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Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo

The Rodeo and the immigrants

Interesting story about who’s working the carnival midway.

Why, you might wonder, is a South African working at the Houston rodeo’s midway?

“The American workforce is not interested in this kind of work,” said Chris Lopez, vice president of carnival provider Ray Cammack Shows (RCS). “We couldn’t do it without these folks.”

Condon is one of the 300 foreign workers RCS employs to run midways for fairs across the U.S. (The crew also includes a few U.S.-born workers, but they are significantly outnumbered.)

For 18 years, RCS has relied on the H2B visa program for non-agricultural temporary workers. Visa holders from countries including Mexico, Costa Rica, Australia and Russia handle everything from building and running carnival rides to cooking and selling carnival food.

To get those visas, employers must satisfy the U.S. Department of Labor that the work can’t be filled by U.S. workers, and that foreign workers won’t have adverse effects on the wages and working conditions of their U.S.-born counterparts.

As required by those rules, Lopez pays to advertise carnival jobs in the U.S., and he keeps phone logs and certified receipts for email and letters that show he’s reached out to local communities and followed through with all work inquiries from U.S. citizens.

But the responses he gets from U.S. citizens aren’t enough, he says. Too many people shun nine months of work requiring heavy lifting, living in mobile homes and frequent travel.

Lopez is hardly alone. A 2013 study by the nonprofit ImmigrationWorks USA found that as more American-born workers attain higher levels of education, more foreign workers are needed to perform less-skilled labor.

There’s stiff competition for the 66,000 H2B visas available each year. (The visa is distinct from its H2A counterpart which is meant for seasonal agricultural work and has even stricter requirements for employers.) The last of the visas available for fiscal year 2017 were awarded this earlier this month, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Would-be workers face tough screening, Lopez said: “Anything as little as a jaywalking ticket could disqualify them.”

From fiscal year 2012 to 2015, Texas had the highest number of H2B jobs certified by the Department of Labor. The largest number of those was for landscaping.

Industries such as outdoor entertainment account for 10 percent of total H2B visas issued to U.S. employers each year.

I don’t have a specific point to make here. This sort of thing is invisible to most of us – be honest, you didn’t know this, right? If all these H2B visas were to disappear – which they won’t, since Dear Leader Trump makes heavy use of them to staff his golf courses – RCS and other firms that supply H2B laborers would find a solution. Maybe they’d pay American workers more, maybe they’d rely more on temps, maybe the businesses they support would scale back, maybe something else. One way or another, things would be different. I just thought it was worth pointing that out.

Commissioners Court approves Astrodome parking plan

Here we go.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

The Astrodome parking proposal is about to get real

Here it comes.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take transit to the game

If you can, you should.

HoustonMetro

The transformation of downtown from a work place that empties after dark to a true community is finally underway in earnest, with residents, retail shops, and restaurants that remain open long after the lunch rush. The building boom is everywhere, and that includes the area around Minute Maid, which had been the domain of abandoned warehouses and repeating squares of blacktop.

As new development gradually alters the timeworn tableau of skyscrapers, hotels and parking lots, the matter of where to put all the cars that flood into the area – be it for work in the day, governmental dealings, or nighttime entertainment – becomes a bit less obvious. Nowhere is that more true than in downtown’s eastern precinct, home to the Astros, Rockets, Dynamo, George R. Brown Convention Center and Discovery Green.

For the sold-out baseball games, competition for the close-in surface lots will become increasingly fierce. The Astros control about 3,000 parking spaces in their own lots east of the stadium, but high-demand games see most of those spaces sold when tickets are purchased. Parking in their lots is reserved for ticket buyers, though a small number last-minute cash sales typically are offered for lower-demand games.

Another 4,000 to 5,000 parking spaces can still be found in surface lots mostly north of the stadium. The pricing for many of them is dynamic, fluctuating game to game, or sometimes hour to hour, depending on attendance. Some parking management companies offer advance online purchase, some don’t. An Astros spokesman said that a range of $10-20 is likely for lots within a two to three-block radius.

When those lots are filled, drivers will have to look toward the garages to be found to the west and south. Costs will vary according to distance from the stadium. Fans willing to walk a half-mile can get a good deal, well below $10, though the sweaty summer months make for a challenging trade-off.

One option, which may become more common in future years, is for drivers to park on the west side of downtown in or near the theater district and take the Metro rail purple line across town. It has a stop just two blocks north of Minute Maid. A drop-off lane also is available in front of the stadium on Texas Street.

The Downtown Houston Management District says that 26 construction projects with an estimated cost of $2.2 billion currently are underway. Another $2 billion worth of projects are on the drawing board, it says. There will be a day, perhaps sooner than once thought, when a majority of the remaining surface lots will give way to new development.

[…]

Because Houston’s central business district is large, plenty of parking remains available and will continue to be. It’s just not so close anymore. Or as cheap. For high-demand games, the available lots near the stadium will go early, with the choicest locations fetching $50 or more for the most desirable games.

The eventual thinning out of the visually unappealing and space-hogging surface lots will please urban designers and downtown advocates, but no doubt will annoy some baseball fans. As [Marcel Braithwaite, the Astros’ senior vice president of business operations] points out, Houstonians love the freedom that comes with their cars and the easier ingress and egress that these lots offer. Some may fondly recall the old days at the Astrodome, which was surrounded by acres of parking and nothing else.

But in a broader sense, the replacement of blacktop by new homes and businesses means that the decades-old dream of a lively city center is taking form. When it comes to taking in a ball game, a new way of thinking will be required.

“It’s neat to see this resurgence,” Braithwaite said of the residential development as well as new clubs and restaurants. “The city is getting life back into it. I’m excited about the urban redevelopment, but that means change. There is no getting around that.”

As was the case for lots of people with the Final Four and the rodeo, taking transit to the game is going to be cheaper and in many cases more convenient than driving. Just the prospect of paying $20 to park, never mind $40 or $50, should make most people at least consider this. It’s also in the Astros’ best interests to get people to not drive to the game if it’s feasible for them. It’s like I’ve said about bike parking in places like Montrose and on White Oak where parking is scarce: It’s in everyone’s interests for the people for whom it is reasonably convenient to take transit to be encouraged and enabled to do so. Note that you don’t have to actually live near a bus or train stop to do this. Drive to a station that has adjacent parking, like the Quitman stop (which has a small Metro-owned free parking lot) or the Ensemble/HCC stop (where there’s a parking garage), and go from there. Again, those of you that have no choice but to drive and park really ought to want everyone for whom this is a decent option to choose it, for they each represent one fewer car competing with you for a parking space and clogging up the roads after the game. Are there any park and ride buses that run to and from the games like they do for the Rodeo? If not, maybe the Astros should inquire with Metro about that. Everyone wins with this.

Lots of people took the train to the games

Nice.

HoustonMetro

After handling more than a quarter-million rail trips over the four-day NCAA Final Four period, Metro is calling it a slam dunk.

“These are numbers are fantastic for us,” spokesman Jerome Gray said.

Metro said 255,700 rail boardings occurred from Friday until Monday. That’s roughly 87,000 more for the four days than the system would typically carry. The figure also does not include about 4,500 people who hopped buses from NRG Park that ferried them downtown to relieve rail demand after the basketball games on Saturday and Monday nights.

The totals are also significantly higher than Metro reported in 2011, prior to opening three new segments of light rail in the area. Five years ago, about 148,300 people used light rail for the four days of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

One reason riders reported a smoother trip to and from the basketball games that increased Metro’s ability to carry people is the light rail expansion, which meant the agency had more cars, Gray said.

In 2011, Metro would have owned 18 rail cars. Today, more than 60 were available, though Metro operates roughly three times as much distance via rail.

Metro’s press release has a bit more detail:

Major events located downtown helped increase ridership on the Red Line by nearly 50 percent. This year the Red Line saw 219,000 passenger trips compared to 148,000 for 2011.

“Seeing 255,000 boardings on rail during the four day event is very impressive and shows what can happen with an expanded system,” said METRO President and CEO Tom Lambert. “This success comes on the heels of record Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo ridership and it shows METRO is a key travel option.”

During the 2016 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, more than 1.5 million boardings were taken on light-rail, compared to 1.3 million last year, a 23% increase.

So that’s 36,000 boardings on the other lines as well. I’m not sure if that includes the North line extension or if that’s counted with the Red line overall. It’s pretty good no matter how you look at it. Honestly, I don’t know why you wouldn’t take the rail to one of Houston’s stadia if it’s at all an option. Park near a station if you need to, or make like you would for the airport and have someone drop you off and pick you up, and ride the rest of the way in. It’s way cheaper than parking at the stadium, and you don’t get stuck in traffic at either end. It just makes sense. KUHF has more.

Metro smartphone payment system debuts

Progress marches onward.

Metro riders will be able to board a bus or train without a fare card or cash within a few days, just in time for some of the transit agency’s heaviest use during the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials on Wednesday said they had completed testing and preparation and will activate a smartphone payment system Monday or Tuesday. The rodeo starts Tuesday, and the mobile ticketing will include the option to buy rodeo shuttle tickets.

“We want to make sure everything is in place, but it will be live by the time the rodeo opens,” Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said.

[…]

Metro’s app allows a rider to use PayPal or a credit card to purchase and store tickets. Once activated, the tickets are valid for three hours. The system includes elements to eliminate fraud.

A number of cities, notably Portland, Ore., and Dallas, beat Houston to offering mobile tickets. In both of those cities, despite some technology-related problems, many riders embraced the system. TriMet, the transit agency for Portland, sold about 2.9 million mobile tickets in 2014, about 3 percent of all trips.

Transit use in Houston is lower than in the Portland area.

Not all functions Metro plans to unveil will be active by next week, said Denise Wendler, the agency’s chief information officer. The contract includes offering Apple Pay, Google Wallet and Android-based payment systems, but those are not included yet.

Wendler said it will also take longer to allow students to purchase discounted fares, though other ticket options will appear much sooner.

“The very next thing we do is park and ride,” Wendler told a Metro board committee.

See here for the background, and here for reporter Dug Begley’s account of beta testing the system. If you park at a Metro park and ride lot and take the shuttle to the rodeo, you can use this system to buy tickets for that as well; see here for more about taking Metro to the rodeo, which is totally a better and cheaper option than driving and parking. I’ve got a Q card, so as long as those exist I don’t foresee a need for me to use the app, but that may change some day. What do you think about this? Would you use it? Leave a comment and let us know.

Who will pay for Super Bowl stadium improvements?

Gotta say, I’m with Steve Radack on this one.

If the NFL has its way, luxury boxes and club seats at NRG Stadium will undergo major upgrades at the expense of Harris County or its tenants before Super Bowl LI arrives in Houston in 2017.

But if the decision is up to Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack, using public funds to improve suites for corporate executives and billion-dollar companies would be a non-starter.

“I’m not about to vote to spend a single dollar of county money updating these luxury suites,” Radack said.

With 21 months to go until the sporting event that launches Houston onto the world stage for one glorious Sunday, much work still remains to prepare for the big party. One of the most significant tasks appears to be dressing up NRG Stadium. The price for seating updates and other improvements could rise as high as $50 million, including $5 million to enhance the facility’s WiFi capacity, sources previously have told the Houston Chronicle.

Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s senior vice president of events, said Monday that upgrading the stadium’s WiFi is something the bid committee has agreed to do. In terms of sprucing up the seating, he said he noted on a recent visit that NRG “is in a very good place at this stage in its stadium life, but there are opportunities to upgrade that are common across Super Bowl stadiums as they prepare and continue to make sure they are state-of-the-art.”

O’Reilly said the burden for the costs of upgrading the facility rests with Harris County or its tenants – the Texans and the rodeo. But so far, none of the parties involved has volunteered to pick up the tab. County officials seem resolute that they won’t be forking over any funds.

Jamey Rootes, president of the Texans, explained that the team is 13 years into its 30-year lease and O’Reilly was merely noting “that there could be some improvements that would help Houston put its best foot forward.”

“Anything that as a fan you might come into contact with might be a factor because you’re going to be in that facility for a long time,” Rootes said.

[…]

For NRG Park, the question of fixing up the premises comes down to a landlord-tenant issue under glaring stadium lights.

The county, through its sports and convention corporation, serves as landlord to NRG’s tenants, which include the Texans and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. [Commissioner Jack] Cagle said WiFi costs are “currently a responsibility of the current tenant.”

“WiFi wasn’t really around when our contracts were set up,” Cagle said. “It’s not one of our landlord responsibilities. We have a contract that is in place, and perhaps that needs to be renegotiated.”

See here for the background. The “landlord-tenant” characterization sounds right to me. I can see the case for upgrading WiFi – who installed it in the first place, if it wasn’t there originally? – and of course if there are actual repairs to be made, that’s a landlord responsibility. But if we’re basically talking about fancier party decorations and accoutrements, that’s on the tenant. Stand firm, y’all. Paradise in Hell and Campos have more.

ULI releases its Astrodome plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on the ULI Astrodome plan

From Tory Gattis:

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

[…]

Here are my thoughts on aspects of it:

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

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

From CultureMap:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urban Land Institute report on the Astrodome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KHOU poll shows little support for Astrodome Park plan

Another result of interest from that KHOU/KUHF poll.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

How about Astrodome Indoor Park?

County Judge Ed Emmett gives his vision for the Astrodome.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: Texas Leftist has more.

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

How can you argue with that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chron agrees that the Astrodome Park plan is silly

So there you have it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could Astrodome Park actually work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Astrodome preservationists make their case for historic landmark status

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

Not historic but still standing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s talk about the Dome

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

Not historic but still standing

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Friday random ten: I’m an old cowhand

We went off to see the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo yesterday, so here are ten songs about cowboys and horses.

1. The Cowboy Song – SixMileBridge
2. Bring On the Dancing Horses – The Picture
3. Cowboys Are My Weakness – Chris Difford
4. Horse – Eddie From Ohio
5. I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart – Mutual Admiration Society
6. A Horse Named Bill – Flying Fish Sailors
7. Cowboy Lips – The Bobs
8. A Horse With No Name – America
9. Sinaloa Cowboy – Bruce Springsteen
10. Whole Heap Of Little Horses – The Chieftains

I’m heading off to ride into the sunset, which is an hour later these days thanks to daylight savings time. Have a good weekend, y’all.

More on the New Dome Experience

The Chron’s subscription site story adds some more details to the news about the New Dome Experience.

[Harris County Judge Ed] Emmett said that if the court signs off on the plan next week, it likely would ask the county budget office to look for alternative ways to pay the $194 million tab, which includes asbestos abatement, to minimize the amount of any bond referendum put to voters.

County Budget Chief Bill Jackson said last week that millions potentially could be generated via naming rights deals, building use fees and auctioning off various salvaged building parts, including the seats.

The cost estimate is about $80 million cheaper than a similar plan the agency presented to Commissioners Court last year. Loston said the primary reason the price tag is lower is because the plan does not involve renovating the below-ground space.

Rodeo Chief Operating Officer Leroy Shafer said the sports corporation’s proposal seems like a modified version of the one submitted last year, which he said the rodeo was involved in crafting.

“So, on the surface, it appears to be something that is in line with our lease covenants and something that we would have no opposition to,” he said.

Shafer said the rodeo remains concerned about the future of the aging Reliant Arena, but is “excited that movement is taking place.”

“We’re excited about this recommendation,” Shafer said. “But we were excited about the recommendation when it went to Commissioners Court last year, too. So, we still have to wait to see where this goes.”

Those who submitted reuse plans to the sports corporation said they were disappointed their ideas were not selected but glad officials were not pushing demolition.

“We’re very happy that there’s no intention or recommendation to demolish the Dome, and that was our principal objective,” said Chris Alexander, project director of Astrodome Tomorrow, which submitted a $1 billion plan to turn the stadium into a “tourist mecca” with retail and restaurants and an educational facility. “Obviously, we had our own proposal. We think it’s a great proposal, and we still intend to take it directly to Harris County.”

See here for the initial New Dome announcement. I’m not exactly sure what Chris Alexander means by taking his idea “directly to Harris County” – lobbying Commissioners Court? Advertising his solution as a better alternative? Something else? I don’t see anything on their webpage or Facebook page to suggest what that might mean.

The idea of salvaging the Dome as a way to defray costs was raised last year by demolition experts and reported in the Chronicle. It’s good that Harris County is thinking along those lines – it really wouldn’t make any sense to do otherwise – but it’s not something that was just thought up.

There was that $270 million plan from last year to create a New Dome Experience, which did not get an endorsement from Judge Emmett and never went anywhere, in part due to concern that the economy wasn’t good enough yet to put a $270 million Astrodome bond referendum on the ballot. (As Swamplot reminds us, the same basic idea of a multi-purpose facility goes back even further than last year.) I inquired with Judge Emmett’s office about the difference between this year and last year, and besides the obvious fact that this year’s proposal is a lot cheaper and the economy is in better shape, the process has played out more fully, which wasn’t the case then. Now clearly, some people think this process has taken way too long, but I agree with that assessment. It feels different to me, like everyone is more engaged, and even if none of them were ready for prime time, the fact that 19 private proposals were submitted says a lot.

Not all reactions to the HCSCC announcement have been positive. After Hair Balls posted a straightforward account of the announcement, John Royal went on a rampage about it.

The Corporation unveiled its grand plan on Wednesday, and in doing so, stated that no qualified private plans had been submitted, so it had to cobble together its own plan. A plan that essentially repeated warmed over plans that the Corporation had tried to pass off on suckers in the past. The difference being that this time the cost was an outrageous $194 million that, somehow, the public will be forced to fund.

Amazingly, there are sheep out there who think that not only is this a good plan, but that the costs are reasonable and doable. Those costs will be doable of course because taxpayers would be paying for it.

But being a doable plan doesn’t make it a good plan. Creating more convention and exhibition space that will only be used during the Rodeo, the Offshore Technology Conference, and the occasional Super Bowl at a cost of $194 million isn’t reasonable or doable. It’s idiotic. It’s moronic. It’s the work of imbeciles who, over past years, have also offered up proposals for turning the place into an aquarium, a movie studio, a hotel, and a theme park, to name just a few ideas.

[…]

Then again, this whole fiasco has never been about saving or refurbishing the Dome. It’s always been about saving face. About finding some way to get cowards on Commissioners Court off of the hook. Tear it down? Well only if there are no other options. Rebuilding it with taxpayer funds so as to guarantee the revenue streams of the Texans and the Rodeo, well, if that’s the only option. And if this plan is put on the ballot and the voters stupidly support it, then how can the Commissioners be blamed because it’s what the public wants.

The Dome is an architectural wonder that deserves much better than what the county’s not-so-benign neglect has delivered. Unlike its next door neighbor, the Dome is a building with character and personality. It defines a Houston from a past era, a Houston that was forward thinking and was on the leading edge of the space race. But Houston’s now like Reliant Stadium, a stale, sterile rip-off of ideas generated by outsiders who care less about Houston’s past, present, or future – much like Minute Maid Park is just a poor imitation of many things done so much better.

If any building should be demolished to make way for parking it should be Reliant Stadium. If there’s any body of people who should be replaced along with Reliant Stadium, it’s the worthless fools who make up the Commissioners Court, who are more concerned with reelection than they are with doing what’s right by the Astrodome and with the citizens of Harris County.

It’s doubtful that Commissioners Court reads this blog, but if they do, please say no to this abomination of a plan that is set to do nothing more than rip-off taxpayers while continuing to enrich the Texans, the Rodeo. Let’s defund the damn Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation.

And while this opinion might not be the popular one, I urge this. If somehow this supreme folly ends up on the ballot, please vote no.

I presume Royal means that the HCSCC are the “imbeciles” in question, but they weren’t the ones who offered up the movie studio or hotel/convention center ideas; they both came from the private sector. Royal avows his love of the Astrodome and his desire to preserve it, but it’s not clear to me how he would like to see that happen. What do you want the Astrodome to be, and how do you want it to get there? I mean, if all one cares about is that the building continues to exist, then the current plan of not-so-benign neglect works pretty well, and at a bargain price. Anything else is going to cost money, most likely nine digits’ worth. That’s been the problem all along, as we well know. I understand the grumbling about the 19 private proposals being dismissed in favor of the HCSCC’s publicly-funded option, but I haven’t seen any of those 19 proposers claiming that they had financing, or at least the promise of it, lined up. I trust Royal isn’t advocating for public money to be spent on a privately-owned project, but then I don’t know what he’s advocating. Nobody has to like the HCSCC plan – most likely, you’ll get your chance to vote on it in November – but if you don’t like it and don’t want the Dome to be demolished, then what do you want? And how would you pay for it? We’ve been asking these questions for a decade. If there were an obvious answer, we’d have figured it out by now.

Also not a fan is the Chron editorial board.

Of course the HCSCC’s public option was going to win – it promulgated rules that disqualified anything else. So instead we watched a well-rehearsed script as the corporation went through the motions of soliciting private ideas, considering them under the impossible guidelines set and then inevitably striking them down. The HCSCC instead falls back on a public plan that seems strikingly similar to the one proposed in May 2012 – a proposal notably rejected at the time by County Commissioner Steve Radack. Mischief, thou art afoot.

It is hard to grasp this proposal as anything but another kick of the can, getting us closer to an apparently inevitable destruction of the Dome all while looking like we’re doing the right thing.

This isn’t a convention center. It looks to us like a lamb that the county seeks to sacrifice without appearing like butchers. We’ll see it on the ballot only with the intent of it being voted down. How long until the first voices from within county government condemn this plan as too expensive? Or unnecessary? Or requiring extra study? After all, why would a plan rejected a year ago suddenly become the best idea?

And once voters strike down the rather convenient convention idea, HCSCC has explicitly said that the next step is demolition. This has been the stated scheme since April. If public option fails, there is no room for another vote, no looking for new plans, only demolition. HCSCC says it’s going to fix up the Dome into a new experience, but this feels more like the fix is in.

County commissioners need to come out and say now whether they will support this plan or not come election day. The voters of Harris County deserve transparency from them as well as from the Rodeo and the Texans, two other very interested parties that play in a tax-subsidized facility. We’re afraid opponents will bide their time until election season and suddenly let loose a parade of horribles about every aspect of this Dome decision process, and it’ll be too late to do anything different.

I think we’ve already answered the question about why the plan rejected a year ago is now being touted as the best idea: That plan is now $75 million cheaper, and the economy is in better shape, thus making a publicly-funded solution more feasible. Maybe that lower cost estimate is unrealistic, but the Chron isn’t making that claim. The point about Commissioners Court supporting this plan is a good one, one for which I presume we will get an answer on Tuesday. If Commissioners Court adopts the plan unanimously, and a campaign team gets assembled to pass the subsequent ballot initiative, would that satisfy the Chron’s objections? Of course there will be the usual suspects in opposition because that’s what they do, but if there’s an honest effort to convince the public that this is the right time and the right plan, I don’t see any reason to complain. And if it does get voted down, maybe that’s what the public actually wants. We won’t know until we ask, right?

I don’t think this is the platonic ideal of a plan for the Astrodome. There are a lot of details to be filled in, and even at the lower price it’s fair to wonder why we’re recycling an old idea. How many events do we really think this new facility will be used for, and how many of them would have been held at a different county-owned facility if this one didn’t exist? I was asking those questions myself last year. For all his unfocused ranting, John Royal is correct that the lease deal with the Texans and the Rodeo have hamstrung this process and will limit the usefulness of the New Dome. Again, though, that would be true of any option besides turning the place into a parking lot. The one thing I know is that we’ve talked about this for a long time. There’s never been a consensus about what to do with the Dome, which is why there have always been plenty of ideas for it, however wild and crazy many of them are. If nothing else, this gives us a chance to find some kind of consensus. I for one am ready to stop talking and start doing something. Campos has more.

The Texans and the Rodeo will have their say on the fate of the Dome

There’s this little matter of their lease agreement to deal with.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Five years ago, Harris County appeared on the brink of striking a deal with a group of entrepreneurs to turn the Astrodome into a 1,300-room hotel and convention center, a $450 million plan that never came to fruition.

County officials say its failure came down to lack of money. The project, however, faced two other big obstacles: The Houston Texans and the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, which both opposed the hotel-convention center on the grounds that it would steal away the business of fans and rodeo-goers.

While the primary tenants of Reliant Park do not have veto power over development plans, they do have other extensive rights to the site under lease and legal agreements with the county. Even though Harris County Commissioners Court will make the ultimate decision about what to do with the iconic stadium, those rights “must be taken into consideration,” said Edgardo Colón, chairman of the governing board of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp., which oversees Reliant Park.

[…]

Among the three criteria, which include ability to secure funding: “Compatibility with the contractual rights of our tenants.”

“What we are going to do is we are going to analyze all of those proposals, and if we think there is one that may fit within the rights of the current tenant, then we will visit with them and brief them on the proposal,” Colón said.

Under a 2001 agreement, which officials say was designed in anticipation of Astrodome redevelopment, the Texans and the Rodeo are granted protection from any venture that would eat into their revenue streams, as well as exclusive access to all 25,000 parking spaces on game days, for the Texans, and to the entire complex for nearly three weeks during the rodeo.

Asked if those constraints have been a deterrent for investors looking to back a redevelopment plan for the stadium, Colón said it “obviously is a challenge: How to devise your business plan and your visibility given those constraints.”

I had forgotten about the previous attempt to do a hotel/convention center deal.The genesis of that goes back to 2003, with the idea of a convention center/hotel first appearing in 2004. They actually got Commissioners Court approval in 2006, but ran into financing issues in March, 2007. They claimed to have new financing in May, 2007, but then the Rodeo and the Texans voiced their opposition in October. A lease agreement was supposedly in the works in May, 2008, the Texans and the Rodeo backed down at least somewhat in August, and then the economy went in the crapper and that was pretty much the last anyone heard of that idea. Next thing you knew, it was feasibility study time.

Rodeo Chief Operating Officer Leroy Shafer, speaking on behalf of both parties, said compliance with the lease agreements is the only parameter they have, other than that a decision be made quickly.

“If the proposal comes forward and it’s funded and it doesn’t violate any of those leasing rights, then we will not oppose it,” Shafer said, noting that “there are a lot of things that could be done with the dome that would be in accordance with our lease agreement and there are some things that would not be.”

Well, at least this time around everyone should have known going in that this was an issue. All of the plans have been submitted for review, and the Sports Corp will review them and their own plan if they put one forward next Wednesday. They’ll vote on what to send to Commissioners Court on the 25th. Can you feel the excitement in the air? CultureMap has more.

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.

County disputes cheaper Dome demolition price tag

It’s on.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Harris County officials on Thursday disputed an estimate released this week showing it would cost $29 million to implode the vacant Reliant Astrodome and build a 1,600-space parking lot in two and a half years.

The figure, calculated by local firms Linbeck Construction and Walter P. Moore and Associates after a three-month study commissioned by the Houston Texans and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, is less than half the estimated price tag released last year by consultants hired by the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., the county agency that runs Reliant Park.

During a media tour of the 48-year-old condemned facility on Thursday, Sports Corp. Chairman Edgar Colon suggested that the latest estimate did not take into account all the costs that would be incurred in blowing up the behemoth structure, on which the county still owes some $30 million in construction debt but has sat vacant since 2000 when the Houston Astros moved to Minute Maid Park downtown.

“There’s more to it than just $29 million,” Colon said. “You have to look through it, the things that they exclude explicitly. I’m not challenging the credibility of their experts, I’m just saying that we have to have our own experts look at those numbers.”

Linbeck Vice President John Go said the firms stand by the findings of the study and the price tag.

“The Houston Texans and the Rodeo asked us to develop a methodology and a report that will stand up against questions because they knew that someone might question it,” Go said, noting that Walter P. Moore was the structural engineer when the stadium was built in the mid-1960s and again when it was expanded in 1989.

I rather doubt there’s anything seriously wrong with the methodology used in this estimate. Even County Judge Ed Emmett admitted after the Rodeo/Texans report came out that the previous estimate of demolition costs by the county had been too high. His complaint was that the report didn’t present any other options for what to do with the Dome, and that until the question of what to do with it is settled it’s premature to talk about demolition. When might we get a decision from Comissioner’s Court about what to do?

Pressed by reporters, Colon declined to give a firm time line for when the agency may bring a proposal to commissioners but said he hopes it does not take more than five years.

Colon said part of the reason the decision has been delayed is that interest from developers in rehabilitating the site dropped off during the recession, but he said it is increasing again with the improving economy, and the Sports Corp. is receiving and evaluating new ideas.

“What I think is that it’s in the best interest of the taxpayer to continue to explore all the options in order to make a decision,” said Colon, who brushed off concerns raised by the Texans and Rodeo that the aging, vacant Astrodome would hurt Houston’s chances of getting to host the Super Bowl in 2017.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell dropped that hint about converting the Dome into parking at the NFL owners’ meeting. Commissioners Court hasn’t indicated they’re in any rush to make a decision, so I guess they’re not too concerned about that, either. All I know is that at this point we’re in agreement that demolishing the Dome won’t be that expensive. The question is what if anything are the viable alternatives to demolition. It would be nice to get some answers to that sooner rather than later. Hair Balls and Campos have more.

Maybe it wouldn’t be so expensive to demolish the Dome after all

Hey, look! It’s another What To Do With The Astrodome study! Woo hoo!

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

The Houston Texans and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo have commissioned a study showing it would cost $29 million to demolish the 48-year-old stadium and build a 1,600-space parking lot, less than half what consultants hired by the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp. estimated it would cost to tear down the defunct facility.

The most recent cost estimate to tear down the 9.14-acre structure and build a plaza in its place was $64 million, cited in a report released last year by consultants hired by the sports corporation, which runs Reliant Park. A 2010 study said demolition, asbestos removal and construction of a plaza would cost $78 million.

Rodeo Chief Operating Officer Leroy Shafer said the parties wanted to calculate a lowest-cost option to present to Harris County Commissioner’s Court.

“We’re not recommending this option over any other option, but we didn’t feel there was a viable, low-cost option and we think this will do that,” Shafer said. “We hope the commissioners find this information helpful as they evaluate options to deal with the Astrodome and move Reliant Park forward for the citizens of Harris County.”

[…]

According to an executive summary, the study offers three options for demolishing the Dome: implode it for $7.3 million; dismantle it for $11.8 million; or partially dismantle and blow up the building for $11.8 million. A separate estimate puts the cost of imploding the Dome and building a 1,600-space parking lot at $29 million.

“It is our professional opinion the Reliant Astrodome can be decommissioned and demolished safely and the site be readied for a new purpose,” local firms Linbeck Construction and Walter P. Moore and Associates wrote in a March 15 letter attached to the study.

County Judge Ed Emmett said he was “disappointed” with the study because he thought it was going to contain more extensive recommendations.

“I was hoping that this was going to be a meaningful look at alternatives, but instead this was just a pricing on tearing down the dome, and if commissioner’s court makes that decision, we’d probably do that pricing ourselves,” Emmett said, adding that the Texans “and the Livestock Show & Rodeo to a lesser extent have made it clear that they would prefer that the dome be demolished.”

While acknowledging the discussion about what to do with the dome has lasted for too long, Emmett said, “We’re not going to be rushed on it.”

Well, that much is for sure. The $64 million demolition price tag always did seem too high. I’m not crazy about putting in more parking – there has to be some better use for the land than that – especially since the extra space is really only needed a few times a year. But whether this has an effect on Houston’s bid to host Super Bowl LI or not, we do need to quit fooling around and figure this out. Forget the studies and set a deadline for redevelopment proposals – the economy is good enough now that someone ought to be able to get financing for one of the many schemes that have been floated in the past – then either pick a winner or put out bids for demolition. No one is being served by dragging this out. If nothing else, the Dome itself deserves to know what its ultimate fate will be. Swamplot has more.

Rodeo buys part of old Astroworld site

Unclear what this means.

Rest in peace

The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is acquiring half of the old Six Flags AstroWorld property for $42.8 million.

The organization’s board of directors on Thursday authorized show officials to acquire 48 acres of the former amusement park site to diversify its investments, the nonprofit announced in a news release on its website.

The land, which is near Reliant Park, is used for tailgating at Texans games, and for several years the rodeo has had an agreement to use the property for patron parking.

“This actually is a piece of land that’s next door,” RodeoHouston chief operating officer Leroy Shafer said. “Immediately, we know we can park there. … We can do some improvements to the parking that will help us more with the inclement weather.”

[…]

The rodeo’s acquisition abuts Chuck Davis Chevrolet and generally runs north to south from Loop 610 to West Bellfort. It includes a pedestrian bridge that crosses over the loop to the Reliant Park parking lot.

Here’s the HLSR press release. The story notes that this land last changed hands in 2010. In 2007, the owners at that time sought the creation of a municipal management district to help pay for infrastructure, which included the possibility of extending the Main Street rail line into the property. What all this means for any future development on this site is unknown, but I for one hope it doesn’t mean 48 more acres of parking lot. Surely there’s a better use available than that. Swamplot has more.

Rodeo kicks in for tree replanting

Trail riders coming into Houston for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo traditionally camp overnight in Memorial Park on their way to the event. Last year they did this as many of the trees around them were dying from the drought. This year, the HSLR is giving back to help with that problem.

On Monday, [HSLR board chairman Steve] Stevens presented a $250,000 check from the rodeo to Mayor Annise Parker and Memorial Park Conservancy board chairman Jim Porter to help reforest the beloved park.

“For more than 50 years, thousands of trail riders have gathered in the park, so I thought this was a nice way to pay back,” Stevens said. “We’ve got to get it going again. The city and county are great to us. … This was the easiest thing we’ve approved this year.”

The donation is for reforestation, which will include planting thousands of trees in the park, said the conservancy’s Claire Caudill. However, before any major planting takes place, the conservancy and Houston Parks and Recreation must remove about 20,000 dead trees and create conditions that will ensure greater seedling success.

Nice. Other work that needs to be done prior to any planting includes getting rid of the various invasive species that have taken up residence in the park. The conservancy expects trees to be put in the ground beginning next November. Let’s hope the current dry conditions don’t make things worse between now and then.

On cities and counties

I’m really getting tired of all this BS.

Smarting from a $353,000 bill for the Reliant complex under the city of Houston’s new drainage fee, Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday discussed seeking legislation to let it keep city sales taxes generated at county facilities.

[…]

The idea of capturing city sales tax was floated by Commissioner Steve Radack, a reliable critic of city policies. The suggestion, however, was welcomed by the rest of the court, some members of which expressed dismay at the city’s actions.

The city collects an estimated $950,000 in sales taxes from annual events at the Reliant complex, including the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo and conventions. More sales taxes are generated inside Reliant Stadium, but those go to pay debt on the building, said Harris County Sports & Convention Corp. Executive Director Willie Loston.

The eligible sales taxes, beverage taxes and taxes generated by visitors’ meals and shopping trips around town all could be targeted in the legislation, Loston said.

“Since they want to nickel and dime us, we might as well go for the big bucks,” Radack said. “We could keep that money at (Reliant), which would help continue to improve it.”

The city drainage fee is intended to penalize structures that contribute to water runoff. Reliant generates revenue, city officials reasoned, and should pay. Other county properties are exempt.

“Like many of Commissioner Radack’s rants, this one is ill-informed and ill-advised,” said Houston Mayor Annise Parker. “He is asking Houston businesses and homeowners to pay more so that Reliant Stadium can get a free pass on the drainage fee.”

A few months ago, I was invited to speak at a Rotary breakfast. I talked about the importance of paying attention to local government, which I said has a much greater impact on your daily life than what goes on in DC but which tends to get less scrutiny. Someone asked me a question about waste, and I told him that if you had to design a government structure for the Houston region from scratch, you’d never come up with what we actually have. You’d want something more broadly focused, with less duplication and not as hindered by arbitrary boundaries. Something like that would surely be better able to solve regional issues, and be much less prone to the kind of penny ante pissing matches that we’re so used to around here.

We’re not going to get the chance to reinvent our government structure, of course. But that doesn’t mean I can’t think about doing things differently. And the question I find myself asking is why should Houston be a part of Harris County? As a taxpayer in the city of Houston, it’s hard for me to see what benefit I get from that arrangement. They don’t build roads that I drive on, Sheriff’s deputies don’t patrol my neighborhood, and so on. More to the point, there’s no one on Commissioners Court that gives a damn about the city of Houston, and three fourths of their combined budget is controlled by people who are unaccountable to me or anyone else electorally. So why should we put up with this? Why not get out?

The idea of having the city of Houston secede from Harris County is, I fully admit, crazy. The fact that the city’s boundaries resemble a Mandelbrot set, and that some portions of the city are connected by nothing more than a road is an issue. The fact that other cities like Bellaire, West U, and the Villages off I-10 are wholly contained within the city’s boundaries is another. I figure if the County Clerk can tell who’s in the city and who’s not at election time we can deal with the former, and for the latter those other cities can either join us in forming our own county, or they can have their own. Lord knows, there are plenty of counties out in West Texas with fewer people than what they’d have. Think about the benefits of shedding all that unincorporated and non-Houston territory that the Harris County Commissioners love so much:

– Our county property taxes would actually be used to benefit roads, parks, bridges, and whatever else in the city of Houston instead of subsidizing their construction and maintenance elsewhere. Without that extra burden, I wouldn’t be surprised if we could lower our property taxes as a result.

– Our County Commissioners – I wish I could call my proposed new county Houston County, but we already have one of those – would actually be accountable to the people who live in Houston.

– Our Commissioners Court might actually be a reflection of the population that it serves.

You might say that if the smaller cities went their own way and the only entity within my proposed City Of Houston County, that there would be no real need for a separate county government. I would not disagree with that, and it goes back to the point I made originally, which is that if we were doing this over from scratch we wouldn’t do it the way we are doing it today. I understand the role of county government where there are no cities, and where there are mostly smaller cities that benefit from consolidating certain functions like criminal justice and road maintenance. I can see the sense of it in fast growing suburban areas where some central entity is needed for planning and managing that growth. At least, I see the sense of it in places where county government works well with the various municipalities it contains, as I understand is the case in Fort Bend. But more and more I don’t see the purpose of having a county government where there’s a big city. Maybe this view is overly colored by the longstanding dysfunction in the Houston/Harris relationship. Maybe we’re the only ones that have this problem, though I suspect there are people in Dallas who are now shaking their heads. The City of Houston, which still represents a majority of the population in Harris County, is getting a raw deal, and there’s damn little it can do about it under the current structure. We can continue to take it, or we can say “Enough!” and demand something that works to our benefit and not to our detriment. I know what my preference is.

UPDATE: In response to some feedback that I’ve received, I want to clarify that my beef here is primarily with the Commissioners, who have the power and the money and the lack of electoral accountability. I have no complaint about County Judge Ed Emmett, who does make an honest effort to work with the city and not get involved in the pettiness that so frustrates me. There’s no reason why the way he operates couldn’t be the norm, and that makes it even more frustrating.

Time for another “What to do with the Astrodome?” study

It’s been two years since we had one of these.

The Astrodome’s next incarnation — planetarium? hotel? heap of dynamited rubble? – will be the subject of yet another study ordered up by Harris County Commissioners Court this week.

What to do with the dusty 46-year-old landmark has nagged at county officials even before the Astros left for what is now Minute Maid Park in 1999. How to pay for any proposal has not been far from their minds, either. Even tearing it down would cost tens of millions of dollars.

“We have to make a decision” on the Dome, County Judge Ed Emmett said. “I wanted us to make our decision this year. They’re going to look at every option there is and come back with the recommendation. It’s about time we do that.”

The county will contribute $50,000 toward a $500,000 study, bringing to $100,000 the total the county has spent in the past two years studying what to do with the aging Houston icon.

The remaining $450,000 for the latest study will be funded by the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, Houston Texans, Harris County-Houston Sports Authority and Aramark Corp.

The study, slated for completion in December, also will plot the future of the entire Reliant Park complex, home to the long-vacant Dome, the Texans’ Reliant Stadium, Reliant Center and aging Reliant Arena.

It was almost exactly two years ago when the previous study was approved. That led to the infamous three options proposal that nobody liked. County Judge Ed Emmett said at the beginning of the year that something needs to happen, and he reiterated his call at the State of the County address. According to the story, he wants to have a bond referendum on next year’s ballot. We’ll see if this study works out any better than that last one.

Saturday still picture break: Go Texan

This little piece of yard art is on Greenbriar, across the street from Roberts Elementary School:

There are many ways to Go Texan

There are many ways to Go Texan

It appeared a couple of weeks ago, just before the start of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. I can only presume that was not a coincidence.

Pity the poor Astrodome

These sure are bad days for the old icon, aren’t they?

The Astrodome will not host the rodeo’s nightly country-western dances next month, or any other special event for that matter, as city code violations that would cost millions to remedy threaten to keep the doors shut indefinitely.

It would cost Harris County $3 million just to make enough repairs to host rodeo-related events on the playing field of the iconic stadium, said Willie Loston, executive director of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp. Tackling the entire list of violations the city identified last year would cost several times that amount.

[…]

The trouble began about a year ago, when dome officials could not produce a valid certificate of occupancy during their annual fire inspection, senior fire inspector Joe Leggio said. The county ultimately had to apply for a new certificate, which triggered an inspection by city building code officials.

That inspection and a follow-up inspection by the city fire marshal’s office identified about 30 problems, including malfunctioning sprinkler and fire alarm systems. Those violations are considered life threatening, so the fire marshal could have ordered the building shut down. Instead, the county voluntarily relocated the three dozen employees of the management company that runs Reliant Park who had offices there and agreed not to host any public events.

The sprinkler system has since been fixed, and the county has a contract to replace the problematic fire alarm panel, said Loston, whose group manages the Reliant Park complex for the county.

[…]

Susan McMillian, an executive staff analyst in the City of Houston’s Department of Public Works & Engineering, said standards are based on what the building is designed to be used for, not how it currently is being used. However, most of the inspection would be based on codes in place when the stadium was built in 1965.

It is not clear why the sports and convention corporation could not produce a certificate of occupancy despite operating with no problems for decades. County Judge Ed Emmett asked the County Attorney’s Office on Friday to look into the fire marshal’s authority to inspect the dome and what codes the stadium should be expected to follow.

Leggio said the city has always inspected the Astrodome and has always used the proper codes.

I would assume the fire marshal has – or at least, should have – the authority to inspect the facility because if a fire broke out there, it would be the Houston Fire Department that’d fight it. I don’t know what things are like at the Dome now, but I can say that when I saw Lyle Lovett and Bob Dylan perform there a few years ago during the Rodeo, it was depressing how rundown it looked and felt. One way or another, this situation needs some kind of closure.

The dome’s future has been uncertain since Reliant Stadium opened next door in 2002. Many residents oppose razing a structure long billed as the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” but a proposal to convert it into a luxury hotel has faltered amid financial snags.

What, no love for the movie studio concept? Maybe that’s the more realistic scenario these days.

Reliant roof repaired

And just in time for rodeo season.

Reliant Stadium’s retractable roof has lost its gap-tooth look and should be as good as new in plenty of time for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which runs March 3-22.

The five giant panels that were torn asunder by the fury of Hurricane Ike — or debris flung through the air by the storm — in the wee hours of Sept. 13 have been replaced and the process of tightening, stretching and waterproofing the new pieces is well under way with completion expected by mid-February.

[…]

The repairs, to be paid for by Harris County’s insurance policy on the stadium and FEMA funds, are going to cost approximately $4 million. Investigators for Birdair and the insurance adjusters are just now beginning to study the damaged panels to determine why they came down, but there’s some evidence to suggest they were struck with airborne projectiles pried loose from nearby structures.

Glad they were able to get it done. And it means that the Texans will be able to close the roof as they had done before. Staphanie Stradley suggests what their policy on roof closings should be based on the open-roof experience they had this past year.

Somewhat ironically, that story appeared on the same day as this one.

Donations to speed the Gulf Coast’s recovery from Hurricane Ike have slowed dramatically, and two of the three major funds say they are ending their efforts to raise money.

“If someone comes in, we’re happy to talk to them but we’re not in an active fundraising mode,” said Ann Neeson, vice president of donor relations at the United Way of Greater Houston, which raised $5.8 million for hurricane recovery.

Ditto for the Gulf Coast Ike Relief Fund. It has raised $11.8 million, and administrators expect to have all the money distributed by late next month.

The need, however, remains.

“Twelve million dollars is a lot of money until you start giving it out based on the needs,” said Albert Myres, a Reliant Energy executive who is administering the Ike Relief Fund. “Could we have used $50 million? Probably. Easily.”

Those on the front lines agree.

“I get calls, and people are crying,” said Julie Reid of the Lutheran Inter-City Network Coalition-Houston. “They’re ready to give up because Houston has basically moved on.”

Windstorm insurance and hurricane relief are two of the issues that have been designated as emergency items by Governor Perry for the ongoing legislative session. That means any bills passed and signed can take effect immediately, instead of after 90 days as is the norm. Maybe that will help some, and maybe there’ll be more federal money coming. Whatever it is, it won’t be enough.