing since then to renovate the Astrodome, find another use for it or tear the sucker down. Emmett has been Harris County judge since 2007.

The county spends more than $1.5 million a year just on insurance, maintenance, security and utilities at the Dome, which has become a moldy, unusable, condemned home for rats … and the cats who love them. The domed money pit doesn’t have an occupancy permit. In its present condition, it is good for absolutely nothing.

County officials have held meeting after meeting to discuss the Astrodome, but nothing ever gets done. Now two more meetings are scheduled. Whoopee. County officials are like someone who throws a baby in the river, jumps in and saves the baby … and wants a medal. You caused this problem by doing nothing for the past 13 years. You want a medal for having more meetings? Don’t worry about me calling you a political coward. Do something heroic.

OK, hold it right there. The problem with the lack of action on the Astrodome has nothing to do with indecisiveness or an absence of fortitude. It has everything to do with what We The People want, because for the last dozen years or so that’s what Commissioners Court has been trying to provide. If all that was needed was for a politician to Make The Tough Decisions, then the Dome would have been torn down about five minutes after the crowd dispersed from the last Rodeo event was held there. We’ve already established that demolition has always been the fate of unused sports venues, and let’s face it, that’s how we roll around here. Tear it down and figure out the details later – it’s much easier to find a use for an empty lot than for an empty building.

The problem is that We The People have made it abundantly clear to our elected leaders that we do NOT want the Dome torn down. It’s an important piece of Houston history, and many folks have very fond memories of seeing Jose Cruz or Earl Campbell there, and so we want someone to Do Something and transform the Dome into something else so that we can continue to use it or just look at it and revel in all those nice memories. Unfortunately, it will cost a crapload of money to rebirth the Dome as one of those things that people like to suggest it be used for. So far, no one has figured out a way to finance any of these visions, and the county – which is still paying off the debt from the Dome’s last renovations, remember, in addition to the debt from all the shiny new stadia that we have – is understandably reluctant to float a ginormous bond issue on speculation. I for one have a hard time blaming them for that.

And so the only viable course has been to do nothing, funding a few feasibility studies every now and then on the odd chance that you might strike gold, and hope that sooner or later someone will get one of those crazy ideas financed, or less likely that popular opinion will shift and people will come to accept that maybe the Dome will have to go. That appears to be what is happening now, with an assist (or a shove, if you prefer) from the Rodeo and the Texans. We’re about to see what out choices are, and it will be up to us – as it has been all along – to decide what to do.

It’s about use, not just sentiment

NYT reporter Jere Longman, who hails from Houston, penned a love letter to the Astrodome after hearing about its possible impending demise.

At long last, is this the end?

So it was despairing to hear that the vacant Astrodome might be torn down and its site paved over as Houston prepares to host the 2017 Super Bowl. Demolition would be a failure of civic imagination, a betrayal of Houston’s greatness as a city of swaggering ambition, of dreamers who dispensed with zoning laws and any restraint on possibility.

A recent drive past the abandoned Astrodome at night revealed it to be unlit. It has been closed since 2008. The stadium was visible in silhouette, like a waning moon.

In daylight, however, beneath the dust and neglect, the Astrodome’s silvery exterior continues to summon a city’s innovative past and futuristic promise. By contrast, Reliant Stadium next door is a dull football arena, designed with all the imagination of a hangar to park a blimp.

James Glassman, a Houston preservationist, calls the Astrodome the city’s Eiffel Tower and the “physical manifestation of Houston’s soul.” New York could afford to tear down old Yankee Stadium, Glassman said, because the city had hundreds of other signature landmarks. Not Houston. Along with oil, NASA and the pioneering heart surgeons Michael E. DeBakey and Denton A. Cooley, the technological marvel of the Astrodome put a young, yearning city on the global map.

“There was a confluence of space-age, Camelot-era optimism, and we were right there,” said Glassman, founder of the Web site Houstorian.org. “It really set us on the road for a go-go future.”

Houston’s best ideas bring clever solutions to tricky problems. The weed whacker was invented there in 1971 by a dance instructor and developer named George Ballas. He got the idea from whirling brushes at a car wash. His prototype consisted of an edger and fishing wire threaded through a can of popcorn.

The Astrodome was built to solve a vexing conundrum: How to bring major league baseball to a city where the temperature could match the league leaders in runs batted in?

[…]

Demolition “would symbolize that we’ve just decided to quit,” said Ryan Slattery, whose master’s thesis in architecture at the University of Houston offers a different alternative.

Slattery’s plan, which has gained traction, involves a vision of green space. He would strip the Astrodome to its steel skeleton, evoking the Eiffel Tower of sport, and install a park. It could be used for football tailgating, livestock exhibitions, recreational sports. Other ideas have been floated through the years, some more realistic than others: music pavilion, casino, movie studio, hotel, museum, shopping mall, indoor ski resort, amusement park.

All private proposals for the Astrodome are due by June 10 to the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation, which oversees the stadium.

Legitimate debate can be had about whether the Astrodome’s innovations ultimately enhanced or detracted from the broader sporting experience. Whether indoor stadiums lend sterility. Whether artificial turf leaves players more vulnerable to injury. Whether we need scoreboards to tell us to cheer. Whether basketball played in giant arenas is an abomination.

But the Astrodome is too essential to become a parking lot. Slattery is right when he says that Houston should not demolish the memory of its past but reimagine it for the future.

Again, as someone who Did Not Grow Up Here, I don’t share the sentimental attachment to the Dome, and as a lifelong Yankee fan who watched the House That Ruth Built get demolished, I’m not greatly moved by pleadings about other stadia’s historicness. The weed whacker is a great invention and all, but last I checked New York was the home of some innovations, too. Forgive me if I don’t see how that has anything to do with the argument at hand. Jeff Balke, who is from here, has come to accept that the Dome may be doomed, and he just has one simple request.

But, for the love of all that’s holy, if the powers that be are going to, once and for all, demolish the only true identifiable Houston landmark, why must it be for a parking structure?

The truth is blowing up the Astrodome to build a parking garage for VIP parking would be in character for our city. We live in a city where historic preservation may as well be a four-letter word. The laws — and I use that term extremely loosely — governing what can be protected are so lax that virtually anyone with a bulldozer and a wad of cash can shred any structure in the city and build whatever they goddamn well please on the piece of dirt that remains.

Most believe that the plan for the Dome has been set in motion for some time. With a limited deadline in place and few real solutions — at least ones that have monetary backing — it seems a foregone conclusion that the Texans and Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo will get their wish and teardown the Eighth Wonder of the World to be replaced by a place you park your luxury SUV.

(Of course, if they wanted that, they have a GIANT FREAKING EMPTY LOT DIRECTLY ACROSS THE FREEWAY ATTACHED WITH A BRIDGE, but that would make far too much sense.)

I’ve heard people complain that they are sick of hearing the argument and we should just tear down this old, sad, rotting structure. Fact is, the structure isn’t rotting. Sure, the seats are. The sheetrock is. But the bones of the building are in fine condition. It has held up against multiple hurricanes and housed the victims of one of the most devastating disasters in U.S. history, a shelter for those no one else wanted. And this is how we repay that memory?

There is also the old “whatever we do, it should be cost neutral” argument. Yes, because everything good in this world must turn a profit. I’m fairly certain no one in Paris worries that the Eiffel Tower doesn’t earn money. The Roman Coliseum is anything but cheap to maintain, yet the folks in Italy aren’t clamoring for it to be torn down so they can put in some luxury condos. And before you start in on the whole “You can’t compare those places to a football stadium,” the Astrodome is modern history’s version of an architectural marvel. It was the first of its kind and it is to Houston what those other iconic structures are to their cities, just a little younger.

It should be noted that the Rodeo bought part of the old Astroworld site in December, which they already use for parking. Surely there’s a deal to be made with the county and Reliant that could address Jeff’s concerns. Be that as it may, I disagree with his point about other landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and the Coliseum. Age and historic value questions aside, those things are in active use today. The Dome isn’t. That’s really what this all comes down to, whether or not there’s a viable, financially sustainable use for the Dome in some form. As such, the cost issue does matter. The county would like to not have to pay $1.5 million a year on top of the bond debt it still owes to maintain an empty building, and any private investors not only have to convince a bank to finance their redevelopment scheme but also have to earn enough money in the long run to keep it afloat. Look at it this way – if the county agrees to sell the Dome to a developer to be converted into a museum or hotel or park or whatever, and they subsequently go belly-up because it turns out there just wasn’t that much demand for whatever they built, what do you think happens then? I don’t know for sure, but I can say with some certainty that it won’t involve multiple feasibility studies and a public referendum. It’s in our interest to get it right the first time, because if we don’t we won’t get to have any say in what happens after it all goes wrong. I certainly agree that anything is better than another parking lot, but not anything is necessarily more likely to be around in another decade or so than a parking lot.