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Urban Land Institute

Commissioners Court approves Astrodome parking plan

Here we go.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Downtown post office set to close

The end of an era approaches.

Photo by Houston In Pics

Thousands gathered at 401 Franklin Street in downtown Houston to celebrate the opening of a new facility trumpeted as an “ultra-modern” marvel, the hub for the mail that would flow in and out of one of America’s fastest growing cities.

Inside the rugged Brutalist building, a lattice-like grid of thin masonry, postal workers were expecting to sort through the millions of pieces of mail that would pass through the facility every year. Engineers touted the building’s efficient heating and cooling system, and employees zipped across the facility on electric buggies. The city’s postmaster said then, in 1962, that the facility “would establish a criterion for other post offices to copy.”

But on Thursday, 53 years after the ballyhooed opening of the Houston Post Office, the lunch hour traffic was sparse – a few police officers mailing Mother’s Day packages home, a lawyer, a family seeking passports and a few others.

On May 15 at 7 p.m., retail operations at the facility will cease permanently, yet another effect of the United States Postal Service’s struggles with rising debt and a sharp decline in business as clients turn to the Internet and private mail couriers.

[…]

Six other post offices were targeted for relocation in Houston in the past, including the Third Ward’s historic Southmore Station, University Station, Greenbriar Station, Julius Melcher Station, Memorial Park Station and Medical Center Station, and cuts have also slowed delivery times. A massive outcry prompted the postal service to halt its plans to shutter the Southmore Station facility, which stands at the address of Houston’s first sit-in demonstration.

But agency critics and Houstonians said Thursday they would be mourning the loss of the building and the move.

“Every time a post office closes, big or small, I think it’s a loss to the community and country,” said Steve Hutkins, creator of Savethepostoffice.com. “If it’s a big one, like the Houston one, it’s clearly a big (loss), and it’s about diminishing quality of postal service in the country.”

The downtown post office has been on the block since at least 2009. The city considered putting in a bid for it last year, possibly as a new location for HPD and the municipal courts, but dropped the idea shortly thereafter in the wake of wailing and gnashing of teeth by developers who had been eagerly awaiting its appearance on the market. The Urban Land Institute hosted a design contest for the site in 2012 to generate some ideas about how to use the space – at one point, a transit center was envisioned as an anchor for it – but I rather doubt we’ll get anything other than high-end apartments or condos, possibly with some retail/restaurant space on the bottom, like with the Rice Hotel. But first, it needs to be sold. I’ve no idea when that might happen. Swamplot has more.

The Dome at 50

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

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

ULI releases its Astrodome plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reimagining Richmond Avenue

Remember the Richmond Strip? If you were here in the 90s you probably do. You also probably haven’t been out there since the 90s. Now there’s a plan to restore some of the luster to that part of town.

It was along this stretch of Richmond Avenue that revelers rushed out to celebrate after the Rockets won two NBA championships in the mid-1990s. The annual St. Patrick’s Day parade drew ample crowds to the six-lane street and to bars like the Yucatan Liquor Stand. Every weekend, partygoers found a vibrant scene of restaurants and dance clubs, arcades and two-stepping joints.

Widely referred to as the Richmond Strip, the area – just past the Galleria from Chimney Rock to Hillcrocft and from Westpark to Westheimer – was the place to see and be seen for much of the 1990s, a flashy drag of bars, clubs and restaurants seen as the Houston’s answer to Sixth Street, Beale Street and Bourbon Street.

Now the largely abandoned entertainment district is a focal point for city and business leaders in the area, hoping it can shake its forlorn image and draw on the energy of nearby businesses and retail opportunities along nearby Westheimer in the Galleria area.

“It only takes driving up and down the streets in the area to see the problems that exist,” City Councilman Mike Laster, who represents the area, said Tuesday.

[…]

“We want the area to overcome the negative image,” said Daniel Brents, chairman of the Urban Land Institute panel commissioned to study the area.

The panel, which includes real estate experts, landscape architects and urban planners, presented a general concept to revitalize the area at a community meeting on Tuesday. They interviewed business owners and neighborhood groups as part of the study. A primary suggestion was to make better use of existing tools such as management districts, tax increment reinvestment zones and other incentive programs to help spur development.

John Dupuy, a landscape architect with TBG Partners, noted the disparate land uses in the area that was originally meant for single-family homes but evolved over time. He cited a few current bright spots, including new townhome developments, a group of exotic car dealerships and custom car shops and an immigrant community that recently created an independent soccer league.

“We wanted to find a way to make these anchors more significant and tie them together,” Dupuy said. “We want to make corridors clean, safe, walkable and successful streets.”

Problems identified by the panel include infrastructure, drainage and a lack of lighting. The group’s interviews with interested parties also found that a lack of open space, parks and safe sidewalks hampered development.

There’s a great then-and-now slideshow here, and you can see a copy of the plan here. I doubt the Strip will return to its past glory as an entertainment destination, but there’s no reason why it can’t be an attractive and enticing part of town again. It’s a great location, between the Galleria and the Energy Corridor, and it’s got a lot of potential. I look forward to seeing what they make of it.

State of the county 2015: Please cooperate more

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett makes his eighth State if the County address.

Judge Ed Emmett

Judge Ed Emmett

In his eighth State of the County address, Emmett had choice words for both Austin – which is weighing a reduction in property taxes that form the backbone of county revenue – and for Houston – which has adopted a strategy of limited annexations of suburban areas but Emmett said will not adequately provide for its poor.

“County government must have the tools and resources necessary to improve those areas because I do not see a scenario in which the city steps up and improves the situation,” Emmett said at NRG Stadium to several hundred business leaders brought together by the Greater Houston Partnership.

A city spokeswoman said the limited annexations were two-sided agreements with utility districts, not city land-grabs.

Emmett nevertheless called for a “new model of urban governance” that would work for a booming unincorporated Harris County that is becoming increasingly urbanized. The county judge expressed concern that the unincorporated part of the county could struggle to provide health care for its indigent and build roads and railways for its economy.

Harris County, which soon will have more people living in these unincorporated areas than in Houston, has been mischaracterized by outside groups and policy makers as merely an urban core, Emmett said.

The city’s governance plan has included limited-purpose annexation of unincorporated areas. Those agreements strip suburban areas of possible revenue, and Emmett said he was prepared to spend some political capital to fight the city as it tries to bring neighboring areas into its jurisdiction.

“Suburbs and close-in areas that have been skipped over are struggling,” Emmett said. “For lack of a better term, suburban blight is staring us in the face.”

Equally menacing, Emmett said, is a state government that looks to implement “arbitrary limits” on the revenue or spending of the county, which is an arm of the state. While he supports lower taxes, Emmett derided proposed property tax caps Friday as merely “good sound bites.”

The state also should take some responsibility for health care for the indigent and the mentally ill, Emmett said, rather than relying solely on county resources.

“Should indigent health care really be a responsibility solely of the county?” Emmett asked. “Or is it time for the state to establish regional health care systems that support public and private clinics, hospitals and programs?”

Here’s the full text of Judge Emmett’s address. Just as a reminder, expanding Medicaid (which Judge Emmett supports) would go a long way towards addressing those needs. I don’t know enough about the annexation issue to have a strong opinion about it, but I wonder if going back to doing more full annexations might be a better way forward. As for the threat to the county’s revenue stream coming from Austin, the main problem there is too many Republicans in Austin that don’t really care about governing but are there to implement an ideological agenda. The Judge’s suggestion is for more November voters to get involved in the primaries. That may help, but I’d point out they could also make some different choices in November, too. Anyway, the end of the speech was about the Astrodome and the ULI plan for it. Whatever else happens, here’s hoping that gets some traction.

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?

The Historical Commission, the expert panel, and the Dome

And Judge Ed Emmett, the connection between them all.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

What’s to become of the downtown post office?

Lisa Gray writes about the future of the downtown post office on Franklin.

Franklin Street Post Office

In the past couple of years, there have been rumblings that the U.S. Postal Service plans to leave 401 Franklin and sell the 16-acre complex – a prospect that sets developers, architects and planners atremble. It’s not just that the parcel of land is large enough to form its own downtown district. It’s also that the land is a place where many things could converge: Buffalo Bayou, Houston’s light-rail line, bike paths, even Amtrak and proposed commuter-rail lines. Done right, that post-office complex could become a major hub of activity – a symbol of sweet progress, at a time when we no longer count on it.

The Urban Land Institute, a national group that promotes good development, last month picked the complex as the project for its 2012 Gerald D. Hines Student Urban Design Competition. Graduate-student teams from across the country will dream up new uses for the old post-office site in hopes of winning the $50,000 prize.

The competition is hypothetical; there’s no plan to build the winner’s idea. But even so, the competition alarmed Houston preservationists, who worry that in describing the site, the contest organizers seem to encourage razing it and starting with a clean slate. In Houston, such hypothetical ideas have a way of becoming realities.

Stephen Fox, Houston’s best-known architectural historian, emailed other preservationists to alert them to the whispered threat. The post office, he noted, won a Design Award from the Texas Society of Architects in 1963. It is, he wrote, “an outstanding work of mid-century civic architecture,” and as of this year, would be eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.

Fox thinks interesting things could be done not just with the “alabaster beauty” office building (now sadly in need of TLC), but also with the enormous low-slung industrial building where mail was once sorted.

“Can you imagine a green roof there?” he asks. “There’s lots of room for plantings.”

Ramona Davis, head of the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance, suggests that the five-story office building should be repurposed in part as an Amtrak station. Houston’s current one – an unassuming little building a block away – is “an embarrassment,” she wrote.

Here’s more about the design competition. That location has been up for sale, at least potentially, for awhile now. I’ve heard rumblings about it being turned into some kind of mixed-use, transit-oriented development for nearly as long. If and when there’s ever an Inner Katy line, that would be a nice location to tie it into an extension of the Harrisburg and Southeast lines. The possibilities are endless, and I’m sure we’ll see a few ideas emerge from this competition. We’ll see what happens from there.

Neighborhood concerns about the transit corridors ordinance

I think most people who choose to live in Houston’s urban core would agree that density is a good thing as a general rule. Density done in a half-assed way, which has been Houston’s trademark, not so much.

Density hasn’t been kind to Cottage Grove, a small neighborhood with narrow streets, few sidewalks, poor drainage and scarce parking for the owners of its many new homes and their guests.

Like many neighborhoods inside Loop 610, Cottage Grove in recent years has experienced a flurry of construction of large townhomes that loom over 80-year-old cottages next door. Two or three dwellings crowd sites where one house stood previously. Streets are cluttered with vehicles parked every which way. Water stands in the streets after heavy rains.

“It was shocking to see this jewel of a neighborhood in this condition,” said former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy, a senior fellow with the nonprofit Urban Land Institute who toured Cottage Grove two years ago. “It was about the ugliest thing I’d ever seen, to be honest with you.”

The issues in Cottage Grove and other central Houston neighborhoods are on the minds of city officials, neighborhood leaders and others as the city considers the first major revisions to its development code in a decade. The proposed amendments were prompted in part by indications that pressure for dense new development is spreading to the area between Loop 610 and Beltway 8.

Marlene Gafrick, Houston’s planning and development director, said her department’s proposal to extend Houston’s “urban area” from the Loop to the Beltway would give dozens of neighborhoods tools to protect their traditional character and quality of life, such as procedures to petition for minimum lot sizes and building lines.

Some neighborhood leaders on both sides of the Loop, however, worry the measures don’t go far enough to prevent flooding, protect open space or ensure adequate parking. They see the proposals as an extension of the same approach that produced current conditions in neighborhoods such as Cottage Grove.

You can see plenty of other examples of this. The part of north Montrose where I used to live before moving to the Heights is another good example, filled with narrow streets that used to house small bungalows that now feature fewer bungalows surrounded by three-story crammed-in town homes. Streets that used to have a few cars parked on them here and there are now full on both sides – some streets, like the block of Van Buren where I had resided, now restrict parking to one side only – making passage difficult. Longtime residents have been negatively affected by all this.

It didn’t have to be this way. A lot of these old neighborhoods had been in decline and really a shot in the arm from new construction. It just needed to be done in a way that recognized their needs and limits. Improving sidewalks and ensuring that the drainage system could take the increased capacity would have helped. Pairing all this new inner-core growth with expansions and upgrades to public transit, including a more aggressive approach to building out light rail, and making more mixed-use development possible where it made sense, would have made a huge difference. We can’t undo what has been done, but we can try to stop repeating these mistakes, and we can try to address some of the now more urgent needs these neighborhoods have. We even know what needs to be done. The question is, when City Council takes up the new ordinance in August, will we do it, or will we continue down the same path as before?

Where that new transit corridors ordinance came from

Christof takes another look at the proposed urban transit corridors ordinance, and asks a simple question.

Days after the City of Houston’s draft corridor urban corridors ordinance was released, Houstonians For Responsible Growth – a developer group that generally opposes any new building regulations – endorsed the new ordinance.

Why would developers be so enthusiastic about a new piece of regulation? Because they wrote it.

Interestingly, just a few months ago, HFRG was warning against this ordinance, claiming it could “force Houstonians out of their cars and onto hot sidewalks”. Guess they were able to change it to be more to their liking – go read Christof’s post for the details of how that happened. Clearly, this is another case of it’s only a negative when it’s for something I don’t like. NeoHouston has more.

More on the urban transit corridors ordinance

I mentioned last week that the city was getting set to do an overhaul of its planning codes. In particular, there’s a proposed transit corridor ordinance that is up for public discussion on Thursday and a City Council vote in July. I wasn’t sure what to make of it but had heard some early feedback that while it did some good, it fell well short of what it could have been. Fortunately, a couple of folks who are better versed on the technical details than I am have had a look, and have returned their verdicts. First, Christof gives his typically thorough overview of the ordinance, its shortfalls and loopholes. It’s too dense to excerpt, so just go and read and see what we’ll be missing. Second, neoHouston cuts right to the chase:

Let me be clear: if the city adopts the standards as they are written, it will have exactly the opposite of the intended effect. It will be just as easy as it has always been to build suburban, auto-oriented trash near a train station, and it will be HARDER to build an urban building.

The city is taking areas where you could ALREADY build right up to the street and telling you that now you CANNOT do that unless you comply with these additional “Voluntary” design parameters.

This is a punitive measure against exactly the wrong people! This is EXACTLY BACKWARDS from what their stated goal is!

Yeah, that’s not what I was hoping for, either. Read what he has to say as well, and then consider contacting your Council member to let him or her know what you think about this. For that matter, contact your favorite Mayoral candidate and ask him or her what they think about this, since it’ll be on them in six months’ time. We need to move forward on this, and it doesn’t look like that’s what’s happening.

Is there an Ashby highrise lawsuit coming?

Houston Politics makes an observation.

As noted previously, the flap over the proposed Ashby high-rise and all the land-use questions stirred up by that controversy have subsided recently as the recession and credit crunch slowed or stopped many high-profile development projects. But that may be about to change.

The project’s developers, Matthew Morgan and Kevin Kirton, made a presentation Wednesday to a group of “young leaders” from the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit development organization. Neither my colleague Nancy Sarnoff nor I, who have followed this project, could attend, but today I saw this timeline that was part of their presentation.

The juiciest bit is the last two sentences: “The developer is exhausting its administrative options, and hopes the city will issue the necessary development permits. If denied, the developer will exercise all legal rights to force the issuance of its development permits for the project.”

Since March of last year, Morgan and Kirton have submitted various versions of their permit application eight times, and the city has rejected it eight times.

Since one definition of insanity is taking the same action repeatedly and expecting a different result, some observers have speculated that the developers were building a record for a lawsuit. The language in their timeline shows they’re prepared to take this step, whether or not it’s been part of their strategy all along.

The developers are portraying this case as an example of heavy-handed and inequitable city regulation that all developers should worry about. How much support they’ll get from their industry colleagues if they choose to go to court remains to be seen.

Well, I suggested the developers might sue back in October, so this doesn’t surprise me. I’ll note that the neighborhood residents have also threatened to sue if this does go forward, so one way or the other I figure this winds up in court. Assuming the economy doesn’t put it to a quiet death, of course.

UPDATE: Swamplot has more.

ULI Mayoral candidate forum report

As I am not a member of the Urban Land Institute of Houston, I did not get an invitation to their members-only Mayoral candidate forum on Thursday, which got a brief mention in the Chron on Friday. Fortunately, Andrew Burleson is a member, and he was there. He’s got a detailed report of the proceedings, which I highly recommend. Check it out.