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The World Cup and its possible infrastructure effects

Assuming Houston does get to be a host city for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, that could spur some major projects, for transportation and recreation and who knows what else.

Houston will not receive final word on the bid until 2020 or 2021, but officials remain optimistic the city is a strong competitor for what could be six to eight American cities, each hosting five or six matches over 30 days. That means weeks of hotel stays, restaurant and bar sales and other expenses for visitors.

Ultimately, that could pay off with long-term projects in Houston. Part of the city’s pitch to selectors is use of a new green space east of the George R. Brown Convention Center, a long-sought cap for Texas Department of Transportation’s plans for a redesigned and buried Interstate 45. Though TxDOT plans to spend $7 billion redesigning and widening the freeway, it cannot spend federal or state highway money on park space capping the buried sections.

A local World Cup committee, however, could focus on fundraising and organize and plan a park, [Doug Hall, vice-president of special projects for the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority,] said.

“The World Cup Local Organizing Committee would help raise funds for such a legacy project if it becomes a final part of the plan,” Hall said in January when officials were finalizing the city’s bid. “The Sports Authority’s tax funds can only be used on voter-approved projects and all monies are currently pledged to the existing sports stadiums.”

[…]

Only the spot along the convention center has been mentioned as a possible legacy project of a World Cup hosting. Preparations for the World Cup coming to Houston would also include numerous other upgrades and close coordination with Metro because public transit would be crucial to any events.

Metro and local organizers are already discussing some alternatives, officials said, though it will be years before final plans are prepared. In preliminary discussions, Metro has said transporting around half of the 75,000 people expected to attend soccer matches at NRG Park will require extensive bus service, along with possibly running light rail vehicles in couplings of three, as opposed to the typical two vehicles per trip.

Metro is also researching with NRG Park officials a more permanent redesign of its rail stop near NRG Park to provide shelter and possibly seating for passengers as they wait in sometimes long lines as trains depart after events packed to capacity. During major events such as Houston Texans football games and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, riders can sometimes wait 30 minutes or more for room on the train.

Some transit officials during a January discussion said a World Cup event could also spur additional coordination with the city about dedicated bus lanes in more parts of Houston, and perhaps even more.

“I am thinking that would require additional light rail,” Metro board member Troi Taylor said of the potential deluge of visitors for the World Cup.

We’re far enough out from 2026 that anything Metro might propose for the 2019 referendum could be completed by then, though anything that would require federal funds would be up against some very tight deadlines. I suppose work could be mostly done on I-45 by then as well, though I wouldn’t want to bet on that. It’s hard to know without knowing what the specific plans may be, but for sure we should be talking about it now, and working to build consensus for what we can. Anything that develops into a big political fight is a lot less likely to get done.

Here comes the FIFA World Cup

Three cheers for the three nations.

In a long-anticipated vote on Wednesday, the joint bid of the U.S., Mexico and Canada defeated Morocco, its only challenger, as 200 national soccer federations cast their ballots to cap FIFA’s annual Congress.

The three-nation bid captured 134 votes, with Morocco earning 65 from the panel and only Lebanon choosing neither option.

“This is an incredible, and incredibly important, moment for soccer in North America and beyond,” said Carlos Cordeiro, the president of U.S. Soccer.

The 2026 tournament will feature an expanded field of 48 teams — as opposed to recent editions having 32 — and will mark the first time in FIFA’s history that a three-nation bid has been awarded the showpiece event.

The joint bid’s plans call for 60 of the 80 games to be played in the United States — including all matches from the quarterfinals onward — while Canada and Mexico host 10 apiece. The final is expected to be played at MetLife Stadium, just outside New York.

See here and here for the background. I had previously said that if Three Nations won the bid that Houston would get to be a host city, but that’s not quite true, as this story notes:

In an agreement announced when the bid launched last year, the United States will stage 60 of the 80 matches, including all from the quarterfinals on, while Mexico and Canada will get 10 apiece. Twenty-three cities, including Washington and Baltimore, are in the running to become the 16 match venues. In all likelihood, 11 of the 17 proposed U.S. sites will make the cut. A decision is not expected for another two years.

[…]

Mexican venues under consideration are Monterrey, Guadalajara and Mexico City. Canada narrowed its list to Montreal, Toronto and Edmonton.

The U.S. metro areas in the running are Atlanta (Mercedes-Benz Stadium), Baltimore (M&T Bank Stadium), Boston (Gillette Stadium), Cincinnati (Paul Brown Stadium), Dallas (AT&T Stadium), Denver (Sports Authority Field), Houston (NRG Stadium), Kansas City (Arrowhead Stadium), Los Angeles (Rose Bowl and the new NFL stadium), Miami (Hard Rock Stadium), Nashville (Nissan Stadium), New York (MetLife Stadium), Orlando (Camping World Stadium), Philadelphia (Lincoln Financial Field), San Jose (Levi’s Stadium), Seattle (Century Link Field) and Washington (FedEx Field).

Given Houston’s track record with Super Bowls and Final Fours, not to mention international friendly soccer matches, I feel good about our chances, but there are no guarantees. In the meantime, US Soccer is involved in a bid for the 2027 Women’s World Cup as well, so who knows, maybe we’ll get a twofer. Slate and ThinkProgress have more.

Houston makes final cut for FIFA 2026 bid

Now it’s up to FIFA.

The Houston Dynamos might have to make some room: Space City has been included in the bid to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup.

On Thursday, officials announced that Houston is one of 23 cities that are a part of the “United Bid,” a joint bid by Canada, Mexico and the U.S. to host the World Cup.

If the bid is successful, Houston could see international teams battling it out at NRG Stadium.

“Canada, Mexico, and the United States have joined together to deliver a United Bid that offers FIFA and its member associations the power of unity, the promise of certainty, and the potential of extraordinary opportunity,” John Kristick, Executive Director of the United Bid said in a news release.

See here for the background. The original list had 49 venues in 44 cities, so it was about fifty-fifty for Houston to make the cut. At this point, if United Bid wins, we’re in. I’ll definitely buy some tickets if we do. US Soccer has more.

The Sports Authority at 20

A few stadia, a little mission creep. Where has the time gone?

As the Harris County Houston Sports Authority celebrated its 20th anniversary Monday night with a reception for current and former directors and board members, it moves into its third decade as a considerably different agency than the one that came into being in 1997.

While the city-county agency continues collecting and distributing the hotel-motel and rental car taxes that funded the billion-dollar construction cost of Minute Maid Park, NRG Stadium and Toyota Center, its more visible function these days is as a sports marketing arm that hopes to bring another NCAA Final Four, an MLB All-Star Game, the Pan American Games and other events to the city.

J. Kent Friedman, the board’s current chairman for more than a decade, jokes while that his predecessors – former Texas Secretary of State Jack Rains and Houston developer Billy Burge – presided over an eventful construction boom from the late 1990s into the early 2000s, his role is considerably less glamorous.

“We’re like the folks with the broom walking behind the elephant,” Friedman said.

It’s a pithy quip for a time frame that involves less flying dirt but still confronts Friedman and executive director Janis Burke with significant decisions and negotiations as the authority hopes to squeeze more years out of three buildings that are, in terms of their initial lease agreements, middle-aged.

Basically, at this point the mission of this committee that was originally formed to get NRG Stadium (née Reliant Sstadium), Toyota Center, and Minute Maid (née Enron) Park built encompasses three things: Handling the bond finances for said stadia, negotiating lease extensions for the occupants of same, and trying to bring big sporting events to Houston. They’ve done a pretty good job with the latter, and I suppose if they didn’t exist some other organization would have to be formed to do that work. I hope they do at least as good a job with item #2, because I don’t want to think about what might happen in the event one of those venues is deemed uninhabitable by its tenant. So good luck with that.

(The story mentions in passing the litigation with HCHSA’s bond insurer, saying they are “three years removed” from it. The last story I saw was that an appeals court had reinstated the lawsuit, which had been previously dismissed. Doesn’t sound like a resolution to me, but I’m too lazy to google around and see if there are further updates.)

Houston part of bid for 2026 FIFA World Cup

Nice.

Houston and NRG Stadium are on an official list for cities and venues that may be considered to host a FIFA World Cup match if the event comes to North America in 2026.

The United Bid Committee of the United States, Mexico and Canada began its outreach for cities to declare interest to serve as a host city by sending Requests for Information to 44 cities throughout the continent.

The list is comprised of 49 stadiums in and around 44 cities that will be considered for inclusion in the official bid that will be sent to FIFA by March 16, 2018.

The list includes 37 stadiums in 34 U.S. cities. Other Texas stadiums are the Cotton Bowl, AT&T Stadium and the Alamodome.

[…]

After cities declare their interest, the UBC will review the submissions and will issue a short list of cities by late September. The UBC will then provide more detailed bid documentation to the cities and conduct meetings to discuss questions as candidate cities prepare their final bid, which is due in early January.

The UBC plans to include 20-25 venues in its final bid to FIFA.

See here for a list of potential host cities and stadia. Basically, for NRG to get one or more games, we would have to make the cut for the final bid, which looks like a strong bet at this time, and then the North America contingent would have to be awarded the event by FIFA; Morocco is the other bidder in competition. The 2026 Cup is the first one with the expanded 48-team field, so there will be more games to be played. FIFA will make its announcement around the time of the 2018 Cup.

How much will the county get repaid for Super Bowl activities?

Quite possibly not very much, as it turns out.

After the New England Patriots stunned the Atlanta Falcons with a storybook comeback in Super Bowl LI, after the crowds drained away and the national spotlight left Houston, Harris County officials turned to organizers and asked to be repaid for security and around-the-clock support, part of $1.3 million the county spent on America’s biggest sporting event.

The answer, so far: Don’t count on it.

Super Bowl Host Committee officials say they would like to reimburse taxpayers but are not obligated to because the county did not, in its offers of support for the weeklong event, negotiate that it be compensated or repaid by organizers. The city of Houston did and has been repaid $5.5 million by the host committee.

Now, five months after the game, the back-and-forth has some local leaders questioning the costs borne by the county for the game, which was in the county-owned NRG Stadium at no cost to the National Football League, and whether the county will provide similar support in the future.

“It is very shortsighted,” said Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle. “There will be future events, future Super Bowls.”

County officials could not say why they did not negotiate a repayment agreement when they decided to support Houston’s bid for the Super Bowl in 2013 – instead offering a resolution of support for the game guaranteeing some assistance at no cost to the NFL. It is unclear if the county asked the host committee for a guarantee of compensation or reimbursement then.

A spokesman for Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said, as far as Emmett was concerned, a resolution like the county passed in 2013 would “never be used again.”

“The judge has now made clear that, before any future Super Bowls or major events like these transpire at a county-owned facility like NRG stadium, that there is going to have to be some type of an agreement where the county receives a share of the revenue from that,” said Joe Stinebaker, Emmett’s spokesman.

The debate over public spending for professional sports has gained steam in recent years as governments find themselves stretched to cover essential services and taxpayers are more aware of their support of multi-million dollar businesses, said Mark Conrad, director of the Sports Business Program at the Gabelli School of Business at Fordham University.

Conrad said the NFL “does not have to be nice” and will continue to push for any public support it can get.

“If I would predict, I would think the county is going to be eating the million dollars-plus,” Conrad said.

Keep this in mind the next time someone tries to tell you that the county is better-organized than the city. One can certainly argue that neither the city nor the county should have to enter into such detailed, technicalities-laden negotiations with a multi-billion-dollar private enterprise for payment of these relatively paltry sums. The NFL could just pay for everything up front, or the city and county could just handle it themselves on the grounds that the investment is worth it. But this is the way it is, and the county is at the end of the reimbursement line because they didn’t dot all their I’s. Let that be a lesson going forward.

More on the Whitmire Astrodome bill

I still don’t care for this.

All this and antiquities landmark status too

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett voiced concern Tuesday that a bill filed by a veteran state senator jeopardizes the county’s plan to revitalize the Astrodome, adding that county representatives would continue to try to persuade legislators to support the $105 million project.

Emmett said state Sen. John Whitmire’s bill, the Harris County Taxpayer Protection Act, was misleading and that Whitmire’s statements that some Astrodome renovation funds could be spent on Minute Maid Park or the Toyota Center were “demonstrably incorrect.”

“This bill is an example of state government making it more difficult for local government to do its job,” Emmett said.

[…]

At a press conference Tuesday in Austin, Whitmire and other state senators from the Houston area gathered to express their support of legislation that would effectively block – or at least delay – Emmett’s plan.

Whitmire noted that voters four years ago defeated a $217 million bond package that would have renovated the Astrodome and transformed it into a street-level convention hall and exhibit space,

“With the dire problems we have with home flooding, too few deputies, roads still in disrepair … I have to represent my constituents and say, ‘Go back and get voter approval,'” Whitmire said. “This puts in a very good safeguard that the public vote be honored.”

Whitmire was joined Tuesday by Democratic Sens. Borris Miles and Sylvia Garcia and Republican Sen. Paul Bettencourt, whose districts include parts of Harris County.

“This is a vote that the public expects to take,” Bettencourt said. “They’ve taken it in the past.”

Garcia took issue with the county’s plans to spend $105 million to create new parking before deciding how the Astrodome would be re-purposed. Voters need to hear the entire plan before any construction starts, Garcia said.

“I’ve always loved the Astrodome. I would assist the county commissioners court and anybody who wants to keep it alive,” Garcia said. “However, I don’t think this is the right way to get there.”

See here for the background. I guess I’m in a minority here, but I still disagree with this. When the time comes to spend money on NRG Stadium improvements, as some people want us to do, will we vote on that? (To be fair, not everyone is hot for Harris County to spend money on NRG Stadium.) If bonds are floated, sure. That’s what we do. (*) If not, we won’t. I don’t see why it’s different for the Astrodome. And however well-intentioned this may be, I’m still feeling twitchy about the Lege nosing in on local matters. I can also already see the lawsuit someone is going to file over the language of the putative referendum, however it may turn out. So I ask again, is this trip really necessary? I’m just not seeing it.

(*) Campos notes that we did not vote on Mayor White’s pension obligation bonds, as apparently there’s a state law that doesn’t require it. I’m sure there’s a story that requires at least two drinks to tell behind that. My assumption that we always vote on borrowing authority may be wrong, but my point that we don’t usually vote on general revenue spending still stands.

Super Bowl security

There will be a lot. You may or may not get to hear about it.

When an expected 1  million people descend on Houston for 10 days of Super Bowl concerts, contests and championship football, they will be protected – and watched – by a security operation built on secrecy, technology and the combined efforts of dozens of agencies.

Unlike in recent Super Bowls, however, the public here won’t likely see lines of officers with fatigues, military-style rifles and armored vehicles.

The message for visitors? Relax and enjoy the fun.

“We don’t think we need to display a heavy militaristic presence to provide a safe environment,” said Executive Assistant Houston Police Chief George Buenik, who heads the event’s public safety committee. “We are keeping it a lower visible presence, meaning we are not going to be displaying all of our resources and assets, just like we are not getting into numbers or specifics. A lot of our security plan is what we consider confidential.”

[…]

The hype, media attention, massive crowds and more than 100 million expected television viewers make for an over-the-top party but also offer a unique challenge for law enforcement.

Keeping such events safe has grown even more complex in recent years, with the proliferation of terrorist attacks and new technology and social media that can connect or inspire like-minded persons.

The Houston events will be spread out across the city, from the football game at NRG Stadium to live concerts, fan festivals and other events at Discovery Green and the George R. Brown Convention Center 13 miles away.

Lakewood Church – which sits between the two sites in a former indoor sports arena near Greenway Plaza – will host an NFL Gospel Celebration.

Law enforcement agencies have been preparing for the events since not long after Houston was selected in May 2013 to host the big game.

Delegations have been sent to the last three Super Bowls to learn and figure out what might be done differently in the Bayou City. Houston has experience with big crowds, having previously hosted the Super Bowl in 1974 and 2004 and other big events.

The city is expected to spend about $5.5 million, mostly for security, but that is expected to be reimbursed by the game’s host committee.

The federal government also is covering some security costs, with the FBI; Homeland Security; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and other agencies participating, though those details are – not surprisingly – not available.

Local preparations have included combing through NRG Stadium and other Super Bowl-related venues and installing additional surveillance cameras in key areas, but authorities decline to reveal exactly what they are doing.

NRG Stadium will be surrounded by a special zone, where police will control foot traffic and commercial vendors. And the nearby Astrodome – which originally had been considered for special events – will remain shuttered.

Flight restrictions will be in place for certain aircraft, and a “No Drone Zone” is expected to be declared, as it has for previous Super Bowls.

And local law enforcement officers are racking their brains to think of new threats they might have missed. Representatives of various local, state and federal entities gathered in recent days in a conference room at NRG Stadium to think up new scenarios and how they would respond.

I don’t remember what the number of visitors for Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004 was. I do remember that the number far exceeded the total number of seats available in Reliant Stadium, enough to make me wonder what these people were traveling for, if they couldn’t see the actual game. What I’m getting at is that I don’t know if that “one million people descending on Houston” estimate is realistic or not, but based on past history it is a lot higher than you might think. Regardless, I’m sure we’re all relieved to know that the city will be reimbursed for its police and other Super Bowl security-related expenditures. My general advice to avoid the area at all costs unless you really have to or really want to remains in effect.

The Complete Transportation Guide To Super Bowl LI

For which the tl;dr version is don’t drive in or near downtown if you can at all help it.

More than 1 million people are expected to converge on downtown Houston during the week leading up to Super Bowl LI on Feb. 5, officials emphasized Tuesday as a transportation guide for the festivities was unveiled for visitors and locals alike.

[…]

The transportation guide – part of a #KnowBeforeYouGo social media campaign – details options for efficient movement around downtown, Midtown, the Uptown-Galleria community and areas surrounding NRG Stadium, the game venue. The manual can be found at www.housuperbowl.com/transportation – which is an area of the Houston Super Bowl Host Committee website.

Among new features for 2017:

There will be prepaid downtown daily parking available beginning in January via the committee’s app for motorists to reserve spaces for light rail passes.

Super Bowl Live downtown will feature a bike valet for those who prefer to travel on two wheels.

Free shuttles will circulate in downtown and Midtown; an Uptown-Galleria area link to downtown from Feb. 1 to Feb. 5 is $2 each way.

A game-day shuttle between the Galleria area and NRG Stadium will be $2 each way.

Metro will have extended rail hours from Jan. 28 to Feb. 5 beginning around 4 a.m. and running until at least midnight daily.

Click here for the official guide. My advice, if you work downtown, is to take the week off. I’m already getting a cold sweat thinking about how many tourists I’m going to have to dodge in the tunnels at lunchtime. A staycation is sounding pretty damn good the more I consider it. If you must come downtown, Metro or a bike are your best bets to not be part of the problem. The Press and Write On Metro have more.

No Astrodome laser light show for the Super Bowl

Alas.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Organizers have nixed a proposal to use high-tech lasers to project dazzling images of Houston’s culture and history onto and through the roof of the Astrodome during Super Bowl LI.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said the NFL turned down the proposal — the brainchild of two recent Rice University graduates — over security concerns of having people enter and exit the dome around game time.

“We made all the intros and this, that and the other, but it wasn’t a great surprise,” Emmett said. “The NFL once they locked down that whole campus out there, they just don’t want people coming in and out.”

[…]

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the league had looked into the light show idea “but are now considering lighting the outside of the building for the entire week and on Super Bowl Sunday.”

“We have not finalized plans, but this remains under consideration,” McCarthy said.

Emmett said officials were briefly considering holding a reception in the dome during Super Bowl festivities, but that’s not happening now, either. He said the Dome will mostly be used for storage and staging purposes during the sporting event.

A Super Bowl host committee spokeswoman said “there will be no official events at the Astrodome” during Super Bowl weekend, and said she had no information about how the Astrodome might be used during Super Bowl weekend or why the light show was nixed.

See here for the background. Too bad, this sounded like a fun idea to me, but you know how the NFL is. Maybe some of us can get together before the game, hold up lighters, and sing “Another Brick In The Wall”. It’s the thought that counts.

Does it matter why infrastructure was improved?

I say no, but maybe that’s just me.

In the days leading up to the nation’s biggest sporting event, thousands of visitors will use Broadway to travel from the airport to downtown hotels and other spots. Work on gravel paths, trees and lighting is expected to be done by the end of the year, one of a series of projects across the Houston area aimed at polishing the city’s image.

It’s an effort that Hollinquest, 57, can appreciate. But she can’t help but think about the discolored, sagging second-story walkway in her apartment that isn’t being fixed.

Others living along the street talk about speeding cars putting pedestrians at danger, or the shooting that recently happened a block away from the corridor in daylight. They represent the real problems that will likely remain even after millions of dollars in infrastructure and beautification projects are completed, a juxtaposition that hasn’t gone unnoticed by residents.

“It’s a shame they want to improve stuff just because the Super Bowl is coming,” said Hollinquest.

Such spending raises a question of priorities, said Victor Matheson, a professor at Holly Cross in Worcester, Mass., whose research has questioned the economic impact of events like the Super Bowl.

Matheson acknowledges that the Super Bowl brings in necessary investment to neighborhoods that might not otherwise occur. But it tends to be in areas frequented by tourists.

[…]

The east side of downtown is being transformed with the investment of roughly $300 million in hotel taxes by Houston First, the city’s convention agency. A renovated George R. Brown Convention Center is having its façade opened up with walls of glass offering sweeping views of Discovery Green park and a reinvented Avenida de las Americas below, with the street shrinking from eight lanes to two to better accommodate pedestrians and restaurants boasting sidewalk patios.

The convention center and the adjacent Partnership Tower – a 10-story edifice, also built by Houston First – offer a good view of the new 1,000-room Marriott Marquis and an accompanying parking garage, which benefitted some from hotel tax revenue.

The area around NRG Stadium has also seen significant work. A redevelopment authority for the area around the stadium has raised more than $3 million for road maintenance, new sidewalks, trees, other greenery, new signs and LED street lights.

The city’s public works department is also carrying out $7.7 million in repairs on 3.8 miles of roads around the stadium – chiefly Main, Fannin, Cambridge and Westridge – either by laying fresh asphalt or replacing damaged portions of concrete streets.

I get that areas that are more visible to visitors are being prioritized, and that the areas that are getting worked have mostly needed it for a long time and still need more than what they’re getting. You do have to wonder how long some of this stuff would have been left undone had it not been for the Super Bowl. But in real life stuff gets done only because of some external stimulus all the time. Sometimes events do change priorities. And in this particular case, the cause of the changed priorities was also the source of some of the funding to pay for it. Most of what is being done will last well past the game itself. I say the fact that it all got done is what matters.

Time once again to talk about the Super Bowl and its economic impact

We’re less than 100 days out from Super Bowl LI here in Houston. I don’t know how much people who are not directly involved in the planning and execution of it are thinking about that.

The economic benefits of hosting a Super Bowl and other major events have long been a matter of debate, however. Houston’s host committee has yet to release its impact analysis, but these reports typically estimate that Super Bowls generate economic activity in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Academics who study such events generally find the added activity, with all the costs taken into account, is much smaller.

“I can’t tell you whether there will be a zero net impact or a modest positive one,” says Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College who has long studied the sports industry, “but it’s not going to be large.”

Houston, though, may be better prepared to benefit from the Super Bowl than other cities, for several reasons. First, there isn’t much winter tourism in Houston to displace, as in other Super Bowl cities such as New Orleans and Miami, so the net gain here is much greater. Second, Houston’s hospitality industry needs the business, with new hotels built during the shale boom struggling with lower-than-expected occupancy rates as business travel declined.

Third – and perhaps most important – the city really could use a period of prolonged exposure to show business leaders and the millions watching at home that it’s not just a stodgy oil town like it was in the early 2000s.

[…]

The accounting firm PwC has estimated the economic impact of the Super Bowl since 2003, pegging the game’s value to Houston in 2004 at about $130 million in direct spending. It estimated that the last Super Bowl, number 50, was worth $220 million to the San Francisco Bay Area.

Cities have gotten better at making the most of Super Bowl week, said Adam Jones, a PwC analyst. By planning events within a relatively small radius so visitors spend more time on experiences than getting to them, cities can capture greater returns.

Houston has done that, with NFL Live at Discovery Green — a 10-day music and food-filled festival open to the public — only a few minutes from NRG Stadium via light rail or taxi. Additional bus and shuttle lines will be available should guests want to venture to the Galleria as well.

“What we’ve seen within the past five years is communities going out, learning what has worked, what hasn’t worked in cities that preceded them,” Jones said. “We continue to see year over year improvement in the model.”

University of Houston economist Bill Gilmer looked at additional tax revenues generated during the 2004 Super Bowl, about $5 million, and estimated the 2017 edition would bring in an extra $6.6 million in sales taxes for the city plus another $2.2 million in hotel occupancy taxes and $6.8 million for Metro.

Longer-term benefits are harder to measure. The city’s tourism promotion arm, HoustonFirst, said it was able to go after bigger conventions when the Hilton Americas was completed in 2004. That added 1,200 rooms directly connected to the convention center, and the Marriott Marquis will have a similar effect. The city booked a record number of room nights for future conventions in 2015 and expects to break the record again this year, according to HoustonFirst.

We’ve discussed this a few times before. I’m sure that the economic benefit of hosting a Super Bowl is generally overstated, but I do think there is a benefit, and I do think it’s possible that cities have learned from past experiences and academic study to maximize the benefit that is available to them. As the story notes, Houston doesn’t have much tourism trade to displace, but we do have an extensive food-and-drink sector of our economy that will surely enjoy having all these out-of-towners around. The spending that has been done on infrastructure is spending that needed to be done, and which will be a public good long after the Super Bowl people have gone home. In the end, someone will put out a number, and we can make of that what we will. Whatever that number is, I expect the city of Houston will look back on this experience and decide that it was worth it.

The Reliant Stadium area is ready for its closeup

For the Super Bowl, of course. Gotta look pretty, you know.

Currently, the area surrounding NRG Park, which includes NRG Stadium and the Astrodome, is “functional” but hardly an impression-maker for a throng of out-of-town guests, said Ed Wulfe, chairman of the Stadium Park Redevelopment Authority.

“The Super Bowl was the motivating factor the area needs,” he said. “The land around the stadium will be a focal point for the world.”

[…]

The work will focus on McNee Road, between Main and Kirby Drive; along Main, between McNee and Murworth Drive; and near the yellow parking lot on Main.

NRG will provide new branding and way-finding signs at each of the Main Street entrances. Harris County will build a new sidewalk along the south side of McNee with trees, landscaping and fencing. LED lights will be added along McNee and Murworth. TxDOT will add new sidewalks, landscaping and trees to the esplanades.

[…]

TxDOT also has plans to update the South Main corridor with more landscaping using a $310,000 grant from Keep Houston Beautiful. The agency plans to save 31 oak trees from work underway along Post Oak Boulevard and replant them in the area near the stadium.

Construction has begun and the work will continue into January.

Harris County has also been working on street repairs and striping of several streets in the NRG Park area in preparation for the Super Bowl, scheduled for Feb. 5.

(Yes, I know, it’s NRG Park now. Just assume I’m one of those annoying people who still talks about “the Summit” and “Transco Tower”, and move on.)

As the story notes, some of this work was initiated by Commissioner Gene Locke, who took the radical step of spending county money on infrastructure that was also in the city of Houston. I don’t work out that way anymore, so I can’t say what the transformation will look like, but at least as of when I last worked in that area in 2013, there were definitely some streets and sidewalks that needed work. I’m glad to see it happening.

Harris County to fix some Houston roads

Some good news from the inbox:

Gene Locke

Gene Locke

As part of an agreement approved by Houston City Council today, Harris County Precinct 1 will pay for additional street improvements worth millions of dollars within the Houston city limits by year’s end. This is a continuation of an arrangement Mayor Sylvester Turner and outgoing Commissioner Gene Locke negotiated earlier in the year. A total of $45 million of projects are planned.

“Houstonians are more concerned about seeing results than they are about which governmental entity is paying for them,” said Mayor Turner. “This is government working together to meet the needs of our shared constituents. It is city/county cooperation at its best.”

Harris County has already started work on about seven miles of City streets, including work around NRG Stadium in anticipation of Super Bowl 51. City Council’s vote today clears the way for another five plus miles of City streets to be totally reconstructed or overlaid with asphalt by Harris County in the next four months.

The following City street segments were included in today’s council action:

  • Amboy/Wayne from Liberty Road to Quitman
  • Carr Street from Mills to Quitman
  • Hiram Clarke Rd. from Beltway 8 to W. Fuqua
  • Lee Street from Semmes to Jensen
  • Noble Street from Jensen to Semmes
  • Ruth Street from Scott Street to dead-end
  • Scott Street from Elgin to Old Spanish Trail
  • Semmes Street from Lorraine to Campbell
  • Sumpter Street from Semmes to Jensen
  • Waco/Hirsch from I-10 to Clinton Drive

Council’s previous action included:

  • Ardmore from Holcombe to Holly Hall
  • Bellfort from SH 288 to MLK Blvd.
  • Buffalo Speed Way from W. Fuqua to Anderson Road
  • Crosstimbers from IH 45 to Shepherd Drive
  • El Rio from IH 610 to Holly Hall
  • Holly Hall from Fannin to SH 288
  • Homestead Road from Laura Koppe to Parker
  • Knight Road from IH 610 to Fannin
  • McNee from South Main to Kirby
  • Yellowstone from SH 288 to Scott

In order to facilitate this agreement, the City must temporarily transfer these streets to the Harris County Road Log. Once the work is finished, the streets will be transferred back to the City’s jurisdiction for ongoing maintenance.

Here’s the Chron story on this. The second list contains the streets around NRG Stadium. This is the fulfillment of a promise Commissioner Locke made a few months ago, and kudos to him for it. I hope we see more of this from Commissioner Ellis next year and afterward.

The dry run for the Super Bowl

It went pretty well.

In less than a year, the Super Bowl is expected to draw almost twice as many as the 70,000 out-of-towners who flocked here for the Final Four. More than 1 million are expected to come downtown and to NRG Park from the Houston region, presenting even greater logistical and security challenges than those posed by the Final Four.

For Super Bowl planners, the NCAA Tournament was a test to see if, after 13 years, Houston is ready for the return of America’s most popular sporting event.

“We were helping them; they’re going to help us big time, make sure that we’re ready for our event,” said Ric Campo, chairman of the Super Bowl Host Committee, of Final Four planners. “There’s a lot of great lessons to be learned. You always can learn from on the ground in terms of what works and what doesn’t.”

Organizers said the Final Four affirmed Houston’s ability to host high-profile sporting events, with dozens of city and county agencies working together to manage traffic and crowds. Approximately 75,000 people attended the semifinals and the championship games, organizers said. About 165,000 attended the maxed-out Discovery Green concert. Organizers said the value in having a free concert outweighed the possibility of having to turn people away.

More than 55,000 went to a Final Four Fan Fast – featuring games and sports – at George R. Brown Convention Center.

“The surprise would be that for the most part, things went as we had planned,” said Doug Hall, president and CEO of the Final Four local organizing committee. “You never take that for granted in the event business.”

[…]

The Final Four also highlighted how the Super Bowl will be different. Instead of four days of activities, the Super Bowl likely will span 10 days, mostly focused on downtown, Campo said, including an expo in George R. Brown Convention Center with player and football events and Houston history and culture in the streets.

Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s senior vice president for events, said the NFL will release a more detailed schedule of events in the summer.

Campo said there will be 50 percent more street space available. While some 3,500 volunteers worked the Final Four, Super Bowl organizers are hoping to recruit up to 10,000 volunteers. So far they are about halfway to that total, but Campo said the window to sign up is closing.

“You need to get involved before it’s too late,” he said.

I doubt that Houston will have any difficulty being ready for the Super Bowl. We’ve done it before, and several other major sporting events as well. The light rail system, which was brand new and had multiple issues with cars not knowing how to stay out of its way back in 2004, is mature and running mostly smoothly. Downtown is a lot more visitor-friendly than it was in 2004. Basically, as long as the weather cooperates, all should go well.

Lots of people took the train to the games

Nice.

HoustonMetro

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metro’s press release has a bit more detail:

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

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

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

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

Final Four weekend was pretty good for Houston

We’ll take it.

Beyond the basketball court, the Houston economy appears to be the big winner of the Final Four.

Across the city, several restaurants, bars and hotels reported big boosts in customers and cash flow, as an estimated 70,000 out-of-town basketball fans arrived for the NCAA men’s basketball championship. Organizers say those fans could spend $150 million in a city that could use a lift as a prolonged oil slump persists.

“I feel like it’s exceeded expectations,” said Rachel Quan, vice president of external operations for the Houston Final Four Local Organizing Committee.

Many local officials and business leaders said they view the Final Four as something of a test-run for next year’s Super Bowl. The city is sprucing up to accommodate the thousands of expected visitors with a slew of development projects – from road improvements around NRG Stadium and Hobby Airport to building the Marriott Marquis that will connect with the George R. Brown Convention Center.

The benefits of hosting major sporting events -weighing costs and crowds versus the visitor spending and promotion – have long been debated. At times, the city struggled over the weekend to accommodate the swarms of Final Four visitors. Concerts at Discovery Green in downtown were so busy that police were forced to turn people away, leading some to complain of poor planning.

The Final Four alone might not create a wave of economic growth, but is the culmination of events like the Super Bowl and the annual Offshore Technology Conference next month that have the greatest potential impact, said Barton Smith, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Houston.

“Collectively, it can be a very important part of the Houston economy,” he said.

I’ve made plenty of fun of economic impact projections for sporting events, but this at least is talking about something that has already happened, and whatever you think about those projections, it’s a different matter when a business like Phoenicia reports a big increase in sales during the period in question. As always, you still have to be careful about accepting numbers like these on their face, as some folks might have stayed home instead of going out or otherwise not spent money that they would have if there hadn’t been a big event crowding the streets and clogging up traffic. We also don’t know how much the city had to spend on maintenance, overtime, cleanup, and what have you – that figure is never taken into account in these stories. But overall it seems that local businesses got a boost from the weekend’s activities, and that’s always a good thing. Let’s hope we get more of the same from next year’s Super Bowl.

Got some free time next January?

The Houston Super Bowl Committee wants you.

As Houston prepares to host the Super Bowl next year, the Super Bowl host committee is seeking volunteers to pitch in for the big game.

The committee seeks up to 10,000 volunteers and has begun its online application process.

“Volunteers will play a critical role in the success of Super Bowl LI, here in Houston, in 2017,” host committee president and CEO Sallie Sargent said. “The positive experience our visitors will have will be in large part due to the interaction they have with our volunteers.”

The ideal candidate will have a passion for football, the city of Houston and Southern hospitality, according to the host committee.

During a 10-day period leading up to the Super Bowl, volunteers will be required to work at least three shifts consisting of six to eight hours for staff volunteers and eight to 10 hours for volunteer supervisors.

Key dates are from Jan. 27 to Feb. 5 next year. To volunteer, go here, or send an email to volunteer@housuperbowl.com. AS to whether or not you should do this, I’ll let Dan Solomon weigh in:

Snark aside, it’s both understandable why a person might want to volunteer to help with the Super Bowl—it’s the friggin’ Super Bowl! What a neat thing to be a part of!—but it’s also obvious that this is a rip-off. Extremely profitable entities shouldn’t be recruiting volunteers to do work that they should be paying people for—that’s not just good advice, it’s labor law. Organizations from the NFL to Super Bowl Host Committees to SXSW skirt minimum wage requirements all the time, of course. (This year’s Super Bowl changed its position and agreed to pay a small portion of its volunteers, who were providing manual labor to set up the halftime show, after a news report from ABC.) Still, the idea of volunteering to make even more money for an already extremely profitable organization is a bit more palatable when those who are helping out can actually go to the event. It might not be entirely legal that SXSW volunteers are rewarded with badges, access to screenings/showcases/panels, and maybe the chance to pick Ryan Gosling up at the airport, for example, but you can certainly see the reciprocal nature of the relationship. The 10,000 Houstonians who are going to be doing Lord knows what over the 10-day period that surrounds Super Bowl 51, meanwhile, appear to be getting a uniform.

Still, they’ll probably get away with it—and they’ll probably find the recruits they need too. In San Francisco, where the host committee sought 5,000 volunteers (everything is bigger in Texas), they managed to wrangle two-thirds of the people they needed in just a week. But when people question whether the Super Bowl is really the economic boon to a local economy it’s made out to be, the fact that 10,000 temporary jobs that could get money circulating in the area are instead filled with arm-waving volunteers is probably part of your answer.

So there you have it. Note that volunteers do not get a ticket to the game – seriously, 10,000 Super Bowl tickets is worth more than its weight in gold or crack – so set your expectation levels accordingly.

Gene Locke is reportedly seeking the Commissioners Court nomination

Please see update at the end of this post. There is new information at the bottom.

Remember this?

Gene Locke

Gene Locke

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Friday named Gene Locke, a former city attorney and mayoral candidate, to complete El Franco Lee’s term on Commissioners Court.

Locke, 68, a senior partner at the Andrews Kurth law firm, served as city attorney under the late Mayor Bob Lanier in the 1990s and ran for mayor in 2009, losing in a runoff to Annise Parker.

“I plan to be a hands-on, on the ground, let’s get with the program commissioner, which means that I will follow in El Franco’s footsteps,” Locke said.

He added: “This precinct belongs to El Franco Lee, and anything that I do over the next several months is dedicated to him.”

Asked if he intended to run for the post in November, Locke said, “My intention is to go back to the practice of law and enjoy my family.”

As Carl Whitmarsh first noted on Friday, and others confirmed to me at the Saturday HCDP County Executive Committee meeting, Locke is now seeking to be named as El Franco Lee’s replacement on the ballot in December, thus allowing him to run for a full four-year term. I don’t know what may have changed his thinking – the obvious answer is that being County Commissioner is an amazingly sweet gig, and who wouldn’t want to keep doing it? – but something did. One of the tidbits I learned at that CEC meeting on Saturday is that there are about 130 Democratic precinct chairs in Commissioners Precinct 1, so that’s the target electorate he needs to work to get that job. Getting a headline about using county resources to help fix some city streets (*) is a nice thing that would no doubt help with March and November voters, but the pool to fish in is quite a bit smaller than that. We’ll see how he approaches it.

Meanwhile, Rodney Ellis and Dwight Boykins, who were both at that CEC meeting, remain the most visible-to-me contestants for that job. According to the discussion thread on Whitmarsh’s Facebook post, former City Council candidate Georgia Provost, and SD13 committee chair Nat West are also throwing their hats in the ring. Another thing I learned at the CEC meeting is that in order to be considered for the replacement nomination, one of those 130 or so precinct chairs needs to make a motion to nominate you. So we won’t really know who is and isn’t in play until June 25, the day the Precinct Executive Committee meets. Stay tuned.

(*) – Am I the only one who thinks it’s weird that a story about Commissioner whose precinct is almost entirely within the city of Houston proposing to use some of his infrastructure funds on city streets (among other things) is newsworthy? What else do these funds get spent on if city streets aren’t normally included? It’s all still Harris County, isn’t it?

UPDATE: Commissioner Locke called me to say that while he has been asked to consider seeking the nomination, he has not made any decisions. He is considering it, and he said that being Commissioner offers him a platform on which he can do a lot of good, but he also reiterated what he said in that earlier story about having grandchildren he loves spending time with. The bottom line is that he said he has not made any decisions about seeking the nomination.

Who will pay for Super Bowl stadium improvements?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

ULI releases its Astrodome plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The NFL would like us to spruce things up for the Super Bowl

It’s only $50 million. What else do we have to spend it on?

Before Houston hosts Super Bowl LI in 2017, NRG Stadium needs upgrades, including Wi-Fi installation and improvements to suites and club seats, according to Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s senior vice president of events.

O’Reilly said Thursday the improvements should be paid for by Harris County. Wi-Fi was guaranteed in Houston’s Super Bowl bid that was voted on by NFL owners in 2013.

The cost could be more than $50 million, including $5 million for Wi-Fi, according to those familiar with the situation.

NRG Stadium, which opened in 2002, was the site of Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004. The stadium has undergone enhancements, including new scoreboards on each end, but more are necessary before the 51st Super Bowl will be played in February 2017.

“The 2004 Super Bowl was a huge success and a (source) of great pride for this city,” O’Reilly said. “There’s a blueprint for making the investment and ensuring you’ve got the Wi-Fi coverage across this building. It’s been done by many, if not all, of the similar-aged stadiums.

“Comparable stadiums of this age have been helped by updating, (including) suite facilities (and) club facilities. That’s lacking. In 2004 and those early years, it might have been right at the top of the league, but there’s a drop-off now.

“There are investments that need to be made to have that special Super Bowl experience – those commitments that were made within the bid when Houston was awarded the Super Bowl.”

O’Reilly was part of a five-person group from the NFL that toured the downtown area and the facilities at NRG Park on Wednesday and Thursday.

“That burden rests with the county, the folks that own the stadium and (were) part of that bid as well,” he said in regard to who should foot the bill for the improvements. “I’m surprised a bit, but there’s an opportunity to remedy that, an opportunity for people to work together, find a solution and get this done.”

Before I get to what the county has to say about that, let me refer you to what Jeff Balke has to say about it.

What is most galling about the request demand that taxpayers foot the bill for upgrades to a stadium for one single event is where they want the money to go, namely club seats and luxury suites, the areas of the stadium reserved for the wealthiest Texans fans and, in the case of the Super Bowl, only the luckiest super rich people able to finagle tickets to the “big game.”

And this is on top of the fact that NRG was the most expensive — by a mile — stadium built in Houston, the only one that did not require voter approval and, in the rush to submit a proposal to the NFL for an expansion franchise, received very little in the way of legitimate negotiation between McNair and the county, and virtually no transparency. Both Minute Maid and Toyota Center were subject to city-wide referendums, two of those in the case of the Rockets arena.

[…]

Wi-fi is a practical upgrade that will directly benefit the tens of thousands of people who attend events at NRG Stadium and the cost of around $5 million seems reasonable, considering we’ve known for some time it was an NFL requirement. But the league must be laboring under the false assumption we desperately need (never mind want, which is debatable) the Super Bowl here if it thinks Harris County citizens consider it a good use of funds to fork over $45 million in tax revenue for cushy new digs for the richest football “fans” on earth.

And, don’t bother threatening us. The city has received more than our fair share of those from sports league officials over the years, from David Stern to Paul Tagliabue and Bud Selig. Owners from Bud Adams to Les Alexander and Drayton McLane have threatened to move their teams — Adams followed through — without new digs. But at least in most of those instances, the threat was something tangible — build a new stadium or the team will leave — and the reward provided a legitimate benefit to the city (stadiums that have helped to revitalize downtown, after all).

This threat is just a bunch of jackasses in a suits extorting cash subsidies for the top one percent — not of the general populace, which would be bad enough, but the top one percent of people who will go see one game on one day in 2017. Sure, maybe these upgrades will be a nice perk for the season ticket holders who fork over hundreds of thousands a year to Bob McNair, Inc. for the privilege of cheering from the comfort of a luxury suite. But, it sure as hell isn’t doing anything for the average Houstonian, most of whom can’t afford to go to a single NFL game and many, I would wager, who have never set foot inside NRG.

It’s insulting. It’s idiotic. And it will probably get paid for anyway. Because, let’s face it, they agreed to this kind of oversight when they bid for the game. Either the county didn’t read the fine print or they all just hid it from us so we would be too far down the road to be able to argue.

So, yeah. According to the Chron story, Edgar Colon of the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., disputed the notion that Harris County ought to be on the hook for fifty million bucks. I personally would be fine with passing the bill along to the Texans. I agree with Jeff that springing for Wi-Fi updates is a reasonable request with a tangible benefit for a decent amount of people. The rest, not so much.

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?

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.

On beautifying the city for the Super Bowl

Chris Andrews has some thoughts about what Houston should and shouldn’t do in preparation for Super Bowl LI in 2017.

Things More Important Than Beautification Projects to a Super Bowl Visitor

As a sports fan, and through my own experience, I would have to guess that a visitor’s experience in a host city will be impacted mostly by:

1. Transit to and from the game
Transit is where cities as a whole may be the most vulnerable during a Super Bowl, but it will probably be the thing that people will care about the least in terms of their lasting experience as a Super Bowl visitor. Hosting major events can help raise interest in local or regional transit systems, but it can also expose deficiencies in transit planning, as evidenced in New York’s latest Super Bowl hosting. Even the “Mass Transit Super Bowl” could not live up to its name. No matter who you’re cheering for or whether you’re a VIP or tailgate fan, everyone will depend on some form of transit to get to the game. Everyone will get to the game somehow. (Hopefully the NFL will not impose the ridiculous restrictions on travel as they did with New York in 2014). Houston will be tested in 2017, but the yearly testing of the transit system with the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo had provided the city a regular opportunity to plan for the influx of transit riders.

(As a note for Houston: If plans to demolish the Astrodome and expand the NRG Park complex take shape before the Super Bowl, transit riders may find themselves walking around a complex of semi-truck loading docks and exhibition halls. The plans of the Houston Texans and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo depict “Phase 2” of their NRG Park expansion and Astrodome demolition as having additional exhibition halls and a new parking garage, which stand between NRG Stadium, the NRG Astrodome and the METRO light rail. Surely the Texas, the Rodeo and Gensler, the architecture, planning and design firm responsible for creating this plan, can do better to serve their visitors. I give them the benefit of the doubt for allowing transit riders to navigate through the exhibition halls, but this is not depicted or considered on their renderings.)

2. Stadium and official event venues
In order to even be considered to host the Super Bowl, your city needs to have an updated stadium. Official event venues typically have sponsors who are keenly aware of their image. It can be expected that at a minimum your host stadium will be appealing and will contain updated amenities.

3. Private event venues
Private party events surrounding the Super Bowl can create just as much of a buzz as the game itself. Sometimes tickets to these events can cost as much as game tickets. With the exclusivity of these VIP events, there can be no doubt that visitors will not be let down by their design or conditions.

4. The teams involved
If you’re a die-hard fan of either team that is playing in the Super Bowl, I would venture to guess that nothing short of seeing your team on that field will matter much. Sure, newly landscaped medians or pocket parks may be nice to look at as you walk inside the stadium, but unless you are an urbanist, these improvements will likely be lost on you as you enter the stadium and see your team on the field.

There’s a lot more, so read the whole thing. Andrews noted a Chron story from a few days back about the creation of a “Stadium Park Redevelopment Authority” to bankroll some improvement projects via private donations; it was tagged when it first came up on Council’s agenda, though I presume it passed but was swallowed up in the Uber/Lyft news this week. He thinks overall we’re taking the right approach, and certainly after the recent Brazil World Cup and Russia Winter Olympics debacles, I think we can all be happy we’re not committing to a bunch of new construction that won’t have any obvious use after the event is over. As far as transit is concerned, having the Southeast and Harrisburg lines in place (even if the latter may not be fully complete as well as Metro bus reimagining in place should be helpful. If we get some roadwork done and some sidewalks improved by then as well, so much the better. Via Lisa Gray.

It takes time to park, too

The Atlantic Cities had an article a couple of weeks ago about light rail in Houston. It’s an overview written for people who aren’t from Houston, so other than the extremely high opinion of themselves of some rail opponents – who knew we needed Daphne Scarbrough’s permission for infrastructure projects in this town? – there isn’t anything there you don’t already know. There was one bit at the end, talking about the North Line extension, that I wanted to discuss.

Wandering this neighborhood, now a ten-minute train ride from downtown, I came across Del’s Ice Cream, a small shop one block from a brand-new light rail station. Owner Delfina Torres has a front row seat for Houston’s transit experiment, but she has doubts. “Houston is a vehicle town,” she says. “They love their cars. It’s going to be a long way coming to a city with less driving and more walking.” Though it is now a direct light rail trip from her home to the Houston Rodeo, eight miles away, she says she can get there and back faster in her car.

I live north of downtown, likely a comparable if not closer distance to Reliant Stadium, and I commuted by car from here to there for more than a decade. On a good day, I’d agree that you can drive from here to there faster than the train can take you. It’s not quite the slam dunk that Ms. Torres makes it out to be. Your main options are I-45 to 288 to either Old Spanish Trail or 610 and Kirby, or the non-highway route which for me means either Studewood/Montrose to Main or Shepherd all the way and for her likely means Main all the way. The former swings you a couple miles east of Reliant because that’s where 288 goes, and you will almost certainly run into at least one stretch of non-highway speed, on the Pierce Elevated. The latter leaves you at the mercy of traffic lights and road construction. In my experience, the former is a 20-25 minute trip while the latter is more like 25-30, though either can take longer if your traffic karma is bad that day. A train ride from the Quitman station (where Del’s Ice Cream is located) is probably 32 minutes, but it’s unlikely to vary by more than a minute or so, as neither traffic nor red lights are factors.

But there’s more to it than that. It’s my observation that if you ask someone in Houston how long it takes to drive from point A to point B, they will most likely base their estimate on the highway driving part of the trip. If there’s a significant non-highway part of the trip – maybe the destination is a half mile from the exit, or something like that – I think that tends to get discounted. And if parking is something other than a free, adjacent lot or street parking right in front – if there’s a parking garage or a mall-style expanse of parking, or if there’s a fee to be paid on the way in, it’s not factored in at all. As such, what might be ten minutes on the highway can easily mean fifteen minutes or more to the front door.

That matters. It makes a difference if you’ve got an appointment, a job with a designated start time, tickets to an event, or anything else where you need to think about when you have to leave in order to get there on time. I work downtown, and it usually takes only five minutes or so to “get” there, but I carpool with my wife and we park where she has subsidized parking, which is much closer to her building than to mine. It’s a good fifteen minute walk from the car to my desk, counting elevator time in my office. If Ms. Torres has tickets to a Texans game with a noon kickoff, I seriously doubt she’d head out from Del’s at 11:30. It might take you longer to get into the parking lot than it did to get from your house to the point where everything ground to a halt and the lines to get into the parking lots formed. That’s part of what I was getting at with my post about Medical Center mobility. You can do whatever you want with I-45 and you can add toll lanes and express bypasses on 288, but you’re not going to get into the parking lot at Reliant or Texas Children’s any faster. You might estimate the time it takes you to actually reach your destination a bit less accurately, however.

That’s one advantage of light rail, BRT, and other transit with dedicated right of way. Your trip times are generally more predictable, and in some cases at least you get dropped off closer to the front door of your destination than you would if you parked. That’s not always the case, and for Reliant Stadium there’s still a significant walk from the rail station, but it’s something people don’t think about. I do, because the bus stop I use when Tiffany takes the car to run errands after work is a two-minute walk from my office. Even when I have to wait a few minutes for a bus, I usually get home about the same time as I would have if we’d driven as usual. It matters more than you might think.

One other thing people often don’t think about: If parking isn’t free, it’s often expensive. There are very few free-parking destinations along the Main Street Line, so if you’re headed south from Del’s to someplace that the line serves, it’s going to cost you a few bucks to park. And driving itself isn’t free. Going eight miles, the stated distance from Del’s to Reliant, in a 25 MPG car with gas at $3.50 a gallon costs about as much as as one-way rail ticket. These things add up.

Astrodome preservationists make their case for historic landmark status

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

Not historic but still standing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s talk about the Dome

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

Not historic but still standing

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Appeals court revives MBIA lawsuit against Sports Authority

Here we go again.

A lawsuit against the agency that pays the debt on Houston’s sports stadiums is back on following an appeals court ruling.

Last April, a state district court judge ruled that a bond insurer could not sue the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority or the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp., saying they were immune from such legal action as government agencies.

MBIA Insurance Corp., with the National Public Finance Guarantee Corp., sued the Sports Authority in January 2013, asking that the cash-strapped agency be forced to collect more money to cover its obligations, including additional parking and admissions taxes at Reliant – now NRG – Stadium, and seeking damages for other alleged breaches of contract. The sports corporation, the county agency that manages NRG Park, also was listed as a party in the suit.

In an opinion issued last week, a three-judge panel from the First Court of Appeals ruled that the Sports Authority had waived its immunity when it entered into an agreement with MBIA – now National – that provided that the company, which insures $1 billion in bonds, would guarantee regularly scheduled principal and interest payments on them.

Upholding part of state District Court Judge Elaine Palmer’s decision, it also ruled that the sports corporation was not liable because the company had not accused it of breach of contract.

Sports Authority Chairman J. Kent Friedman said it has not yet decided whether to ask the First Court for a re-hearing, to appeal to the Texas Supreme Court or to “go ahead and try the case.” Deadlines to request a re-hearing or appeal are next month.

“I continue to be very confident in our position in the litigation,” he said. “All it really did is allow them the right to proceed with their lawsuit.”

See here, here, and here for the background. The Court’s opinion is here, and if like me your eyes glazed over after about five seconds, you can skip to the end and confirm that the bottom line is that the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority does not have immunity and thus can be sued, but the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation does have immunity as Judge Palmer ruled and thus cannot be sued. The matter is now back in the 215th Court, pending a decision by either party to appeal the part of the ruling they didn’t like. Also, I’m glad to see that we seem to be done with that “Kenny Friedman” business, and J. Kent Friedman is once again being called “J. Kent Friedman” as well he should be. So there you have it.

Rename this!

Whatever.

Just plain Astrodome, thanks

Reliant Park will soon be called NRG Park and Reliant Stadium NRG Stadium, after NRG Energy, the parent company of one of the largest electric retailers in the Houston area.

County sources say NRG, which acquired Reliant’s retail operations in 2009, is planning a rebranding effort that will involve swapping out every sign bearing the Reliant name.

A related item is expected to appear on the next meeting agenda of the board of the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., the agency that runs the county-owned park.

The long version of the story is here. They can name it whatever they want, but that doesn’t obligate anyone else to call it what they name it. The Astrodome is still the Astrodome, not the Reliant Astrodome and certainly not the NRG Astrodome. The building that now houses Joel Osteen’s church will always be The Summit. The airport north of the city is plain old Intercontinental, the big building near the Galleria with the waterwall is the Transco Tower, and that lawn you need to get off is mine. I’m glad we had this opportunity to clear this up. Link via Swamplot, and Hair Balls has more.

Back to private investors for the Dome

Sure, why not?

We still have the memories

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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