Monday, May 27, 2013

Will Super Bowl LI mean the end of the Astrodome?

Houston was awarded Super Bowl LI (that's 51, for those of you who think roman numerals are pretentious) by the NFL last week. The 2017 game will be the city's third time to host the Super Bowl, and the fact that it's coming back is a good thing for the city's exposure and economy. Besides, it's always fun to listen to the whiny coastal sportswriters like this nobody bitch and moan when Houston gets picked.

However, Chronicle blogger Craig Hlavaty seems to think that the fact that Houston was awarded the Super Bowl also means that the Astrodome's fate is sealed, since the NFL would probably like to see that eyesore gone by the time their marquee event comes to Houston:
Since the Houston Super Bowl Bid Committee began the hunt to host another Super Bowl, the Astrodome’s days have seemed to have been quietly numbered.

Everyone involved in the transaction knows all too well that in order for Houston to open its doors to the NFL party apparatus and everything and everyone that comes with that, the Dome would have to be wiped from the city’s landscape to soothe the NFL’s concerns.

And now we know that Houston is getting Super Bowl LI in 2017.
As if on cue, a day after the announcement that Houston would host the Super Bowl was made, Harris County set a June deadline for proposals to re-purpose the venerable stadium. And while County Judge Ed Emmett claims that the game "was awarded based on a bid that had nothing to do with the Astrodome," the fact that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has hinted that the Dome be demolished for more parking makes me think that Hlavaty is correct and that the Astrodome will be nothing but a memory by the time 2017 rolls around.

New York Times sports columnist Jeré Longman bemoans the Astrodome's likely fate:
The Eighth Wonder of the World, as the Astrodome was nicknamed, with its 200-foot-tall roof and nine-acre footprint, became the most important, distinctive and influential stadium ever built in the United States. 

It gave us domed, all-purpose stadiums and artificial turf and expansive scoreboards. It gave us seminal respect for women’s sports when Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs at tennis in 1973. It gave us the inventor of the end zone dance in 1969, Elmo Wright of the University of Houston. It gave us the first prime-time national television audience for a regular-season college basketball game, with the famed 1968 meeting between Houston and U.C.L.A. 

So it was despairing to hear that the vacant Astrodome might be torn down and its site paved over as Houston prepares to host the 2017 Super Bowl. Demolition would be a failure of civic imagination, a betrayal of Houston’s greatness as a city of swaggering ambition, of dreamers who dispensed with zoning laws and any restraint on possibility. 

A recent drive past the abandoned Astrodome at night revealed it to be unlit. It has been closed since 2008. The stadium was visible in silhouette, like a waning moon. 

In daylight, however, beneath the dust and neglect, the Astrodome’s silvery exterior continues to summon a city’s innovative past and futuristic promise. By contrast, Reliant Stadium next door is a dull football arena, designed with all the imagination of a hangar to park a blimp. 

James Glassman, a Houston preservationist, calls the Astrodome the city’s Eiffel Tower and the “physical manifestation of Houston’s soul.” New York could afford to tear down old Yankee Stadium, Glassman said, because the city had hundreds of other signature landmarks. Not Houston. Along with oil, NASA and the pioneering heart surgeons Michael E. DeBakey and Denton A. Cooley, the technological marvel of the Astrodome put a young, yearning city on the global map. 

“There was a confluence of space-age, Camelot-era optimism, and we were right there,” said Glassman, founder of the Web site “It really set us on the road for a go-go future.”
The Astrodome is indeed an icon, a testament to Houston's mid-century optimism. I will be just as sad as anybody when it is torn down. But as I noted a year ago, when I reluctantly came to the conclusion that it was time for the empty, neglected and dilapidated building to be torn down, "neither the public nor the private sector have the money or willpower required to rehabilitate the Astrodome into something useful, and it continues to sit as a sad and embarrassing eyesore" that is costing taxpayer money to maintain even as it wastes away.

I like University of Houston Architecture student Ryan Slattery's proposal for the Astrodome: strip it down to its metal skeleton, and make it a multi-use pavilion. Hlavarty says that "Slattery’s vision of skeletonizing the Dome for a pavilion concept is exciting, and you make use of the structure without completely demolishing history," and Longman applauds the idea as well:
Demolition “would symbolize that we’ve just decided to quit,” said Ryan Slattery, whose master’s thesis in architecture at the University of Houston offers a different alternative. 

Slattery’s plan, which has gained traction, involves a vision of green space. He would strip the Astrodome to its steel skeleton, evoking the Eiffel Tower of sport, and install a park. It could be used for football tailgating, livestock exhibitions, recreational sports. Other ideas have been floated through the years, some more realistic than others: music pavilion, casino, movie studio, hotel, museum, shopping mall, indoor ski resort, amusement park.
None of these pie-in-the-sky proposals for repurposing the Astrodome, of course, have come to anything approaching reality, and Slattery's idea, as novel and as sensible as it might be, will also cost tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars to realize. Slattery's idea will need strong political backing, and that's probably going to be hard to come by when the easiest, and cheapest, option is simply to tear the Astrodome down.

Which means Commissioner Goodell will have a great parking space when he comes to Reliant Stadium for the Super Bowl in 2017.

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