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Texans move to dismiss one cheerleader lawsuit

Standard stuff, I presume.

Attorneys for the Houston Texans have asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed against the team by five former cheerleaders or to delay proceedings while the former cheerleaders’ complaints are submitted to arbitration.

Team attorneys, in a motion filed with U.S. District Judge David Hitner, cite several flaws in what they describe as a “frivolous” lawsuit filed by former cheerleaders Hannah Turnbow, Ainsley Parish, Morgan Wiederhold, Ashley Rodriguez and Kelly Neuner.

The suit is one of two filed last month by former Texans cheerleaders, complaining of wage violations, breach of contract, negligence and other issues.

Among the lawsuit’s flaws, the Texans say, is that former cheerleaders acted improperly by filing legal action despite signing contracts that require mandatory arbitration for disputes. If the suit is not dismissed, the team says, it at least should be stayed pending arbitration.

[…]

The former cheerleaders also “want to rewrite history,” the team says, by complaining about their treatment after several posted complimentary messages on social media about their association with the team.

“Above all, the plaintiffs want to ignore the law, which dictates that their claims fail, whether in arbitration … or in this court,” lawyers add.

The standard cheerleader contract includes a clause in which both sides agree that the NFL commissioner will preside over binding arbitration to settle any disputes. The commissioner also has authority to refer the dispute to an outside arbitrator.

In a separate filing, attorneys for the team say that Neuner’s complaint against the team because she has not been a cheerleader since the summer of 2011 and that that her complaints fall outside the statute of limitations, which range from 300 days to four years, along with being “factually invalid.”

See here for the background. I’m not aware of any action with the other lawsuit, but my guess is that the team will have a similar response. For sure, the cheerleaders will want to keep this in a courtroom and away from an arbitrator. That’s all I’ve got, so we’ll see what happens.

More on the Texans’ cheerleader lawsuit

Here’s a story in Vanity Fair about the second lawsuit filed against the Houston Texans by a group of former cheerleaders, who allege wage theft and harassment, among other things. The tale is from the perspective of plaintiff Gabriella Davis, and much of it focuses on the lousy treatment she and her fellow cheerleaders got from the team and specifically its longtime cheerleading director, Altovise Gary. I encourage you to read all that, but I want to highlight the matters relating to money:

Davis said the cheerleaders were frequently reminded that they were replaceable: “We were told, ‘There’s another girl who will do it for free,’” she said.

But they practically did that themselves.

According to both Davis and a copy of the 2017-2018 Texans cheerleader contract, cheerleaders were making $7.25 per hour, the state’s minimum wage, or approximately $1,500 per season. The employment agreement stipulates that the cheerleaders are hired as part-time employees (by day, some were college students, lawyers, or worked in P.R.). But Davis, as well as her former teammates who are suing the Texans, argued that Gary warned them upfront that they would be “part-time employees with full-time hours.” Their time commitment included games, practices, and a required 50 team-sponsored promotional appearances during the season. The cheerleaders said they were not paid overtime for hours of work outside of cheering, including selling calendars and meeting fans after games, plus daily social-media requirements, which included tweeting from the official cheerleader handle and following hundreds of people on Twitter in order to boost the account’s following.

See here and here for the background. The “we can replace you with someone who’d do this for free” attitude is pervasive, and is right there in the comments on the Chron story about the more recent lawsuit. You want to talk about “economic anxiety”, I’m here to say there would be a whole lot less of it if people didn’t internalize that message. I have a hard time understanding why anyone would side with the multi-billion dollar entity that could easily afford to pay these women a salary that’s actually commensurate with the work they do and the value they add. I’m rooting for the courts to see it the same way, but ultimately what we need is better legislation to improve working life for all of us. Here are statements from the plaintiffs and a statement from the Texans on this case. I’m sure we have not seen the last of these in the league.

Second group of cheerleaders sues the Texans

Different group, same basic complaints.

Hannah Turnbow spent the 2017 NFL season wearing a bright smile and a Texans cheerleaders uniform, dancing on the field, waving pompons on the sideline, meeting fans in NRG Stadium suites and concourses and attending team-related functions as a Texans brand ambassador.

Friday, however, Turnbow was reduced briefly to tears as she described how she and four other former cheerleaders were underpaid, browbeaten, threatened and, in her case, attacked by a fan and told by team officials to “suck it up” when she complained.

Turnbow, who spent one season as a Texans cheerleader, is the lead plaintiff in the second lawsuit in two weeks that accuses the team of violating federal labor laws and minimum-wage regulations.

The suit was filed in Houston federal court by Houston attorney Kimberly Spurlock and by noted women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred, who said she plans to deliver a letter stating the cheerleaders’ case Monday to the office of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in New York.

“We’re not arguing with the concept of whether there should be cheerleaders or not,” Allred said. “But we are asserting that if there are cheerleaders, they should not be exploited in their wages or in any of the terms of their working conditions.”

[…]

Dallas has long been the center of NFL cheerleader culture, since the Cowboys in the early 1970s adopted the dance team format that the Texans and other NFL teams use, and Androvett said the Cowboys would be a lesser product without the allure and marketing attraction that cheerleaders have provided for more than 40 years.

“Football fans have wives and daughters. Women are big consumers. They are a force to be reckoned with,” Androvett said. “Why wouldn’t you reach out to women and say if there’s a wrong, let’s right it. You can do that in a way that doesn’t incur legal liability.”

By not dealing with complaints by cheerleaders over pay and working conditions, the NFL also faces potential damage in the wake of the “#metoo” awareness movement of sexual assault and harassment.

“People will say it’s like being in Hollywood: there are things you buy into in exchange for all the opportunities that are presented to you,” he said. “But Hollywood is a great analogy. We all realize now that not everything goes.

“If I were the NFL, I would try to get in front of this and communicate that cheerleaders are part of the NFL experience and to treat them in a way that suggest you believe that.

Also, as franchises become more valuable in the wake of a Supreme Court decision that could lead to increased sports gambling, “it’s not a good optic for the NFL when you have a class of women who are trying to get paid based on $7.25 per hour,” Androvett added.

See here for more about the other lawsuit. It really is a matter of paying them a fair amount for their labor, and treating them with a sufficient level of respect. Frankly, the NFL could do a better job of that with their players, too, but at least they have the right to collectively bargain for those things. I’m rooting for the plaintiffs in both of these cases. Think Progress has more.

Former cheerleaders file lawsuit against Texans over pay

I’d been wondering if something like this was going to happen here.

Three former Texans cheerleaders sued the team and its cheerleading supervisor Tuesday, accusing the Texans of failing to pay minimum wage and overtime and accusing the cheer squad director of body-shaming and failing to act on complaints that cheerleaders were physically assaulted by fans.

The former cheerleaders, who were on the squad for the 2017 season, are seeking class action status, which would include all Texans cheerleaders for the last three years who also complain of similar treatment by the Texans and their cheerleader director, Altovise Gary.

The suit against the Texans and Gary, filed in Houston federal court, joins a growing list of legal actions in which former NFL cheerleaders complain about pay, safety issues and working conditions.

“I have been a season-ticket holder since 2002. My name is engraved on the glass outside NRG Stadium,” said former cheerleader Paige G., who is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. “It was always a goal of mine to get on the team, and I thought this is so great that now I get to cheer for the team that I love.

“It was really unfortunate that we were treated with such disrespect.”

Paige G. claims in the lawsuit that while she was paid $7.25 per hour for a set number of hours each week, she did not receive overtime for team-imposed email monitoring and social media requirements and for other “off-the-clock” job-related duties, including gym workouts, spray tans before games and events and required attendance at other team functions and autograph sessions.

“One of the most famous quotes from (Gary) is that this was a part-time job with full-time hours,” she said. “We signed up for a part-time job that didn’t require more than 30 hours a week. If you’re going to make it full-time hours, make it a full-time job. I would be happy to do that.”

The suit also accuses Gary, described in the document as “Coach Alto,” of harassing and intimidating behavior and of cutting Paige G. and other cheerleaders from the squad in April after they sought improved working conditions.

Others may join in as plaintiffs, and they will seek class certification, assuming Neil Gorsuch hasn’t made that illegal. We have seen a number of lawsuits like this filed by other teams’ cheerleaders in recent years, some with truly appalling fact sets. Several teams have paid out settlements, and I suspect that is what will eventually happen here. Seems to me the right thing for the teams to do is to pay their cheerleaders a fair wage for their labor and to generally treat them with a minimum level of respect. But this is the NFL, and that’s not the way they do business, so off to the courts they go. I know who I’m cheering for.

Texans take a knee

Good for them.

On Sunday afternoon, before the Houston Texans faced off against the Seattle Seahawks in Washington, all but approximately 10 Texans took a knee during the national anthem.

This was a direct response to Texans owner Bob McNair after an ESPN report on Friday revealed that, during a meeting with other NFL owners, McNair said the league needed to put a stop to protests during the national anthem because, “We can’t have inmates running the prison.”

McNair’s comments were particularly jarring considering that the protests — which began at the start of the 2016 season when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem — are a way to draw attention to police brutality and systemic racism, which the criminal justice system only exemplifies.

[…]

McNair issued two apologies, one on Friday and one on Saturday. He also reportedly spoke with the players directly on Saturday.

“As I said yesterday, I was not referring to our players when I made a very regretful comment during the owners meetings last week,” McNair said on Saturday in his second official apology regarding his comments. “I was referring to the relationship between the league office and team owners and how they have been making significant strategic decisions affecting our league without adequate input from ownership over the past few years.”

But an unnamed player on the Texans told Josina Anderson of ESPN that he did not accept McNair’s apology.

“I think as an owner and as a business man that is something you can’t really say,” the defensive player said. “My reaction is: that’s unacceptable and I don’t want to even hear an apology, or anything like that, because I feel like you knew what you said because you were in a room where you didn’t think it was going to leak out; so you said how you feel. So, that’s how I feel about it.”

You’ve probably seen coverage of this over the weekend, but you can refer to this ThinkProgress story, Deadspin, and the Chron for a refresher. If there’s one reason why I’ve never embraced the Texans, it’s Bob McNair. All I can say is I look forward to the day when he finally sells the team.

The Rangers and the Astros

Oh, come on.

The historic flooding in Houston caused by Tropical Storm Harvey will displace the Astros for at least three games and most likely the entire six-game homestand they had scheduled for this week.

For at least their three-game series against the Texas Rangers that begins Tuesday, the Astros will play as the home team at the domed Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., home to the Tampa Bay Rays, MLB announced Monday. Their three-game series against the New York Mets that starts Friday also likely will shift to Tropicana Field, though no final determination was made Monday.

[…]

Although it would seem more logical for the Astros-Rangers series to simply be played in Arlington, swapping home series presented logistical challenges that apparently couldn’t be overcome.

The Astros offered flipping this week’s home series for their scheduled visit to Arlington on Sept. 25-27, but the Rangers declined. The Rangers offered to put on a series at Globe Life Park as the visitors with the Astros getting all revenue, Texas general manager Jon Daniels told Dallas-area media. The Astros declined that alternative.

“We didn’t think that playing six games in Arlington was fair to the competitive balance of the wild-card race, not to mention that if we’re not able to play our games in Houston against the Mets that we would be having another trip,” [Astros president of business operations Reid Ryan] told the Chronicle. “So we felt like getting out of Texas and going to a neutral site was in the best interest of our players and in the best interests for the integrity of the schedule this year.”

The Astros will now be on a 19-game road trip, thanks to the loss of the six games at home this week. One reason the Rangers declined the swap was because that would have put them on the road for twelve straight games. Understandable from a baseball perspective, but not very charitable.

In terms of both baseball and business, it’s a perfectly logical decision for the Rangers. But in terms of compassion, it’s pretty crummy. The quick takeaway here isn’t and won’t be that the front office made a measured decision about the welfare of their own team. It’s that they decided to shut out a club forced from its city by natural disaster, putting clear baseball needs over what might be seen as more abstract humanitarian ones. The Astros—with no major damage to their ballpark, their players physically safe, and the financial means as an organization to navigate whatever’s to come—are hardly an equal stand-in for thousands of suffering people in their region who have lost everything. But they still serve as a symbol of Houston, and so turning them away can only make the Rangers look insensitive and selfish.

At one point today, [Rangers general manager Jon] Daniels said he was “almost cringing” when he discussed the Rangers’ baseball-related needs in comparison to those of the Astros. That reaction is reasonable—which should have been enough to make him think that those listening might react the same way, too.

Yeah, pretty much. The Rangers are still chasing a wild card spot – yes, even after trading Yu Darvish – and they have a big advantage over the Stros in Arlington, which I’m sure was a factor in their decision. They’re playing to win, and I can’t crime them for that. But still, this was cold. And people will remember. Sleep well, y’all. Campos, Jenny Dial Creech, and Dan Solomon have more.

(To be fair, the Rangers are making a nice donation to Harvey relief, so kudos to them for that. Kudos also to the Cowboys and Texans, Steve Francis, JJ Watt, Amy Adams Strunk, and especially Les Alexander. We’re really going to miss that guy.)

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.

Who cares about Bob McNair?

Another bad decision.

HoustonUnites

Houston Texans owner Bob McNair donated $10,000 this week to opponents of the city’s embattled equal rights ordinance, entering the political fray over the law headed to voters in November.

McNair, a frequent GOP donor, mailed the $10,000 check to opponents earlier this week, according to Campaign for Houston spokesman Jared Woodfill. He said the donation “was very exciting for us.”

Critics of the law, largely Christian conservatives, object to the non-discrimination protections it extends to gay and transgender residents — the law also lists 13 other protected groups. Supporters of the ordinance, including Mayor Annise Parker, have warned that repealing the law could damage the city’s economy and could jeopardize high-profile events such as Houston’s 2017 Super Bowl.

Woodfill pushed back on that notion Wednesday.

“The HERO supporters have tried to scare people into believing that we would lose the Super Bowl,” Woodfill said. “Obviously, if there were any truth behind that, Bob McNair wouldn’t’ be donating to the folks that are opposed to the ordinance.”

Here’s the longer version of the story. As Campos notes, there is something to that. I’ve always been skeptical about claims we could lose the Super Bowl if HERO is voted down for the simple reason that logistically, it would be very hard to do and would inconvenience a lot of people. The NFL doesn’t want to do that unless it absolutely has to, and I don’t think there would be enough of a national outcry to make that happen. What I do expect is that a defeat for HERO would jeopardize our chances of landing other big events, sporting and otherwise, and would likely cause some planners of events that are already on the calendar here, at the George R. Brown and big hotels, to reconsider and find alternate options.

So Woodfill gets a symbolic trophy, for whatever good it does him. It would be nice if this story went national, as a lot of other HERO-related news has done, as it might put a little heat on McNair and generally serve as bad publicity for him and his team. The Texans aren’t exactly a revered franchise outside of Houston, so a little ridicule there could go a long way. In the meantime, this story appeared in the paper the same day that this full-page ad ran in the local section:

HoustonBusinessLeadersEndorseHERO

For those who have been trying to claim that HERO is only of concern to the LGBT community, note the presence there of the NAACP, the Greater Houston Black Chamber, the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and among the individuals, the President of the Houston Urban League, Judson Robinson III. There was also this in my feeds from yesterday:

As the Texas director of AARP, a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy organization for all persons age 50 and older, I am proud that this Association — with 38 million members, including more than 2.2 million in Texas — believes firmly in the fundamental right of all people to be free from discrimination.

Approval of HERO by voters would help ensure that Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, provides its residents and visitors with an environment free of discrimination based on sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity, or pregnancy.

There are lots of people talking about why HERO matters, to them and to the city. The Houston Area Women’s Center has been heavily involved to help debunk the dangerous and pernicious falsehoods that liars like Jared Woodfill have been spreading, now with the assistance of a fool like Bob McNair. The Press has more.

Lone Star Veterans Association benefit event

From the inbox:

To celebrate the upcoming football season, and to benefit the Lone Star Veterans Association (LSVA), the Houston Texans Grille at CITY CENTRE will host a “Pay What You Want” Day on Monday, July 20th. All of the proceeds will be donated to the Lone Star Veterans Association.

During this all day event, patrons may select one food item from the full menu, and pay any amount they are able to as a donation. And 100% of the proceeds raised from food sales will benefit the Lone Star Veterans Association!

Event is free and open to the public.

The Lone Star Veterans Association is a Houston-based non-profit organization dedicated to making Houston and Texas the best place for Post 9/11 veterans and their families by providing free career transitions, peer support and family services. LSVA’s office is open Monday through Friday 8am – 5pm, at 170 Heights Blvd. Houston, TX

To learn more about the Lone Star Veterans Association please visit lonestarveterans.org. To view Houston Texans Grille menu visit texansgrille.g3restaurants.com.

Who: Houston Texans Grille at CITY CENTRE
What: Pay What You Want pricing on one item from full menu
When: Monday, July 20th from 11:00am – 10:00pm
Where: Houston Texans Grille at CITY CENTRE, (I-10 W & Beltway 8), 12848 Queensbury Way, Houston, TX. 77024. (713) 461-2002

• Limited to Dine-In orders only (no Take-Out or To-Go orders)
• Maximum of one (1) entrée per guest under “Pay What You Want” pricing
• Guests may only dine-in one (1) time during the day to ensure all customers are served
• Any appetizer, entrée, or dessert on the menu will count as one (1) “entrée”
• “Pay What You Want” pricing offer excludes all alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages

See here for more. It’s a good cause and there’s food involved, so check it out if you can.

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.

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.

“Go, Texans” OK’ed

Well, that‘s a relief.

County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez’s quest to ban “Go Texans” and other messages from Metro’s digital bus marquees has ended unsuccessfully with a pass from the Federal Transportation Administration and a scathing letter from the Metro board chairman.

Last fall, Sanchez asked the federal agency and the Harris County Attorney’s office to determine whether Metro was “misusing federal transit dollars” or somehow breaking the law by displaying certain messages on the destination signs on the fronts and sides of its buses. Sanchez argued that messages like “Go Texans” were not appropriate because they promoted a privately owned company on publicly owned property.

Both entities looked into Sanchez’s inquiry and concluded that Metro’s current policy is legally sound, with the federal agency saying the only applicable prohibitions of marquee messages would be the ones adopted by Metro itself.

In a letter to Sanchez this week, Metro Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia described the inquiry as “unnecessary” and said it jeopardized Metro’s relationship with the federal transportation agency, which he described as “a critical partner that provides crucial funding for projects that help move people throughout the region.”

“We hope to avoid distractions as we continue to keep the Houston area moving,” Garcia wrote. “Rather than pursuing unnecessary inquiries, we hope you will join us to positively address the transit needs in our community.”

Sanchez expressed no regrets, pointing out that “prior to my inquiry, Metro had no policy” on bus marquee messaging.

See here for the background. Sanchez apparently complained to the FTA after the Metro board adopted its policy to allow for these sporting messages plus other generic ones such as “Happy Holidays”, which seems a little petty to me. I just hope we have a football team that’s worthy of the exhortation this fall.

No, Texans!

If you regularly see Metro buses around town, you might have noticed that during the football season they will sometimes display “GO TEXANS!” on their marquees, rotating with their route information. They display similar messages for other local teams during their seasons as well. Harris County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez wants them to stop doing that.

It’s nothing personal against the Houston Texans, the Astros, Rockets or Dynamo. Harris County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez just wants Metro to stop picking winners and losers with its digital bus marquees.

This spring, after Sanchez raised concerns, the Metro board of directors adopted a policy with pre-approved messages for display on the destination signs on the fronts and sides of its buses, including ones covering five “major” local sporting teams. Some of the messages, such as “Happy Holidays,” are appropriate, Sanchez said, but others, such as “Go Texans,” are not.

“We have great athletic teams, there’s a lot of great things in this city, but it’s troubling when an appointed, non-answerable board of directors of a publicly funded institution like Metro gets to pick and choose what corporations get to have their name placed on our infrastructure,” Sanchez said, noting that he has only seen the “Go Texans” message.

The complaint is similar to one Sanchez had a few years ago when the back halves of some Houston Police Department patrol cars were made to look like Yellow Cab taxis for what was supposed to be a public service announcement to deter drunken driving. The so-called wraps included the local Yellow Cab phone number.

That inspired the former Houston city councilman and unsuccessful mayoral candidate, who said he plans to seek a third term as treasurer next year, to submit an inquiry to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which sided with him and – in an April 2011 letter – thanked him for his “efforts to prevent government waste, fraud and abuse.”

First let me say “Hey, look! It’s a story involving Harris County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez!” I sometimes forget the guy exists. As a longtime proponent of Metro selling ads on its buses and light rail cars, I can see his point about this. This space has value, and Metro’s giving it away for free.

That said, my overall reaction to reading this story is “Really? What’s the big deal?” Metro was never going to sell ad space on the bus marquees – some people don’t want them to have ads on the exterior of their buses at all – so the value argument falls short. I see this as just basic civic boosterism. It’s hardly unusual for public officials to publicly state support for local sports teams – I’m pretty sure that if Orlando Sanchez had been elected Mayor in 2003, he’d have been out there leading the cheers for the Astros in 2005 as they made their run to the World Series – and I’ve never known that to be controversial, with the exception of the Mayor of a two-sports team town like New York openly favoring one team over the other. And for what it’s worth, Metro has used its buses and trains to promote things other than the Texans, such as the Houston Zoo and the Museum of Natural Science. Perhaps Sanchez would object to those as well, I don’t know. Again, I gotta say, what’s the big deal?

Enrolling the uninsured

This is going to be such a huge job.

Get Covered America

Fresh produce wasn’t the only thing you could find at the Farmers Market [last] Saturday.

Volunteers with the Get Covered America campaign were passing out flyers and letting people know that starting Oct. 1, American citizens can enroll for low-cost health insurance as part of the Affordable Care Act.

“Get Covered America is a national grassroots campaign to educate people about the enrollment opportunities made possible by the affordable health care act,” volunteer Ian Davis said. “The enrollment period will start in October and today marks the 100 day countdown, so we’re doing a national day of action.”

Davis, an organizer with Get Covered Texas, says it’s important Texas is included.

“Texas has the most uninsured of any state in the country, so this is ground zero of really solving the health care problem,” Davis said.

Musician Daniel Smith is someone who doesn’t have health insurance.

“It’s just kind of like, don’t get hurt or sick you know,” Smith said.

Davis says there are plenty of people like Smith who don’t know they’re eligible.

“Over half the folks that are eligible for those benefits are unaware,” he said.

There were kickoff events like this around the country last weekend. BOR was at the Austin event. There was an event in Houston on Saturday the 22nd, right here in the Heights, but the only information I saw about it was an email that same morning. I hope we can do a better job of getting the word out than that. This is the only thing I saw in the Chronicle, so when I say “we”, I mean them, too. They did have a story on the federal push to get people enrolled on Tuesday, so perhaps they’ll be on the case going forward. We’ll see.

The actual enrollment period for the health insurance exchanges begins on October 1, and the race is on to get the word out. Something like 2.6 million Texans may qualify for insurance subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, but they have to know about it and they have to know what to do to get the subsidies and enroll in an insurance plan. This is a massive national undertaking that will be done without the assistance of the state government here, for obvious reasons. One organization that may be helping to promote the exchanges will be the NBA, and I for one look forward to seeing what the Houston Rockets will do as part of that effort. (The NFL, and thus the Houston Texans are also in play.) Let’s hope we hear a little bit more about it between now and then.

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.

Feeling good about the Super Bowl bid

The city of Houston has submitted its bid to host Super Bowl LI in 2017, and they feel pretty good about their chances.

Houston’s competition will be San Francisco or Miami – the city that fails to get the coveted Super Bowl L.

League owners will vote on both Super Bowls on May 22 in Boston.

For now, Houston officials are confident but cautious because they know there are more steps in the process to host the first Super Bowl at Reliant Stadium since 2004, when New England defeated Carolina.

“We feel really good about our chances,” said Ric Campo, chairman of the host committee. “We believe Houston will be hard to beat.”

[…]

Campo, chairman and chief executive officer of Camden Properties, pointed out the numerous improvements the city has made or will make before 2017.

“The east-west light rail will be completed in 2014,” he said. “We’re building a new 1,000-room Marriott Marquis that’ll be a bookend to the Hilton-Americas. We’ve got Discovery Green.

“The NFL requires at least 19,000 rooms in the city. We have more than 20,000, including 6,000 downtown.

“For fans and visiting teams, it’s going to be the ultimate experience. We’ve got world-class buildings and incredible venues for the NFL Experience and Super Bowl Village.”

Don’t forget our nationally-known restaurant scene now, too. It’s a little funny to think how much has changed since Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004. We’ve been confident about our chances from the get go. We’ll see if our optimism is warranted.

The general feeling around the NFL is that San Francisco, with its new stadium in Santa Clara, will beat out South Florida for Super Bowl L. South Florida is trying to get $400 million for stadium improvements.

At the league’s spring meetings in Phoenix last month, officials from South Florida met with the owners and asked for help.

“The mayor of Miami was trying to get the NFL to make a commitment that if they passed this referendum there, they’d get a Super Bowl,” Texans owner Bob McNair said in Phoenix. “The league would not make that kind of commitment.

“They had no assurance that if we voted them a Super Bowl that they would get the money. I think the governmental bodies in South Florida are going to have to move first and say, ‘OK, we’re going to approve the stadium, and we’ll take our chances on the Super Bowl.’

“It’ll be interesting to see what happens in Miami that will impact our chances of getting the Super Bowl. If they don’t get improvements to their stadium, I think that’ll work against them.”

You would think that after the debacle that was the financing of Marlins Stadium that the Dolphins would be tarred and feathered for making such a request, but this is Florida. You have to grade on a curve.

In related news, via Swamplot the city also put in its bid to host the Summer X-Games for the next three years. (See here for more on that.) We won’t know the answer for that until August, though we will know if we make the next round of cuts shortly. We have a lot more competition for this, including Austin and Fort Worth. Wouldn’t it be cool to get both bids?

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.

How cursed is Houston as a sports city?

What curse?

So another Super Bowl is history, and as you might have noticed the Houston Texans were not be playing in the game. This continues an unbroken streak of Houston football teams not making it to the Super Bowl, some in particularly heartbreaking fashion. The Astros have never won a World Series, having only won one pennant in fifty-plus years of existence. Were it not for two NBA titles by the Rockets in the 90s, the city of Houston would be completely championship-free for the major sports. You may be wondering how Houston compares to other big league sports cities in this department. I was, so I did a little research to find out. I limited myself to the last 40 years, mostly because ancient history is only of so much comfort to most fans. (For what it’s worth, Bill Simmons uses a 35-year period for assessing true wretchedness.) With that in mind, here’s what I found. Let’s start with the cities that have had nothing to celebrate in that time span.

Cleveland

Franchises – Browns (two versions, NFL); Indians (MLB); Cavaliers (NBA)

Championships in the last 40 years: 0

Buffalo

Franchises – Bills (NFL); Sabres (NHL)

Championships in the last 40 years: 0

San Diego

Franchises – Chargers (NFL); Padres (MLB)

Championships in the last 40 years: 0

Seattle

Franchises – Seahawks (NFL); Mariners (MLB)

Championships in the last 40 years: 1 – SuperSonics (NBA), 1979

Any discussion of cursed sports cities has to start with Cleveland. Their last title of any kind was a pre-Super Bowl NFL championship by the Browns in 1964. Since then, they’ve had The Drive, The Fumble, the relocation of their team to another city where it then went on to win a Super Bowl a few years later plus another this year, and all that is before we discuss the Indians (last World Series win 1948) or the Cavaliers. See here, here, here, and here for more. Really, there’s no question about it. No other city is in Cleveland’s class when it comes to sheer sports misery.

Buffalo is first runnerup, though I doubt anyone in Houston will offer much sympathy to them. Besides the Bills losing four consecutive Super Bowls, not to mention the Music City Miracle, the Sabres are oh-for-two in Stanley Cup finals, with the most recent loss being as controversial as it was gut-wrenching for their fans. They’re not quite in Cleveland territory, but they’re closer than anyone else. San Diego has lost two World Series, both times getting swept by teams of the ages (1984 Tigers and 1998 Yankees), and one Super Bowl, but it’s hard to think of anyone in San Diego as being cursed. Seattle managed to never win a pennant despite fielding teams that featured as many as four future Hall of Famers plus Jay Buhner; I include them here since their one title was won by a franchise that has since relocated.

And here are the teams that have won one or two titles, thus putting themselves in a similar class as Houston:

Atlanta

Franchises – Braves (MLB); Falcons (NFL); Hawks (NBA)

Championships in the last 40 years: 1 – Braves, 1995

Phoenix

Franchises – Cardinals (NFL); Suns (NBA); Diamondbacks (MLB); Coyotes (NHL)

Championships in the last 40 years: 1 – Diamondbacks, 2001

Kansas City

Franchises – Royals (MLB); Chiefs (NFL)

Championships in the last 40 years: 1 – Royals, 1985

Indianapolis

Franchises – Colts (NFL); Pacers (NBA)

Championships in the last 40 years: 1 – Colts, 2007

New Orleans

Franchises – Saints (NFL); Pelicans (NBA)

Championships in the last 40 years: 1 – Saints, 2010

Minneapolis

Franchises – Twins (MLB); Vikings (NFL); Timberwolves (NBA); Wild (NHL)

Championships in the last 40 years: 2 – Twins, 1987 and 1991

Tampa

Franchises – Rays (MLB); Buccaneers (NFL); Lightning (NHL)

Championships in the last 40 years: 2 – Buccaneers, 2003, and Lightning, 2004

Milwaukee

Franchises – Bucks (NBA); Brewers (MLB); Green Bay Packers (NFL)

Championships in the last 40 years: 2 – Packers, 1997 and 2011

Houston

Franchises – Astros (MLB); Texans (NFL); Rockets (NBA)

Championships in the last 40 years: 2 – Rockets, 1994 and 1995

Out of that group, I’d probably rank Minneapolis and Kansas City as more cursed than Houston. The Vikings are also 0-4 in Super Bowls, with several other heartbreaking playoff losses, the Twins can’t get past the Yankees, the North Stars won the Stanley Cup after relocating to Dallas, and the Timberwolves watched Kevin Garnett win two NBA titles with the Celtics. Both Kansas City teams have been poorly run for years, though the Royals are a little better these days. New Orleans would have had a decent claim to superior cursedness before their Super Bowl win; as long as Drew Brees can play at his level, they’ll have a chance. The other cities for the most part don’t inspire much sympathy. Atlanta may have the hapless Hawks and the feckless Falcons, but they also had Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. Indianapolis replaced Peyton Manning with Andrew Luck and rebuilt a contender after one season. Tampa and Phoenix haven’t been big league long enough to inspire real misery. No city that roots for the Packers can truly be cursed.

So, putting it all together, I’d probably rank Houston as the sixth most cursed city, following Cleveland, Buffalo, Seattle, Kansas City, and Minneapolis. Your mileage may vary, but that’s how I see it. How would you rank the losers?

Maybe the fourth time will be the charm

The city of Houston is once again bidding for a Super Bowl.

If everything goes according to an ambitious plan devised by city and county leaders, Houston will host its third Super Bowl in 2017.

The NFL informed the Texans and the city on Tuesday that Houston will be one of two finalists for Super Bowl LI, to be played in February 2017.

At the conclusion of the league’s winter meetings in Chicago, commissioner Roger Goodell disclosed that San Francisco and South Florida had been selected to bid on Super Bowl L. Goodell said the runner-up will compete with Houston for Super Bowl LI.

[…]

Houston’s Super Bowl bid is a joint venture among the Texans, the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Harris County/Houston Sports Authority, and Reliant Park.

Houston wants the 2017 Super Bowl because the Final Four is here in 2016, and two big events like that two months apart is a lot. Previous attempts to land Super Bowls XLIII, XLIV, and XLVI all came up short.

The owners will vote in May on the two games. The first vote will be between San Francisco and Miami for 2016, followed by a second vote between Houston and the 2016 runner-up for the next year.

“I think the chances are really good,” said Janis Schmees, executive director of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority.

The 50th Super Bowl in 2016 will be a special-anniversary celebration. If San Francisco wins, the game will be played at the 49ers’ new stadium in Santa Clara. That stadium is set to open in 2014. If South Florida wins, the game will be played in the Miami Dolphins’ stadium, which still faces questions about possible renovation, including a partial roof.

We know that the owners love awarding the Super Bowl to cities that have built new stadia – this is, after all, mostly why Houston got the game in 2004 – so if you want to see this happen, you should root for San Francisco to win the bid for 2016. We’ll see if the optimism is warranted this time.

Why salary caps suck

In a sane world, the Houston Texans would not have to worry about whether they have or can free up the cap space to re-sign Mario Williams as well as whichever else of their free agents they would like to retain. They would be free to negotiate with him and try to work a deal that makes sense for both sides, with the financial limitations on them being their valuation of Williams and their own cash flow. But NFL owners decided long ago that they couldn’t trust themselves to make sensible, rational decisions about payroll, so they successfully bargained for a salary cap with the NFLPA. The angst over Williams, the Texans’s former #1 overall pick, is the direct result and comes at the inopportune time when the franchise finally has all the pieces it needs to make a legitimate run at the Super Bowl, but now may be forced to discard some of those pieces because they have to under the cap. There’s no level on which this makes sense.

You can also see the effect of cap madness in the fact that the Rockets cut Jeremy Lin in the preseason; specifically, in the reasons why they dumped him instead of one of their other point guards.

Would Linsanity have taken hold in Houston? That is doubtful, but had that trade gone through, my guess is that in short order Lin would have shot past current third-string point guard Jonny Flynn on the depth chart. He played better than Flynn and at least as well as Dragic in camp practices.

Head coach Kevin McHale wouldn’t have hesitated to play Lin with the second unit. We might even have had Sage Rosenfels-like loyalists calling for the personable whirlwind of a player to start ahead of Kyle Lowry. But when it was time to make the decision, Flynn’s expiring contract at $3.4 million for this season was too valuable a commodity.

Emphasis mine. Jonny Flynn has played a total of 81 minutes for the Rockets over seven games, scoring 22 points. That’s less than Lin’s scoring average so far. The sole reason Flynn has value to the team is that when he departs via trade or the end of his contract after the season, the Rockets will have an extra $3.4 million in cap space, with which they can continue their pursuit of a game-changing free agent. Now, the Rockets may have passed on Lin regardless, and even if they had kept him he might be basically occupying Flynn’s space on the bench, getting only garbage-time minutes. But the fact that a player’s contract is more valuable to a team than an actual player who might be superior, that’s just screwed up. This is a ship that has long since sailed in both leagues, but these are the kinds of things I think about whenever I hear someone advocate a salary cap for Major League Baseball. While I admit I can see the advantage from an owner’s perspective, I have no idea why any fan would want their team to be forced to operate under those conditions.

The bandwagon still has plenty of good seats on it

So hop on while you can.

Aramark, which manages the Go Texans shop at Reliant Stadium, reports sales have been running more than 10 percent ahead of last year and likely will set a record if Houston reaches the playoffs for the first time.

Aramark expects strong holiday sales of team gear and other souvenir items, including Christmas stockings and ornaments, Chris Inouye, retail division manager at Reliant Stadium, said in an email. Should the team finish first in the AFC South, Aramark will roll out division-championship T-shirts and hats immediately, he noted.

At Academy Sports + Outdoors, the Texans’ official sporting-goods retailer, sales have been running “significantly” ahead of last year as the team has gotten off to its best start in franchise history, spokesman Eric Herrera said.

The Academy chain has also started selling Texans gear in its San Antonio stores this season.

Everybody loves a winner, don’t they? I remember walking to the Foley’s downtown with some coworkers after the Rockets won the NBA title in 1994 to buy championship swag. I picked up an extra shirt for my friend Andrea, who was then living with her folks in South Carolina, because she knew she couldn’t get one there. (In 1994, you couldn’t do that online. You can’t imagine how much more difficult life was before the Internet, kids.) It was amazing to see so many normally suit-wearing people come to work in Rockets gear for weeks afterward. I can only imagine what this town will look like if the Texans make a playoff run.

There aren’t any [Matt] Leinart jerseys for sale yet, but consider this: There weren’t any [Arian] Foster jerseys before his breakout debut at the beginning of last season. It seems the goal for stores, as with the teams they promote, is to win, baby, win.

Oddly enough, I saw a fellow wearing a Matt Leinart Texans jersey a couple of weeks ago at the Christian’s Tailgate on White Oak. Either he managed to get a bootleg jersey, or maybe he’s a relative. Whatever the case, he was ahead of his time.