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.

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4 Responses to ULI releases its Astrodome plan

  1. Brad M. says:

    What a pathetic plan. An indoor park?!

    I’ve got a novel idea…how about a real public park. What is it about this city/county that embraces wasteful spending of tax payer money for the almost exclusive benefit for private and quasi-private enterprise?

  2. John says:

    Sounds like a fabulous idea, when can this project get approved so Emmett can start hiring all his contractor friends so he can get his kickbacks?

    Just drive along Kirby and Main around 610 and see how lovely the retail there looks. I am sure Saks, Rolex, Cartier and other high end retailers are dying at the chance to open up stores in the Dome.

  3. Bill Daniels says:

    Where were all these folks that wanted to preserve the Astrodome when Reliant, er, NRG Stadium was being proposed? It didn’t take a rocket surgeon to see that building a brand new stadium next to a stadium that we were still making bond payments on was going to be the death knell to the Astrodome. I wonder if those skybox renovation bonds are still outstanding?

    The only answer is, tear down the Astrodome and replace the parking lost to NRG Stadium.

  4. go Green says:

    come on man, this wonderful multi-million dollar paradise, who’ll get to use it and how much will it cost to use it.

    Build it and they will come, make the streets in Harris County and the surrounding area safer. Telge and West road several years ago, 2 cars wait for the green light, one gets away, the other upside down in the median, an on coming truck, driver side smashed pretty bad, I hope the kid survived. Build a place for people to race their cars, their motorcycles, their dirt bikes, etc. People will pay to play and people will pay to watch. Or tear the MF down just like all the other extinct coliseums of the world, oooppps, the US. Don’t give me that insurance BS. Who insures F1, NASCAR, MotoGP, etc racers??? Race at your own risk. Or, they’ll do it in the streets and innocent people will die, when it’s someone I know get hurt or dies, I’ll know who I’ll hold accountable. Don’t get me started on red light cameras. In Harris County, it’s gotten severally worse over the past several years, under who’s watch??????

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