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preservation

That’s the Texas State Historical Astrodome to you, pal

It’s got a marker and everything.

All this and history too

More than 56 years after ground was broken on what would become the world’s first domed stadium, the Astrodome is now a bonafide recorded Texas historic landmark.

Installed on the stadium’s southwest end, a Texas State Historical Marker it will be visible for years to come just yards from neighboring NRG Stadium. The $2,000 price tag for the marker was picked up by the Houston Astros, who called the Dome home for decades before moving to Minute Maid Park across town.

[…]

The Dome has already been declared a state Antiquities Landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The marker further solidifies its place in history and its permanence. The text mentions the part that the Dome played in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when it housed 16,000 refugees from the violent storm that hit New Orleans.

The 2017 state antiquities landmark designation provides special safeguards against demolition and requires Texas Historical Commission approval for any future changes.

See here for some background. I know some people don’t like the Astrodome redevelopment plan. Like it or not, your choices are the plan that’s been approved, some other plan that has not been vetted or approved, and going back to doing nothing and letting it rot. Which, now that I think of it, may be expressly forbidden by this latest designation. Point is, the Dome ain’t being demolished. Get used to it.

Another designation for the Astrodome

It’s quite the historic place.

All this and history too

The famed Astrodome will be designated as a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark — the highest honor the state can bestow on a historic structure.

The marker will finally and officially tell the story of the “Eighth Wonder of the World” and, hopefully, create a snapshot destination.

“The dome has never had an actual historical marker,” said Mike Vance, a member of the Harris County Historical Commission which is the local arm of the Texas Historical Commission.

The Texas commission approved the stadium in January among 172 new historical markers statewide for 2018.

[…]

The Astrodome received its strongest protection in a 2017 state antiquities landmark designation, which requires clearance from the Texas Historical Commission for any alterations. Becoming a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark adds another measure of protection.

“It’s a higher standard you have to reach to qualify for that kind of marker,” said Vance. “That means that it’s a building and it has to be intact in the judgment of the Texas Historical Commission — and the dome, thankfully, is.”

In addition, the sign’s unveiling will be “something tangible and visible,” unlike the antiquities designation, Vance said.

So let’s get a couple of things straight at this point.

1. There’s no way the Astrodome gets demolished. You can argue that it was wrong to pursue these historic designations, and you can argue (incorrectly) that the Dome should have been demolished after the 2012 bond referendum was voted down, but those ships have sailed. The Astrodome is basically in the same class as the Alamo now. It’s not getting demolished.

2. Given #1, that means the choices before us are Do Something, and Keep Doing Nothing. It should be clear to all that nobody wants to Keep Doing Nothing. Ed Emmett certainly doesn’t want to do nothing, and the people who are most vocally opposed to the plan that Emmett has put forward are the ones who are most vocally upset about the state of the Dome now after years of nothing being done. Nobody wants to do nothing.

3. So, one way or another, we are going to do something about the Dome, and that means that one way or another we are going to spend some money on doing something about the Dome. The something that is on the table and currently in progress is the Emmett plan. One argument being made by those who don’t like the Emmett plan is that we should have a public vote to approve spending money on the Dome before we do so. I oppose this for two reasons. One is that we don’t as a matter of course have public votes to approve the spending of money by government entities. We vote to approve the borrowing of money, but not the spending of money. I have zero interest in setting that precedent, and I can’t think of a single reason why anyone of a progressive bent would want to set that precedent, either. And two, public votes like this have become little more than preludes to litigation over the result of those votes, often on ridiculous pretexts and often taking years to resolve. You want to ensure that nothing continues to get done on the Dome for another five or ten years, maybe more? Insist on a vote before authorizing any money to be spent on it. It’s more effective than any filibuster.

County approves Astrodome plan

Like it or not, here it comes.

Take a last look at it

Harris County Commissioners Court voted unanimously Tuesday to move forward with the final design and construction of a $105 million project to transform the cherished piece of Houston’s sporting history into what officials hope will be coveted event space.

“It gives us a huge national story line,” said Holly Clapham, chief marketing officer for Houston First Corp., the city’s main marketing arm. “This, obviously, is a very significant building and we can tell the story of its new life, and serving a new constituency that didn’t know it as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World.'”

Construction on the project is expected to begin in October and end in February 2020.

“The first thing we have to do is get it back to where it’s structurally sound,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said after Tuesday’s court meeting. “Nine acres of open space, under cover, in Houston, Texas, is a big deal. We’ve already been contacted by all sorts of groups that want to come use it, so it’s exciting.”

See here and here for some background, though obviously there’s a lot more to this long-lasting story. I like this idea – unlike so many other proposals, this plan makes sense to me, it’s not outrageously expensive, and it keeps the property in the hands of the public. I’m not sure if it will make sense to keep calling it the Astrodome when all is said and done, but we can cross that bridge when we get to it.

Not everyone sees this as I do, of course, and we’ll be hearing plenty from them.

State Senator Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who co-sponsored legislation last year that would have required a public referendum on the Astrodome project, called Tuesday’s vote by Commissioners Court “tone deaf.”

“We just need to recognize the obvious,” Bettencourt said in a statement. “If the county has money to ignore a public vote and refurbish the Astrodome, then they have the capability to offer flooded-out homeowners disaster reappraisal and to cut their property tax rate.”

Bettencourt and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have called on local taxing jurisdictions to allow residents whose homes were damaged by Harvey to have their properties reappraised to reflect their lower values.

Through a spokesman, Emmett called Bettencourt’s remarks “ill-informed” and said the project would allow the county to generate revenue for upgrades to the NRG Complex that otherwise would fall on taxpayers.

See here and here for more on the failed bill to require a vote on something that we wouldn’t normally require a vote on, since no bonds are being floated. The preview story goes into the funding source for the remodel.

In response to Harvey, the county is poised to call a bond referendum of at least $1 billion to pay for flood control projects, and Commissioners Court has imposed tougher regulations on new development in floodplains, as well as authorized up to $20 million to facilitate buyouts of Harvey-flooded homes.

Of the $105 million cost to renovate the dome into convention and meeting space, about a third would come from the county’s general fund, largely made up of property tax revenue. The other two sources — hotel occupancy taxes and parking revenue — would not be used for flood control Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said.

“We’re the third largest county in the country. We’re having to renovate a lot of buildings. This is another building,” Emmett said. “We need to renovate it and make it usable.”

He added that $35 million “does not go very far flood control-wise” when billions of dollars in improvements and repairs are needed.

People are going to have feelings about this, that’s for sure. There’s no direct vote on the Dome plan, but there will be that bond referendum, and Ed Emmett will be on the ballot, so the politics of this could work out in a number of ways. I’ve said my piece. We’ll see what develops from here.

Freedmen’s Town may get UNESCO designation

That’s cool.

For all the years the historic bricks of Freedmen’s Town in Fourth Ward were questioned, devalued and disturbed, a new international spotlight is bringing a renewed appreciation for the strenuous efforts to validate, treasure and preserve them.

UNESCO – the Paris-based cultural arm of the United Nations – is considering Freedmen’s Town for its Slave Route Project, which is a registry created in 1994 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization of historically significant sites that tell the global story of the trade in human labor.

Jane Landers, the U.S. envoy for the Slave Route Project, spent three days last week in the Houston area learning about Freedmen’s Town and other sites that can be combined for a nomination.

“It’s a project to memorialize sites around the world where slaves had an impact. Africans that were torn from their homes and transported across the Middle Passage to sites all over the world were dispersed, but created unique communities often wherever they went. The slave route is to acknowledge that and to mark it,” Landers said. “My job is to find places like this that deserve to be preserved and memorialized and to help people make a nomination.”

[…]

Landers said she was impressed by the documentation of Freedmen’s Town, particularly the archaeology and Texas Historical Commission markers. She said the case for the proposal has been made through decades of preservation work. Now, that effort and evidence needs to be packaged.

“There is certainly enough research and history here that it should have a tremendous reception,” she said. “If it were just a place where you knew there once were slaves who became free, there are those all over the South. You have to have all the research and the investment and the community that this has to make it a viable project.”

Texas has only one World Heritage Site among two dozen in the United States. The San Antonio Missions, including The Alamo, were designated in 2015 after a decade of persistence by preservationists and officials.

It’s unclear to me how long this process might take or what the criteria are for receiving the designation. Also unclear is whether this designation would offer any form of enforceable protection for the historic site, which has been greatly threatened by gentrification. Regardless, it would be a well deserved honor if it happens.

“We must find a way to co-exist with the bayou ecosystem”

Offcite points to a way forward.

We must find a way to co-exist with the bayou ecosystem, not get in its way. As Albert Pope, a professor at Rice Architecture, has pointed out in a series of proposals, most of Houston’s housing stock will be rebuilt over the next fifty years. It would make the most sense to plan that development outside floodplains. It’s a simple idea that requires a big shift in how we insure, subsidize, finance, and govern ourselves. We have to rethink our economy the way Jim Blackburn, Rice Professor in Practice and co-director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED), has come to understand it: ¨‘economy’ as a flood mitigation alternative.¨

We should push for collaborative regional planning entities in lieu of independent fiefdoms of utility districts. Texas has produced innovative approaches in the past. Galveston reinvented municipal government to raise the entire city up after the Great Storm of 1900. When subsidence started swallowing up whole neighborhoods, the entire region worked together to transition from ground to surface water. Bayou Greenways 2020 is creating the beginnings of a new backbone that marries flood mitigation, parks, transportation, ecosystems, and economic development. The proposed Lone Star Coastal National Recreation Area would provide a tourism infrastructure for private landowners and institutions that agree to preserve the natural buffers that protects our coast. Likewise, the dikes, floodgates, and seawalls we need to protect lives and industry from storm surges and rising sea levels can be designed to help not hurt wildlife and improve rather than impede public access to our bays and beaches. We should look to the lessons learned from New Orleans, where the response to Katrina exacerbated inequalities, and from the Dutch, who have developed a holistic approach to water management.

Also offering constructive suggestions – twelve of them – is Jim Blackburn:

2) We must get a handle on the projected rainfall from big storms such as Harvey as well as the simpler frontal movements such as those that generated the Tax Day and Memorial Day floods. Our current concepts of the 100-year and 500-year floods and flood plains are obsolete. We have to stop denying that our climate is changing. We have had too many big storms over the last few years to simply write them off as aberrant. They are part of a new pattern of severe storm events that will plague us for decades to come, according to climate change experts. We need to understand what we are dealing with and start giving our citizens first-class information about these issues. State and local government employees are afraid even to mention climate change because of the politics – because of fear of losing their jobs. Well, the politics need to be damned if they refuse to recognize a key element of protecting our citizens from current and future flood problems.

3) Addicks and Barker reservoirs are the best flood control investment ever made in the Houston region, combining large land areas and high levees to impound water upstream of the heart of the city. But these dams are currently in bad shape and are rated as two of the six most dangerous dams in the United States due to structural issues that are compounded by the large population protected by them. The protection and restoration of these dams is a major priority that must be taken forward. Even more important is the fact that over the 60 or more years that they have been protecting us, they have slowly been filling with dirt and sediment from stored storm water. The capacity of these reservoirs could be increased substantially by removing this accumulation, and we should do it. There is at least one new reservoir that should be constructed in northwest Harris County that can help on flooding along Cypress Creek, Bear Creek and Buffalo Bayou. It should be pursued as soon as possible, and other upstream locations should be found on virtually every stream in our region.

[…]

10) Our pattern of development has been outward from the center of the city up the watersheds of the various bayous and creeks. As such, our new upstream development has dumped increased runoff on our older downstream subdivisions and commercial structures. Inadvertently, we have flooded older neighborhoods while attempting to keep flood-control costs lower in the new ones, effectively subsidizing new development on the backs of the downstream residents. Floodplain maps have grown, and more people are in the 100-year floodplain than in the past. We must ensure policies exist that require no more runoff from new development than was the case before development.

Read the whole thing, both of them. We can choose to do things differently. It will take years to make it happen, but it can happen if we want it to.

We don’t need another vote on the Astrodome

Not for this we don’t, anyway.

All this and antiquities landmark status too

Less than five months ago, the future of the Astrodome seemed to be more secure than it has been in the decades since it hosted its last Astros game, with Harris County commissioners moving forward on a massive renovation project they said would usher in festivals, conferences and commercial development to the aging stadium.

Now, that future again might be getting hazier. Veteran state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said Friday he plans to introduce legislation next week that would require the county to hold a referendum on its $105 million project to raise the floor of the stadium and create 1,400 parking spaces, a move many thought would be its saving grace.

Citing concerns about how the county is spending taxpayer dollars, Whitmire’s move is the latest in a series of skirmishes over the stadium, the world’s first multi-purpose domed stadium for sporting events. It comes more than three years after voters rejected a $217 million proposal to turn the Dome into a street-level convention hall and exhibit space, which many believed doomed it to demolition.

“I’m trying to allow the public to have a vote, the taxpayers to have a vote, before we spend over $100 million on the Dome with no stated purpose,” Whitmire said.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who has long championed repurposing the Dome and was one of the chief advocates of the $105 million plan, said Friday that Whitmire’s proposal “risks derailing” that solution, which he called a “fiscally prudent decision.”

“The Dome is a vexing issue,” he said. “But to me, it’s an asset.”

Emmett said he had not heard about Whitmire’s plans to file the bill before Friday.

“It’s a little unusual for a legislator to file a piece of legislation that affects a specific piece of property that’s totally paid for,” Emmett said. “I have never heard of that before. It’s also unusual to have legislation filed directly that tells a county how tooperate without talking to the county.”

[…]

The exact language of Whitmire’s bill, which he said he is calling the Harris County Taxpayer Protection Act, will not be finalized until it is filed next week. He said it would be worded to target projects like the Astrodome that had been targeted by referenda in the past. He said it had “broad bipartisan support.”

Gov. Dan Patrick could not be reached for comment. But state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Patrick confidante and Houston Republican, said he supports Whitmire’s proposal.

“It’s a good idea,” Bettencourt said. “We had a referendum. The vote was no. Everyone was promised they would not use property tax money in that project. And now that’s effectively what they’re proposing to do.”

Whitmire also said: “I just think it’s a very hazardous way and irresponsible way to deal with taxpayer monies.”

He said he took issue with different components of the funding, saying that some of the funds used for the $105 million project could also be used for other facilities, like NRG Stadium.

See here and here for some background. I do not support this bill, whatever winds up being in it. We require a vote when a government entity like Harris County wants the authority to borrow money via bonds, which was the case with that $217 million proposition from 2013. We do not require a vote on individual budget items, any more than we require a vote on (say) the county’s budget as a whole. We elect people to write those budgets, and if we don’t like the way they do it we can vote them out. Requiring a vote for how a county government spends county money is a gross incursion on local control, which is something we’re already had way too much of. I will not support this.

Now to be sure, part of the problem here is that the stakes of that 2013 referendum were never made clear. “The people rejected this specific plan that was put forward to rehab the Dome” and “The people rejected the idea of rehabbing the Dome and want it demolished instead” are both valid interpretations of that vote. Commissioners Court and Judge Emmett did not communicate to the public what their intentions were if that referendum was voted down as it was, and as a result we have been in a state of confusion since. Many ideas continue to be put forth for the Dome, which has since gained Historical Antiquity status, making demolition that much harder to do if that’s what we wanted to do. There’s no clear consensus. That may be the best argument for requiring a vote, but it’s still a violation of local control, and any such election would occur in either a low-turnout context (as in this November) or one where it was overshadowed by other campaigns, as would be the case next year. I say let Commissioners Court move forward with what they are doing, and if you don’t like it take a lesson from your friends and neighbors who are busy raising their voices on many other issues and tell the Court what you think. Isn’t that the way this is supposed to work? Swamplot has more.

Astrodome gains antiquities status

Nice.

All this and antiquities landmark status too

The aging behemoth billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World has joined the revered ranks of the Alamo and State Capitol as an honored historical site.

Just days before a crowd of more than 70,000 files past for Super Bowl LI in neighboring NRG Stadium, the long-vacant Astrodome has won the coveted designation as a state antiquities landmark.

The distinction – which has been awarded to the Alamo, the Capitol and the Cotton Bowl, among others – brings special protection against demolition for the nation’s first fully enclosed, domed sports stadium.

But it won’t hinder the $105 million plan to renovate the once-proud facility, which has been officially closed to the public since 2009, officials said.

“It is an iconic structure,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who has long championed the venue. “The Astrodome literally changed the world of sports and entertainment and it helped put Houston and Harris County on the global scene.”

The Texas Historical Commission voted unanimously Friday to grant antiquities status, which had been sought for nearly three years by two Houston-area residents who hoped to preserve the facility.

“I was jumping up and down and running around my house telling my husband and everybody when I saw it on Twitter,” said Cynthia Neely, a writer and film producer who along with former Exxon engineer Ted Powell of La Porte filed the voluminous application, paid the fee and lobbied around the state to save the dome.

“It was a total surprise,” she said. “We’re just your average citizens.”

[…]

The designation will mean the dome cannot be “removed, altered, damaged, salvaged or excavated” without first obtaining permission from the commission, officials have said.

This process got started back in 2014, though it’s been in limbo since then as well. I’m not sure what the practical effect of this designation is since there are no current discussions about demolishing the Dome, but if that does ever come up again, it will be a lot harder to do. In the meantime, the parking lot plan moves forward, presumably with the blessing of the Historical Commission, and the Dome will play a minor part during the Super Bowl. So at least there’s one nice thing happening in the world. Swamplot and Houstonia have more.

The history of the Chicken Ranch

Chron columnist and Texas historian Joe Holley writes about an attempt to put a marker by the site of the infamous Chicken Ranch.

Rumors spreading round that Texas town

Rumors spreading round that Texas town

It’s been 43 years since KTRK-TV’s crusading consumer affairs reporter (“Slime in the ice machine!!”) rolled into town with a cameraman to bust the unassuming, little country brothel that had flourished just beyond the city limits for more than a century. Zindler’s over-the-top theatrics not only resulted in the demise of the brothel – and the reporter’s own beat-down at the hands of the local sheriff, Big Jim Flournoy – but also set in motion the media cavalcade featuring Larry L. King’s famous “Playboy” article, the subsequent Broadway musical and the movie version starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds. “‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’ remains one of the most infamous brothels ever to operate in the United States, if not the world,” says Jayme Lynn Blaschke, author of the newly published “Inside the Texas Chicken Ranch: The Definitive Account of the Best Little Whorehouse.”

The front parlor of the rambling, old frame house ended up in Dallas in 1976, reconstituted as a combination disco and chicken-themed restaurant on Greenville Avenue. “Lots of men showed up thinking it was still a brothel,” a former waitress told Blaschke. The owners hired Miss Edna, the Chicken Ranch’s last madam, to act as hostess, but she couldn’t draw the (fried) thigh and breast trade the way she could in La Grange. The restaurant lasted less than a year.

Back in Fayette County, a Waco used-car salesman named Mike McGee acquired the Chicken Ranch property in a 2009 swap with a Houston businessman. “I didn’t know what I got when I traded for it,” McGee told me by phone earlier this week.

What he got were the ruins of an old house surrounded by mesquite, huisache and prickly pear on a gravel road less than a mile off state Highway 71. Vandals, the weather and the travails of time have done their work, and by now the house is too far gone to restore. Last month McGee began the process of applying for a state historical marker at the suggestion of the local tourism board. “There’s so much interest in the Chicken Ranch, they wanted a place they can send people to, so they can look at something,” he said.

A few influential folks were not pleased, said Blaschke, who helped McGee with the application. “I’d say 45 percent of the population think it’s part of Texas history, and they should exploit it,” he said from his office at Texas State University, where he’s director of media relations. “Another 45 percent don’t give it any never mind. And maybe 10 percent of the population just about spews blood out of their eyeballs if you even mention it.”

Among the more adamant opponents – and the most influential – is longtime County Judge Ed Janecka, whose Czech ancestors settled the nearby community of Dubina in the 1850s.

McGee and Blaschke have withdrawn the application for a historical marker due to Judge Janecka’s opposition, which makes sense because Janecka would have to approve it. They may try again another time, and I hope they do. I don’t live there and it’s none of my business, but I think this is an interesting and worthwhile piece of history that ought to be remembered. I understand that some of the locals are still sensitive about this, and I can’t blame them. Maybe it would be best to wait, out of consideration for the folks who do remember the place and don’t want to be reminded of it. I do hope that someday there will be a plaque or some such to tell visitors and others who are curious that on this spot once stood the most famous brothel in Texas, if not America.

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.

Astrodome parking plan coming

Better get ready.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Harris County officials on Friday unveiled a $105 million plan to raise the floor of the Astrodome and build two new levels of parking beneath it, the strongest signal yet that the county plans to maintain and find another use for the one-time architectural marvel.

The proposal, which the county has been studying for months, would represent a critical step toward repurposing the stadium, which has sat vacant for decades as the community has debated its fate.

“This ensures that it’s protected for future years,” said Joe Stinebaker, a spokesman for County Judge Ed Emmett, who strongly backs transforming the 51-year-old structure, once dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”

The plan would allow some 240,000 square feet of ground-level space to be used for events or for an indoor park. County officials envision attracting retail, commercial or hospitality uses to the more than 550,000 square feet of space that surrounds the core.

County government offices could even be housed in the retrofitted stadium, said County Engineer John Blount.

“What we do next, it becomes an open tablet,” Stinebaker said.

Commissioners will be publicly presented with the proposal for the first time Tuesday and could vote on authorizing design and construction by as early as September, said county budget officer Bill Jackson.

[…]

Stinebaker said the commission is currently reviewing the parking proposal, which would raise the floor by two levels and convert those levels into parking with 700 spaces each. Any other changes would likely have to go before the historical commission.

See here and here for the background. We’ll know more on Tuesday, but the main piece that’s missing from all this is how it will be paid for. I feel confident saying there will be no bond referendum, for what I assume are obvious reasons, but beyond that we’ll just have to wait. The late El Franco Lee liked this plan, so one presumes it will receive support from current Commissioner Locke. There’s nothing about this that would prevent any of the multiple proposals for repurposing the Dome from happening along with this. Perhaps having this in place would make the whole thing more attractive to the long-hoped-for private investor. Who knows? I look forward to seeing what gets presented tomorrow.

Hey, look, it’s another Astrodome proposal

Meet A-Dome Park.

A Houston architect is touting a new idea for the Astrodome’s overhaul, urging the county to avoid an indoor park concept and instead strip the structure down to its bones.

The concept, dubbed “A-Dome Park,” is being advanced by James Richards and Ben Olschner, architects who previously worked at Herzog & de Meuron, the firm behind London’s Tate Modern and the Olympics stadium in Beijing.

As Richards sees it, Harris County’s current plans for the stadium — essentially, an indoor park and events space — aren’t particularly unique, especially given the proliferation of world-class parks in Houston and abundant event space that already exists at the NRG Center complex.

[…]

Richards, who moved to Houston in 2014, isn’t a fan of the current concept, with its emphasis on indoor activity, and he thinks the 2013 vote is a testament to the fact that Harris County residents aren’t either.

He believes that despite the region’s brutal summer heat, few Houstonians will want to spend their free time within an indoor park — especially given the relatively mild weather Houston enjoys the rest of the year — and he’s skeptical that the plans for vast amounts of plant life inside the facility are realistic. He also doesn’t think restaurants and others vendors on the first floor of the Dome (part of the ULI proposal) will actually be financially viable, based on the number of people who will visit the indoor park on a regular basis.

So instead, Richards and his partners on the “A-Dome park” proposal are envisioning something totally different. The idea isn’t to just preserve the Astrodome but to highlight — and even expose — the architectural elements that made it world famous.

Richards wants to strip the structure down to its steel bones. The idea is to remove the non-structural surfaces of both the Astrodome exterior and interior, leaving only the dramatic steel frame, which would be painted to prevent decay. The plan, Richards argues, highlights the innovative engineering that went into the dome structure itself while also creating a space that offers a completely unique experience.

The A-Dome Park website is here, and you can see plenty of pictures of the proposal at the Urban Edge post. If some of this sounds familiar, it’s because it is similar in nature to Ryan Slattery’s strip-the-Dome-to-its-skeleton idea from 2013. The first comment on the Urban Edge post deals with that, so good look and see what you think. I’m not enough of a design nerd to comment on the merits of one versus the other or the current Harris County plan. I will just say again, generating ideas for the Dome is easy enough – I’ve long since lost count of the plans and proposals that have been floated, and every time anyone writes about the Dome more people will chime in with “what about this…” suggestions. The hard part is finding one proposal that can get enough support to be politically and financially viable, since the stumbling block all along has been how to pay for it. Maybe this is it, maybe the county’s plan is it, maybe it’s something else, who knows? I’m sure Judge Emmett would like to have whatever it is in motion by the time he steps down. Swamplot has more.

Help a brick out

From Swamplot:

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

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

Here’s a fuller description from the fundraising page:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three I-45 updates

From The Highwayman:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revisiting the historic preservation ordinance

This sort of thing is always fun.

Houstonians who live in historic districts, including the Old Sixth Ward, the Heights and the High First Ward, weighed in this week on proposed updates to the city’s rules that create areas preserved from most demolition and new construction, agreeing with some proposed changes, pointing out loopholes for unwanted development and taking the opportunity to complain about the current process.

The proposed revisions to the historic ordinance, which would enable creation of a process to create and manage historic districts, were presented in summary at a public hearing Wednesday night. The meeting was part of the efforts of the Planning and Development Department and the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission to refine the ordinance.

[…]

The ordinance, updated in 2010, created permanent protections for historic structures in the 22 designated districts and established a process for creating a district. The proposed changes strive to streamline approvals for requested changes within a district, provide guidance to the commission and create a more efficient process.

Many of those issues came to light Wednesday, even as it was acknowledged that historic districts are some of the strongest land-use laws Houston offers to property owners. A large contingency showed up from the Old Sixth Ward, one of the oldest districts. The neighborhood is near downtown, with houses dating back to the 1800s.

Resident Jane West asked the panel to consider how new construction is monitored in historic districts. She cited an instance in which a noncontributing structure was demolished but then replaced with a building that was larger than what was there before.

“We want to make sure the districts are a shield for neighborhoods, not a sword for developers,” West said.

Others from various districts in Montrose, the Heights and First Ward complained of the vague design requirements, the lack of term limits on the historic commission panel and the seemingly arbitrary process for approvals.

See here for the last update. All things considered, this has been fairly low-key. People can get mighty exercised about this, but at least by this story it sounds more like grumbling than outrage. I suppose that could change when the HAHC presents its recommendations at the next meeting, on August 5. But for now, this seems manageable.

Meanwhile, in other preservation news:

The Heights Theatre anchors a strip of vintage buildings converted into restaurants and small shops on buzzing 19th Street, its red-and-white Art Moderne sign a beacon to the neighborhood since the theater opened its doors nearly 90 years ago and screened a silent Western for 20 cents a ticket. Today, it’s a home for art exhibits and special events and could soon be hosting concerts.

In downtown Houston, the three-story building at 308 Main blends in on its block of colorful and thriving Victorian commercial buildings, the last vestiges of Main Street’s 19th century past. Evenings these days, its balcony and downstairs bar draw young professionals to the to the nightlife offerings along the street.

Both the downtown and Heights buildings survived fires over the decades and have seen many businesses and concepts come and go, as interest waxed and waned in their respective neighborhoods. Both survive as destinations, thanks in part to their historic feel.

On Wednesday, a unanimous Houston City Council granted both structures the strongest form of historic protection in free-wheeling, tear-down Houston. Members voted to make the Heights Theatre, 339 W. 19th, and the Victorian at 308 Main protected landmarks. Two houses built by famed architects also were granted landmark status.

The commercial buildings on Main and on 19th received the highest level of protection in the city with “protected landmark” designation. This means the facade of the structures cannot be altered without approval and they cannot be torn down, except in cases of extreme hardship for the property owner.

The protected status is more sweeping than historic landmark, in which owners can tear down or alter their properties after a 90-day waiting period to allow time for negotiations with preservationists.

Built in 1929 with a Mission-style stucco façade, and updated in 1935 with an Art Moderne-style exterior, the Heights Theatre was partially destroyed by arson in 1969 and sat vacant until the late 1980s. It has since gone through a series of uses, including an antique store.

The property will soon be sold and become a music venue, said current owner Gus Kopriva, a Heights resident who has owned the property with his wife Sharon for 25 years.

The couple sought the landmark status to make sure the property was protected before it was sold to another owner. It currently serves as an art gallery and event space. Preservation was a stipulation in the sale of the building.

“The theater has always been an icon of the Heights,” Kopriva said. “It was important to us to make sure it was preserved.”

Cool. I’d love to see that place get used for something along the lines of its original purpose. And it’s great when the owners see historic designation as an asset. I look forward to seeing what its next phase looks like.

The Dome at 50

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

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

ULI releases its Astrodome plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015 Mayoral manifesto: Quality of life and other issues

Preliminaries
Transportation
Public safety

A few quick hits on topics that didn’t fit elsewhere.

Making Houston affordable again

Remember when Houston was an inexpensive place to live? If you haven’t been here at least a decade – more like two decades, for some neighborhoods – you probably don’t. The transformation of so many parts of Houston, especially the Inner Loop, has been a big positive in many ways, but it’s come with a big price tag. Many longtime residents of many established and historic areas have been forced out, and the vast majority of housing construction today is high end. Houston’s longstanding reputation as an affordable place to live is no longer valid, and it’s having an effect. If nothing else, you have to wonder what will happen to some of these luxury apartment/condo complexes if the price of oil stays down around $50 a barrel. Mayors of course are limited in what they can do about this sort of thing, but there are some good policy ideas to encourage affordable housing development out there. I’d at least like to know that the Mayoral candidates consider this to be something worth thinking and talking about.

Historic preservation

In 2010, City Council passed a historic preservation ordinance, after a lot of work, debate, and contentiousness. Four years later, that ordinance is still a work in progress, with tweaks being made to help developers and homeowners better understand what it means and how to follow it. What sorts of “tweaks” would the Mayoral candidates like to see made to this ordinance? More broadly, and as a tangent to the point about how many established neighborhoods have been transformed by the recent real estate boom, what can – or should – be done to protect the interests of longtime residents in these neighborhoods and the houses that gave them their character in the first place? How do you balance their interests with those of developers?

One Bin For All

I trust everyone is familiar with the One Bin For All proposal. Last year, the city received numerous RFPs to build the kind of all-in-one plant that would revolutionize solid waste management and forever put to rest Houston’s abysmally low recycling rate. At this point, we don’t know where that stands, and while Mayor Parker and Sustainability Director Laura Spanjian have steadfastly advocated for this idea, they have also said that if it isn’t feasible then the city won’t pursue it. Many environmental groups – though not all – have been critical of the One Bin plan, preferring that the city do more to expand single-stream recycling. This is a big decision that Mayor Parker and City Council will eventually make. What direction do the Mayoral candidates want them to go? Who likes the One Bin idea, and who is skeptical of it? For those in the latter group, what would they do to increase recycling in Houston? If One Bin isn’t the answer, what steps can the city take beyond encouraging recycling – such as reducing the amount of food waste being sent to landfills – to do better and spend less on garbage?

State versus city

I discussed the threat of so-called “sanctuary cities” legislation in the Public Safety entry, but that is far from the only bill that seeks to limit or dictate what cities like Houston would be allowed to do by the Legislature. From payday lending to equal rights ordinances to plastic bags to who knows what else, the Lege – egged on by Governor Abbott – has declared war on local control. Are any of the Mayoral candidates – other than Rep. Sylvester Turner, who can safely be assumed to be dealing directly with these issues – even thinking about this stuff? Because if they wait until the voters are presumed to be tuning in, it will be too late. We need to be hearing from these guys now. If they don’t like some of the items on the Legislature’s to do list, they need to say so now. If they do like these things, then we need to hear them say that, too. Either way, now is not the time to be silent. If any of these bills pass, it will have a profound effect on Houston. The next Mayor of Houston might want to get out in front of that.

I could go on, but I think that will do for now. I realize this is a long campaign, and I realize the average voter is assumed to have the attention span of a gnat. I also realize that some of these candidates don’t have fully fleshed-out positions on everything yet, though let’s be honest here – most of the declared candidates – three of whom so far are repeat customers – have been running for Mayor for many years now. They’ve just made it official now that they can raise money. They’ve all got advisers and consultants and political directors and what have you out the wazoo. Let’s put some of that brainpower to the test. Anyone can be against potholes. I want to know what these guys are for, and it’s neither unfair nor too early to start asking where they stand, at least in general, on these issues. I hope you’ll join me on that, and will do the same for the issues that are important to you.

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?

Making room for quail

Preservation isn’t just for urban elites.

Jim Willis knows it isn’t easy to love a prairie. The quilt of burnt orange and brown that covers his Colorado County land can’t awe or inspire the way a canyon or mountain range does. But he can step onto his porch on a crisp morning, take a sip of coffee and hear the three-count whistle of the northern bobwhite quail.

The moment is enough to reveal the subtle beauty of an unbroken terrain of yellow Indiangrass, little bluestem and other tall grasses. That’s because the land was barren of wildlife not too long ago, unable to support anything but cattle.

Willis began restoring his overgrazed pasture into native grasslands more than a decade ago, placing him at the fore of a new prairie populism in Texas. Across the state, rural landowners, a new generation of urban refugees, are removing acres of Bermuda grass and creating pioneer-era landscapes that require less water and chemicals and provide habitat for a variety of critters.

The push is in response to the steady decline of the quail, an iconic Texas bird that uses the tall grasses for shelter and food. But the benefits of native grasslands go beyond one species, Willis said.

“Quail really is a canary in a coal mine,” he said. “If they’re healthy, you have a healthy ecosystem. ”

Texas is known for its bucolic hill country and mysterious piney woods, the rugged beauty of Big Bend National Park and a seemingly endless coast. But it’s largely a prairie state, and those grasslands are disappearing because of modern agricultural practices, development and fragmentation by roads and ranchettes.

The changing landscape has put quail in peril, with the bird’s numbers dropping 75 percent over the past 30 years or so, according to state biologists.

A carpetlike pasture planted for cattle grazing “might as well be a Wal-Mart parking lot” to quail, said Jon Hayes, a biologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The native grasses grow in clumps, which allow the bird to nest, forage and hide from predators, heat and wind.

To help reverse the quail population’s decline, Texas lawmakers last year earmarked $6 million for restoring prime habitat, expanding research into the species and educating landowners.

The state’s primary goal is to rehabilitate prairie in three areas: the Interstate 35 corridor just south of Dallas, the rolling plains near Oklahoma and a 12-county cluster beyond the westward march of Houston’s sprawl. The key is to connect restored plots to one another to increase the bird’s odds of survival.

Already, what began with 225 acres owned by Willis now stretches across 40,000 acres. That includes seven miles of contiguous reconstructed prairie that connects his property to the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, about 60 miles west of Houston.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the A&M Agrilife Extension Service have lots of information about the decline of the quail population in Texas and the ongoing efforts to do something about it. As a to-the-bone urbanite, I know nothing about any of this, but I’m glad there are people who do and who care enough to try to make it better. I wish them the best of luck.

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 lot protections

Good luck.

A stretch of Riverside Terrace, a rebound neighborhood known for its “large lots, mature trees and a view of the downtown skyline,” will be the first residential pocket in Houston where homeowners can use a new city code provision to fend off unwanted townhome, condo or residential tower developments.

The City Council [recently] voted to grant residents in the 68-lot swath the right to establish a “special minimum lot size area,” a tool created by recent changes in the Houston development code to counter some of the tearing down, paving over and skyward building across the region.

The measure allows qualifying residential zones of up to 500 contiguous homes to curtail densely packed projects by setting a minimum lot size for each structure. A townhome developer, for example, could not build multiple units in place of a single-family home.

Previously, neighborhoods could apply for similar protections on a block-by-block basis.

Councilman Brad Bradford, who represents Riverside Terrace, has been watching a slow gentrification of the neighborhood near South MacGregor Way and Texas 288, about 3 miles from downtown, for about a decade. He called protecting lot sizes “very important.”

The neighborhood group granted approval on Wednesday, he said, “worked very hard to maintain the integrity of the neighborhood. Riverside Terrace is one of the last neighborhoods inside Houston proper with large lots, mature trees and a view of the downtown skyline. It’s all there.”

It’s a little odd to speak of an At Large Council member “representing” a specific neighborhood, but never mind that for now. I think the densification of Houston is a positive thing in general, but that doesn’t mean it’s a positive thing everywhere. It’s vital to let neighborhoods that have character preserve it, because once it’s gone you’ll never get it back. Good for the residents of Riverside Terrace for working to achieve this bit of history protection for themselves. Go read this Houston Press article from 2009 and click through the accompanying slideshow to learn a bit more about Riverside Terrace and what they’re fighting to maintain.

The Historical Commission, the expert panel, and the Dome

And Judge Ed Emmett, the connection between them all.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

As a group of national experts convenes to figure out what is best to do with the Astrodome, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Tuesday briefed the chairman and staff of the Texas Historical Commission about his proposal to turn the vacant stadium into an indoor park and about the repair he says is needed no matter what happens to the 1965 structure.

Emmett met with the Urban Land Institute earlier this month, the week after unveiling his proposal to turn the county-owned Dome into the “world’s largest indoor park” and recreation area. Last week, he told reporters he hopes the county will hire the respected nonprofit to organize a panel of experts to conduct a holistic analysis of the iconic stadium and figure out how it might be reused.

On Tuesday, Emmett said the institute’s panel will convene in December. In the meantime, the panel has asked the county to prepare a series of questions it would like the panel to answer.

Emmett says he will not attempt to look for investors until the panel comes back with recommendations.

[…]

Emmett said he plans to ask the commission for permission to sell seats and continue asbestos abatement and other potential work, including power washing. He said he was told those things should not be a problem since they do not alter the appearance of the stadium.

“We’ll run everything by them,” he said. “I wanted to establish a clear line of communication so that when there are things that need to be done we don’t get stuck for months, you know, going back and forth and I think we’ve accomplished that.”

The Urban Land Institute panel should be a good way to answer my first question about Judge Emmett’s indoor park idea for the Dome. It’s great to say there are many possibilities for What To Do With The Dome, but until we can identify one compelling option we’re just flailing about. As for the Historical Commission, opening a channel of communication is a good idea. Let them know what’s going on so they can offer their input without forcing delays. I look forward to hearing what the Urban Land Institute panel comes up with.

Revising the historic preservation ordinance

Gird your loins.

Sue Lovell

Sue Lovell

Houston officials are preparing to revise the city’s historic preservation ordinance, a signature issue for Mayor Annise Parker that spurred a prolonged and divisive fight over property rights in her first term.

That contentiousness has never fully subsided in some neighborhoods, most notably the Heights, where redevelopment had seen numerous original structures razed before Parker’s sweeping revisions to the ordinance meant, for the first time, that the city’s Historical and Archaeological Commission could block owners from carrying out alterations to historic structures that it deemed inappropriate. Previously, a denial meant a 90-day wait, after which applicants could do as they wished.

The coming revisions will be modest, city officials say, but related efforts in the works may make the law’s application more predictable.

In the Heights’ seven historic districts, redevelopment has continued through the lens of the historic commission’s interpretation of the ordinance, which some residents and developers complain is arbitrary.

[…]

[Planning and Development Director Pat] Walsh said tweaks under consideration include:

  • Increasing the director’s ability to approve or deny minor alterations, preventing applicants from having to wait for approval at the historic commission’s monthly meetings; an example would be an addition to the back of the home not be visible from the street;
  • Clearing up vague or contradictory language. For instance, the ordinance says new construction projects should match “typical” structures of their type, but does not clarify what “typical” means. The law also says changes to roofs are exempt but, in another section, says roof changes are handled by staff.
  • Barring owners who make changes without city approval or violate their historic permit from receiving tax breaks for renovating historic structures, and lengthening the waiting period for applicants to get new building permits if they commit “demolition by neglect,” allowing an existing home to crumble to make construction of a new one easier.

Perhaps most important, Walsh said, are two related efforts that will not affect the wording of the law itself.

One is a pending study of the dimensions of homes in the Heights districts, providing staff and commissioners more information about how a proposed renovation compares to other homes. The other is Walsh’s commitment to pursue design guidelines for the three largest Heights districts, which generate the most activity.

It’s not terribly surprising that the preservation ordinance will need some maintenance. It’s a big change, and we have no history to go by for something like it. The story references former CM Sue Lovell, one of the main forces behind the ordinance who is now – and has been for awhile – working with developers and homeowners to get clarity on what is and isn’t allowed. All I can say is that whatever revisions are made this time, there will come a time to make more, and a time after that. This is a process, not a destination. The Leader News has more.

The Third Ward

Good story about a great historic neighborhood.

In 1872, four influential African-American ministers and businessmen pooled $800 to buy 10 acres of land along Dowling Street. That was the birth of Emancipation Park, a safe place to celebrate Juneteenth and freedom from slavery.

TSU, still thriving in the Third Ward today, got its start as the Colored Junior College in 1927. In the next 25 years, the school would grow into a four-year university with its own 53-acre campus and law school. But the intent of state leaders at the time was to preserve segregation and the notion of “separate but equal” in higher education.

The Third Ward grocery store and luncheonette that was the site of Houston’s first sit-in is long gone, replaced by a post office. At the edge of the parking lot is a state historical marker that describes the students’ nonviolent protests, which eventually led to the peaceful desegregation of lunch counters, department stores, movie theaters and other local businesses.

“I realized fairly soon that ignoring these students was not the best thing to do,” [Rev. Bill] Lawson says. “Part of my calling as a minister was to be concerned about the vulnerable. It was not to maintain the standards of the powerful, which included the Ku Klux Klan.”

The Third Ward still is a real place in the hearts and minds of most of its residents and former residents, including the self-proclaimed “queen of the Third Ward,” Beyoncé. No matter that the geographical and political demarcations that established four wards in 1839, then a fifth after the Civil War and a sixth in 1876, were essentially erased in 1905.

At that time, the city covered only 16 square miles, and none of the wards extended much more than two miles from the intersection of Main and Congress. Roughly, most of the historic Third Ward extended south and east from that dot on the map. Today, what is known as the Greater Third Ward has more than doubled in size and extends south to Old Spanish Trail and east to the University of Houston.

[…]

Problems. Issues. Controversies. Certainly there are plenty in the Third Ward.

Brown says rising property taxes are making it hard for her to stay in her beloved neighborhood. “Those taxes are making it hard for everybody. I don’t know if they’re trying to push us out.”

State Rep. Garnet Coleman is worried about the most often discussed problem in all six wards – gentrification. He welcomes new residents who want to become part of the neighborhood and respect the Third Ward traditions and culture.

For those moving in only because “they’re dying to get to downtown as fast as they can,” forget it, Coleman says. “We don’t need more three-story boxes, either.”

That’s a tall order. The Third Ward isn’t just close to downtown, it encompasses or is close to UH, Midtown, and the Museum District, too. People are going to want to live there, and short of applying historic status to various neighborhoods there’s not much you can do to prevent the three-story boxes and other high-end, non-traditional properties from being built. Personally, I’m a big fan of the foursquare brick architecture that you see around the Third Ward and the few remaining un-gentrified areas of Montrose, but I’m not buying up lots out there, either. Anyway, read the whole thing, especially if you don’t know much about the history of the Third Ward. For a town that paves over its past with brutal regularity, Houston sure has a rich one.

More on the Emmett Astrodome Park plan

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

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How about Astrodome Indoor Park?

County Judge Ed Emmett gives his vision for the Astrodome.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: Texas Leftist has more.

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

How can you argue with that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Astrodome isn’t officially a historic landmark just yet

The decision has been delayed until there can be a meeting to discuss it in Houston.

Not historic but still standing

Honoring a request by Harris County officials to table the vote and meet much closer to Houston, the Texas Historical Commission voted Wednesday at a meeting in far West Texas to postpone designating the iconic Astrodome a so-called “state antiquities landmark.”

The designation would not outright save the world’s first domed stadium from demolition, but would make the possibility of it more difficult. That’s because the county would have to get permission from the state before tearing it down or making any other substantial changes to the long-vacant stadium’s exterior.

After nearly 45 minutes of public testimony, and a motion made to approve the designation application, Chairman Matthew Kreisle said he was concerned that designation could make it more difficult for the county to strike a deal with a developer to renovate the structure.

But Kreisle, an architect, said he wanted to see local officials make a concerted effort to do so, and also try to make use of a new historic state tax credit as leverage.

Kreisle described the 25 percent tax credit, approved last year by the Legislature, as a “deal changer,” and said it poses “an opportunity to possibly look at this deal in a new light.”

“I am concerned, in my mind, if we get the designation put on it today that we may possibly make that deal harder to happen at this time,” he said before making a motion to table the item, which was seconded and approved by the commission.

[…]

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who has opposed designation for the same reasons the chairman moved to table it, said the move will create more time for him to devise yet another redevelopment plan.

“It does continue the protection but it doesn’t lock in a decision at this point,” he said.

Kreisle said he planned to reach out to Emmett to arrange some kind of meeting in Houston “where we can hear from the judge” and others.

See here, here, and here for the background. The Dome is also on the National Register of Historic Places, which is a nice honor but not much more from a practical perspective. I’m basically ambivalent about historic designation – it feels more like a gesture than anything else to me – but I will say that it would be greatly ironic if such a designation made it less likely that the Dome could be repurposed by a private investor, as that would surely increase its odds of being demolished. Finding a private investor to Do Something with the Dome is clearly Judge Emmett’s preferred outcome, so one would think he and the Commission will have some incentive to work out the kinks on this. The Commission’s website is here and their calendar of events is here, and I figure we’ll hear about the planned Houston meeting soon enough. CultureMap has more.

Yale Street Bridge replacement set to begin

And inevitably there’s an issue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The bricks of Freedmen’s Town

Surely we can do something about this.

Most in the Fourth Ward community know the lore – that freed slaves and descendants first laid the bricks on the streets 100 years ago.

Now most agree the roads need repairs, but residents and preservationists worry a recently approved city plan to remove the bricks to fix piping underneath will ruin the original streets, a key element of Freedmen’s Town designation as a National Historic District. Some activists also say the process to approve the project violated federal laws intended to preserve national historic districts.

“I’m appalled that the mayor wants to disturb those bricks like that,” resident Terrance Williams said.

More than 100 years ago, Fourth Ward residents paid $1 per brick to have the streets paved in front of their houses, said Catherine Roberts, co-founder of the Rutherford B.H. Yates Museum in Freedmen’s Town, and a major force for the area’s conservation. Not only are the bricks themselves significant, but the patterns they form tell a story. The designs at some intersections can be traced back to African crossroads – which pointed the way to safehouses for the black community – or religious traditions of the Yoruba people of West Africa.

“This is an in-the-ground cultural resource,” Roberts said. “You don’t take them out.”

Their inability to stop construction has made the community feel powerless – a community once considered the heartbeat of black Houston. Doctors, lawyers, dentists and ministers populated the area until the 1920s, when the Third and Fifth wards became more popular.

[…]

After decades of discussion and planning to install new utilities in the neighborhood, City Council approved a $5 million plan this month to repipe portions of Andrews and Wilson streets. Work is scheduled to start by early August, said Mike Cordova, project manager for the city.

Water and sewer pipes will be replaced, and then the salvageable bricks – estimated to be just one-third of those there now – will be cleaned and put back, but likely not in their original designs.

Texas Department of Transportation architect Mario Sanchez said the bricks will be regrouped at intersections rather than in their original locations. “It was determined infeasible to re-install them in their original locations, specifically because there would be a lack of continuity based on the number of salvageable bricks,” Sanchez wrote in the email to the Houston Chronicle.

That’s heartbreaking news to residents and historians, who believed that years ago they had reached a solution on upgrading the Freedmen’s Town streets. They pleaded with the city to tunnel underneath the bricks instead of moving them, and in 2007 former Mayor Bill White reached an agreement with U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee to do just that.

In a letter sent to the Chronicle from Jackson Lee to White, the congresswoman discusses the agreed-upon plan: using a combination of trenching and tunneling to put the water and sewer lines beneath the sidewalks instead of under the bricks, leaving them undisturbed.

City officials now say the streets are too narrow for tunneling, and construction costs could quadruple.

“It just wasn’t a practical way to move forward,” said council member Ellen Cohen, whose district includes Freedmen’s Town.

It always comes down to money, doesn’t it? There’s a lot more in the story about the historic preservation process and whether it’s being followed correctly, and you should read the whole thing. What it comes down to is that these bricks and these streets are a unique and very important piece of culture and history in a neighborhood that has lost so much of that culture and history to the demands of modern times. We really need to find a way to improve these streets without losing or damaging what they’re all about.

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.