Saturday, October 01, 2016

Harris County approves plan to save the Astrodome

Although I would love to see it preserved, I have generally been skeptical about efforts to save and repurpose the Astrodome (see here, here and here) and honestly expected it to have been reduced to rubble by now. So while I'm glad to see at least some movement on the Astrodome's future, I can't really say I'm too optimistic about Harris County Commissioners Court's latest plan for the venerable stadium:
Harris County Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday morning to move forward with a major renovation project that could keep the Astrodome from being demolished for years to come.
The $10.5 million approved Tuesday is the first piece of a $105 million project that would raise the floor of the Astrodome two levels and put 1,400 parking spaces underneath. County officials believe that would make the Dome suitable for festivals or conferences and usher in potential commercial uses in the more than 550,000 square feet that surrounds the core.
Tuesday's vote signals a reversal of fate for the stadium which many thought would be demolished after Harris County voters in 2013 rejected a $217 million bond proposal that would have paid for massive renovations to the Astrodome.
Funds for the Dome's renovation will come from the County's general fund (about $30 million, which is the same amount it is estimated to cost to demolish it), hotel taxes and revenue expected to be generated from the new covered parking spaces.

While I appreciate what seems to be a rather straightforward effort to preserve the Dome, I’m skeptical that Commissioners Court’s plan will work as planned for two reasons:

First of all, NRG Stadium is already surrounded by a sea of parking, and I’ve never heard of parking supply to be a major issue during Texans games (especially since so many fans come and go by METRORail). Additional parking needs during the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo seem to be adequately handled by park and ride buses as well as the empty field on the other side of 610 where Astroworld used to be. Is there really going to be strong demand for these additional spaces (which would likely cost a premium on top of the base parking fee for NRG Stadium, and which, by virtue of being in a garage, probably couldn’t be used for tailgating)? I doubt it.

Secondly, if the solution to preserving the Astrodome - turning the area below grade into parking, and using the proceeds from that parking to help turn the rest of the space into an exhibition and events venue - is so simple, then why wasn’t it done long ago? Why did elected officials debate the Astrodome’s future for so many years, entertain (oftentimes fanciful) proposals for its development, and hold a (failed) referendum when they could have just done this from the beginning? It sounds like Commissioners Court couldn't bring themselves to demolish the structure and decided to resolve the issue with a plan of last resort, regardless of how financially successful that plan might actually turn out to be.

With that said, I hope I’m wrong about this and that this proposal does work as planned. The “Eighth Wonder of the World” is as iconic a piece of architecture as there is in Houston and I believe that, from a standpoint of culture and history, it is in the city’s best interest that the Astrodome be preserved and reused.

From a standpoint of the best interests of the taxpayer, however, this plan might be a loser.

The Chronicle has more details about the plan here. More discussion at Swamplot, Culturemap and Off The Kuff.

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