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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?

KHOU poll shows little support for Astrodome Park plan

Another result of interest from that KHOU/KUHF poll.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

The plan to turn the Astrodome into the world’s largest indoor park is politically unpopular with Harris County voters if the transformation requires any taxpayer dollars, according to a new poll released this week.

Fifty-one percent of those surveyed by KHOU/Houston Public Media said they opposed spending any public money to convert the stadium. The plan hatched by County Judge Ed Emmett could include both public and private dollars if approved, but the poll suggests that voters would only support something that is entirely privately funded.

Thirty-one percent of Harris County voters said they would support spending taxpayer dollars to create the park, and 17 percent said they didn’t know. The poll of 325 likely voters has a margin of error of 5.4 percentage points.

To be clear, this is about the Ed Emmett Astrodome Park plan, in which the Dome would be transformed into a giant indoor park. It differs from the original Astrodome Park plan in that it would not involve demolishing the Astrodome. It also doesn’t have much in the way of specifics, which may be why people are skeptical of it. KHOU takes a closer look.

“Voters in this county are simply not comfortable spending any money on the renovation or restoration of The Astrodome,” said Bob Stein, the Rice University political scientist and KHOU analyst who supervised the survey.

Polls conducted by KHOU and Houston Public Media in years past have shown an interesting divide, indicating people old enough to have seen events at the Astrodome were more likely to support saving the stadium. Now that generation gap has disappeared.

“It’s pretty much across the board,” Stein said. “We couldn’t find a group of voters who are significantly more likely to support spending county money on the renovation of the Astrodome as an indoor park.”

Another curious statistic popped out in the poll. Almost all of the undecided voters were people who didn’t vote in the 2013 Astrodome referendum. As Stein crunched the numbers, he came to an interesting conclusion: If the dome park plan were put on the ballot next month, it would probably fail by roughly the same margin as last year’s proposal.

Of course, Emmett’s idea hasn’t yet been fleshed out and, most important, nobody knows its proposed cost. But the survey indicates voters are wary of any plan to spend more money on The Astrodome.

My concerns about this poll aside, this makes sense to me. As I suggested before, it’s going to take a detailed and specific plan, which clearly shows the benefits of the proposed park or whatever they decide to call it, and a sustained persuasion effort to get voter approval. It should be noted that the Rodeo and the Texans put out their own poll in August that claimed widespread support for their plan. It was basically a push poll, and their description of what was being proposed was not entirely accurate, but the point is that an effective sales job combined with a worthwhile product could be a winner. There’s a lot of work to be done, both in putting together a plan that can be sold to the public and in getting all of the players on board with a commitment to make it work, before any campaign can get off the ground with a hope to succeed. If the goal is to do something in time for the Super Bowl in 2017, time is of the essence. Swamplot has more.

KHOU: Abbott 47, Davis 32

A new poll to open Early Voting.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

As early voters head to the polls for a landmark election in Texas, a new survey conducted for KHOU-TV and Houston Public Media shows Republican Greg Abbott with a commanding lead over Democrat Wendy Davis in the race for governor.

Abbott’s supported by 47 percent of likely voters surveyed for the poll, compared to Davis’ 32 percent. Another 15 percent were undecided.

Green Party candidates Brandon Parmer carried 1.4 percent and Libertarian Kathie Glass .7 percent. About 2 percent of surveyed voters wouldn’t say who they’re supporting.

This latest poll dovetails with other surveys conducted earlier this year showing Abbott with a double-digit lead over Davis, indicating few voters have changed their minds during the course of the campaign.

“There always could be a crisis, a major gaffe, something like that,” said Bob Stein, the Rice University political scientist and KHOU analyst who supervised the poll. “But it’s very hard to imagine that you can reverse a double-digit lead.”

In the lieutenant governor’s race, Republican Dan Patrick also has a double-digit lead over his Democratic opponent, Leticia Van de Putte. Patrick’s supported by 36 percent of surveyed voters compared to Van de Putte’s 24 percent.

Libertarian Robert Butler had 1.8 percent in the lieutenant governor poll and Green Party candidate Chandrakantha Courtney .9 percent. Another 3.3 percent said they were voting for someone else, while about 2 percent declined to answer the question.

Democrats hoped Van de Putte’s presence on the ballot would energize Hispanic voters, but the survey indicates that hasn’t happened. About 36 percent of Hispanic voters told pollsters they didn’t know how they were voting for governor, and about 34 percent said they were unsure how they’d vote for lieutenant governor.

“If Leticia Van de Putte has a name that’s recognizable, it’s not moving what we consider to be core Democratic voters,” Stein said. “Self-identified Hispanics and self-identified Democrats are still undecided.”

Clearly, there are a lot of “undecided” voters in this poll. It’s a little hard to know what to make of that this late in the game. Some poll data is here but I can’t find crosstab information, so there’s only so much analysis one can do. I will say that most of the polls KHOU has done in the past have been for Houston Mayoral races, and their results have been mixed, to say the least. They also polled the 2013 Astrodome and inmate processing facility referenda, and the 2012 Presidential race in Harris County, with the latter being fairly accurate and the former two not so much. My main complaint with their non-Presidential year methodology has been having too broad a sample. That may be part of the issue here, though obviously I’d like for as broad a sample as possible to be an accurate reflection of the electorate, but without seeing full data I can only speculate.

One more point: Despite the 15-point lead they show for Abbott statewide, they show Davis leading Harris County by a 40-35 margin. (They have Patrick and Van de Putte tied in Harris County, 30 to 30, and show a meaningless one point lead for Devon Anderson over Kim Ogg, 23-22.) I don’t know how you can reconcile a five-point lead in Harris County for Davis with a 15-point lead statewide for Abbott. But hey, the only poll that matters, as they say, has begun. Greg has the latest look at the mail ballots, and by Friday or so we should have a decent inkling of what’s happening based on the early vote rosters. Get out there and vote.

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.

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.

A second chance to get a piece of the Dome

There’s going to be another Astrodome memorabilia sale in the near future.

This one is not for sale

The Harris County Sports and Convention Corp. is considering selling more seats out of the Astrodome after raking in $1.5 million late last year during two online auctions and a walk-up “yard sale” at NRG Center where thousands of nostalgic fans waited hours in line to buy seats, swatches of Astroturf and a slew of other memorabilia salvaged from the world’s first domed sports stadium.

Net proceeds from the sales in November and December totaled nearly $650,000, meaning they cost almost as much to put on as they brought in. County officials, however, said the haul far exceeded their expectations.

“We were just hoping for it to be able to pay for itself, but it did much more,” said Kevin Hoffman, deputy executive director of the sports corporation, the county agency that runs NRG Park, the South Loop sports complex where the dome is located.

[…]

Hoffman said the sports corporation now is considering having at least one more sale of Dome seats, but is not sure it will be allowed by the state historical commission, which last month postponed its vote on whether to make the 49-year-old stadium a protected landmark while the county continues searching for a private company or coalition to redevelop it.

Under state law, the owner of a building under consideration for so-called “state antiquities landmark” status cannot make significant alterations to the structure during the application process, or after designation, without permission from the commission.

Since the seats have already been removed and are sitting in storage I’m not sure what the problem with selling them might be, but I suppose we have to let the process work. The first memorabilia sale was a big success despite some major logistical issues. This story says there were 7,000 pairs of seats sold in the first event, which presumably includes the online auction, though the stories at the time indicated it was 2,400 pairs. I’m not sure what accounts for the discrepancy – perhaps it’s just that they’ve continued to sell more seats online – but in any event there are another 4,000 pairs left. Funds from that sale went to cleanup efforts after partial demolition of walkway towers and ticket booths, and funds from this next one would be used for maintenance and upkeep. I’ll keep my eye out for further updates on this.

The Astrodome isn’t officially a historic landmark just yet

The decision has been delayed until there can be a meeting to discuss it in Houston.

Not historic but still standing

Honoring a request by Harris County officials to table the vote and meet much closer to Houston, the Texas Historical Commission voted Wednesday at a meeting in far West Texas to postpone designating the iconic Astrodome a so-called “state antiquities landmark.”

The designation would not outright save the world’s first domed stadium from demolition, but would make the possibility of it more difficult. That’s because the county would have to get permission from the state before tearing it down or making any other substantial changes to the long-vacant stadium’s exterior.

After nearly 45 minutes of public testimony, and a motion made to approve the designation application, Chairman Matthew Kreisle said he was concerned that designation could make it more difficult for the county to strike a deal with a developer to renovate the structure.

But Kreisle, an architect, said he wanted to see local officials make a concerted effort to do so, and also try to make use of a new historic state tax credit as leverage.

Kreisle described the 25 percent tax credit, approved last year by the Legislature, as a “deal changer,” and said it poses “an opportunity to possibly look at this deal in a new light.”

“I am concerned, in my mind, if we get the designation put on it today that we may possibly make that deal harder to happen at this time,” he said before making a motion to table the item, which was seconded and approved by the commission.

[…]

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who has opposed designation for the same reasons the chairman moved to table it, said the move will create more time for him to devise yet another redevelopment plan.

“It does continue the protection but it doesn’t lock in a decision at this point,” he said.

Kreisle said he planned to reach out to Emmett to arrange some kind of meeting in Houston “where we can hear from the judge” and others.

See here, here, and here for the background. The Dome is also on the National Register of Historic Places, which is a nice honor but not much more from a practical perspective. I’m basically ambivalent about historic designation – it feels more like a gesture than anything else to me – but I will say that it would be greatly ironic if such a designation made it less likely that the Dome could be repurposed by a private investor, as that would surely increase its odds of being demolished. Finding a private investor to Do Something with the Dome is clearly Judge Emmett’s preferred outcome, so one would think he and the Commission will have some incentive to work out the kinks on this. The Commission’s website is here and their calendar of events is here, and I figure we’ll hear about the planned Houston meeting soon enough. CultureMap has more.

Chron agrees that the Astrodome Park plan is silly

So there you have it.

There is something uniquely Houston about tearing down an historic structure to build a memorial commemorating the history of that very structure. But that is exactly what the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and the Texans have suggested in their recent proposal for the future of the Astrodome.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett minced no words when he called it a “silly plan.”

Those two primary tenants of NRG park pitched their $66 million idea to county commissioners two weeks ago, which involves razing the Dome and replacing it with green space, including historic markers and possible event stages. It seems like a less ambitious version of the steel-skeleton idea proposed by University of Houston architecture graduate student Ryan Slattery.

We’ve previously supported the idea of turning the Dome site into something resembling a “Discovery Green – South,” but only as a last resort. This proposal falls short of that standard, lacking the ambition and easy access, not to mention funding necessary to create a park that can match Discovery Green. This plan also feels far too willing to ignore the potential that continues to exist in the Eighth Wonder of the World.

Emmett has opposed any demolition, and says that this proposal is a “nonstory.” After all, the Dome belongs to the citizens of Harris County, not a professional sports team.

But it is hard to ignore a plan sponsored by the two largest users of the NRG complex, especially given that they’ve remained generally quiet through all the past ideas, but for their own previously proposed demolition and parking lot plan.

See here for the story so far. I do think it’s a little early to completely dismiss the idea, since the Rodeo and the Texans have not said how much of the tab they would be willing to pick up and what (if any) thought has been given to programming and paying for programming. Of course, the longer we go without any word from the Texans and the Rodeo on these subjects, the more reasonable it is to view this idea through a cynical lens. As the Chron notes, the Rodeo and the Texans have made their preference for demolition clear all along. If they’re serious about this being something more than just a way to make demolition more viable, then it’s on them to spell out the details. We’re waiting.

Emmett doesn’t like Astrodome Park

And he’s not afraid to say so.

Hoping to jump-start another discussion about redeveloping the Astrodome, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Thursday called the Houston Texans and the Rodeo’s proposal to demolish the iconic stadium and replace it with a park-like green space “a silly plan” and pleaded with members of the Hotel & Lodging Association of Greater Houston to give repurposing a second chance.

“The Astrodome is the only building in the world that’s 350,000 square feet of column-free space,” he told a luncheon crowd at the Four Seasons Hotel downtown. “There are a lot of creative people in the world who would love to figure out ways to use the space if we just keep it and make it an option for them.”

The county’s top elected official was not advocating for a specific redevelopment proposal and told association members there is not one currently under consideration by the Harris County Commissioners Court, which will have the final say on any plan to renovate or demolish the structure. Rather, he said that tearing it down would be a waste of a valuable taxpayer-funded asset and that demolition would come back to haunt him in retirement.

The 49-year-old structure “is going to become a critical piece of who we are as a community. It’s not about nostalgia,” he continued. “It’s an asset that belongs to the taxpayers of Harris County and it would be a shame, because I know that I would wake up in retirement at my log cabin 10 or 12 years later and somebody would come forth and say ‘If we just had the Astrodome.’ So, I just wanted to bring that out. I’m starting that discussion again.”

In the last week, Emmett has expressed opposition to a $66 million proposal by the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and the NFL’s Texans to demolish the stadium and turn it into a grassy, outdoor space like downtown’s Discovery Green where festivals, tailgating and concerts could take place. He did so again on Thursday.

“It’s a silly plan,” he said after his remarks. “I told them: If you’re going to tear it down, just tear it down. I mean, is anybody going to care this is where Harmon Killebrew hit a home run?”

Well, I think some nod to the history of the place if it gets torn down is the least we can do, but that’s a valid point. Judge Emmett was the only distinctly negative voice on Commissioners Court when the idea first surfaced, so this isn’t a big surprise. I’m happy to restart this conversation as well, but the problem is that after all these years there still isn’t an agreed-upon idea for What To Do With The Dome nor a way to pay for it. You’d think that if it was ever the time for a private investor to come forward with a plan, it would be now while we’re experiencing a huge real estate and construction boom. Alternately, the county could float another bond proposal; Emmett acknowledged in an earlier version of this story that they did a lousy job selling the last one, so maybe the next time, if there is one, they’d do better at it.

I don’t know if this is going to go anywhere. The rest of Commissioners Court appears to be receptive to the Astrodome Park idea, though perhaps their enthusiasm will wane a bit if the Rodeo and the Texans get weaselly about how much they’d be willing to pony up for it. Emmett sort of called them out on that, saying he’d oppose the idea even if they picked up the entire tab, which I’m sure they never had in mind. Things are on hold while the Texas Historical Commission is deciding whether or not to grant the Dome historical status. Like I said, I don’t know where we go from here, but one way or another the matter is still open for discussion. Hair Balls, Texas Leftist, and PDiddie, who does like the Astrodome Park idea, have more.

Astrodome Park: The population isn’t the problem

Greg Wythe addresses one of the central questions about the proposed Astrodome Park in this comment that I thought was worth highlighting on the front page.

As it turns out, there are a number of apartments situated to the east and north of the Dome. Checking Census data, the counts on the area “un-highlighted” in this map view comes to 13,360 for the immediate Dome walking area.

If we look at just downtown, we have only 4,690 total people there to seed Discovery Green with foot traffic. So, on the surface, the Dome area is significantly better situated. If we factor in Midtown and a generous interpretation of EaDo, we get 13,243 people in the “un-highlighted” version of the downtown map. Still less than would be accessible to the Dome park.

Both maps are from roughly the same elevation, so the expanse of territory of those maps should give a good interpretation. Obviously, not all parts of downtown (let alone Midtown or EaDo) are considered “walkable” to Discovery Green and not all parts of the Med Center apartments are going to be “walkable” to a Dome park.

But even if the downtown area were more populated, I don’t think it would make a case in and of itself – highways and a rail line to the Dome generally mean easier access. If there’s a problem with the proposal, proximate population and access aren’t going to be among them.

Greg’s input – and his maps! – are always appreciated around here, so I’m glad he was inspired to do this bit of research. I have three takeaways from it.

1. It seems clear that the residential population around the Astrodome is not an impediment to it becoming a successful park like Discovery Green. Honestly, when you think about it, Houston’s best parks – here we include Hermann and Memorial, for starters – are destinations. People get there by whatever means is most practical to enjoy their amenities. If Astrodome Park is worth going to, people will go to it.

2. That said, I wouldn’t completely dismiss the walkability question, nor the point that Astrodome Park would be a small oasis of green surrounded by a sprawling desert of asphalt, which may have a dampening effect on attendance. Walkability is about more than just distance to travel, it’s about the experience and utility of walking as a mode of transportation. People associate walking with downtown, if only because wherever you’re going downtown, you’re likely going to park a couple of blocks away from it, and once you do park it’s often expensive and inconvenient to move and re-park. That asphalt desert that would encircle Astrodome Park feels like it might be a psychological barrier to the park. I don’t know how to test that hypothesis without actually building the park, and even I will admit that the total effect of what I’d describing here is likely to be minimal in reality, but I do think one reason why people are skeptical of the idea is because of this. It just doesn’t fit with our perception of the place. Of course, there were people saying the same thing about Discovery Green not too long ago, so take this all with an appropriate amount of salt.

3. Really, what Greg highlights here just enhances what Lisa Gray wrote about and I commented on: It’s the programming. The people that conceived, built, and now run Discovery Green have put a ton of work and a few million bucks into making it a place that people want to go. The evidence that we have so far is that other than invoking Discovery Green as an optimistic analogy, the proponents of Astrodome Park haven’t done any of that thinking or planning or fund-seeking. If and when they show their work on this, we can evaluate their plans and compare them to Discovery Green and see how we feel. Until then, it’s just some pictures on a set of PowerPoint slides.

Could Astrodome Park actually work?

Lisa Gray asks a good question about the proposal to turn the Astrodome into green space.

Could that really be a park like Discovery Green? It’s easy to imagine that green space being useful, say, for a Super Bowl party, tailgating during home games, or as an extension of the Rodeo. But outside of those occasional events, what would lure people to an out-of-the-way, surrounded-by-asphalt park? What would it take to convince them to go there seven days a week, even in July?

I asked Barry Mandel, president and park director of Discovery Green.

“What’s their goal?” Mandel said. “Is it to have a space that’s active only during events? Or do they want to draw people in, to have it be active seven days a week? Do they want it to be a catalyst for development?”

If everyday activity is a goal, Mandel says, it has to be baked into the plans from the very beginning. Discovery Green started its planning with the goal of having people come to the park — in what was then considered a very inconvenient, little-used part of downtown — every day of the year. “That was a bold idea,” says Mandel. “Planning started by getting community input. Project for Public Spaces went out to the community and asked two questions: What would it take to bring you here? And what are your concerns?”

Those planners returned with an almost comically long list of features to be packed into the small space: A lake, multiple stages, a dog run, a micro-library, a playground, a quiet garden, permanent public art, green space suitable for Frisbees or ball-throwing, and not one but two restaurants. Only then, knowing what needed to be included, did anyone draw plans.

The park’s baked-in permanent features draw an important steady stream of park visitors: Even when nothing special is going on, people believe the park is an interesting place to be.

In addition, of course, Discovery Green deploys intense “programming” — a dizzying array of events, all through the week, intended to draw people from all walks of life. Concerts. Movie nights. Yoga. Zumba. Dog shows. Temporary public-art exhibits. Kayak classes. Flea markets. Circus performers.

Those events cost money. “Since the park started, we’ve probably spent $5 million on programming,” says Mandel.

Putting this another way, Discovery Green was founded with a lot of foundation money behind it. How much money did it take to make Discovery Green happen? A lot.

The total cost to acquire the land that became Discovery Green was approximately $57 million, and the total cost to build, landscape, and complete the project was approximately $125 million.

The Astrodome Park plan carries a $66 million price tag; the Rodeo and the Texans say they’ll contribute some amount to that, but they don’t say how much. If they’re serious about this, and the invocation of Discovery Green is more than just grabbing for the easy analogy of “urban public parks created from previously unused space”, then I say show me the money. In particular, show me the private and non-profit partners in this venture and their plans for what to do with the place after it opens. I’ll still be skeptical – Discovery Green may have once been in a “very inconvenient, little-used part of downtown” – but it was still close to a lot of people in a way that Astrodome Park isn’t. What’s the plan to bring people there, and what’s the funding source to pay for it? That’s what we need to know.

The Rodeo and the Texans would like to demolish the Dome now, please

Yeah, I don’t know how well this will go over.

County leaders said Thursday they are open to considering a $66 million plan devised by the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and the NFL’s Houston Texans to demolish the iconic Astrodome and turn the nearly 9-acre site into a massive outdoor space reminiscent of downtown’s Discovery Green.

The two organizations – the primary tenants of the South Loop sports complex where the vacant stadium stands – briefed commissioners on their proposal this week.

The project, titled the “Astrodome Hall of Fame,” calls for tearing down the dome, bringing the floor to ground level and installing an open-air structure where the walls once stood, according to a 37-page proposal obtained by the Houston Chronicle. The plan, drawn up by two architecture and construction firms, is designed to pay tribute to “the Astrodome’s history” and realize its potential as an “outdoor fulcrum” of NRG Park.

Renderings show what looks like the ribs of the former stadium circling a vast, grassy space with multiple event stages. Tributes to the various events, athletes and entertainers – from Elvis to Earl Campbell – who have played and performed at the stadium throughout the decades would be installed on each of 72 structural columns that would stand as tall as the 49-year-old structure.

“We think they came up with a tremendous idea and it’s the one thing we don’t have out there right now,” Rodeo Chief Operating Officer Leroy Shafer said of the plan devised by Gensler and Linbeck Construction. “This puts a park right in the center of our NRG park complex.”

Shafer and Texans President Jamey Rootes said they are open to helping foot the bill for the project, describing it as “affordable,” but would not say how much they would contribute.

Mighty thoughtful of them. You can see their proposal – which has a February, 2014 date on it, by the way – here; the embedded image comes from that document. The inspiration for turning the Dome into green space comes from Discovery Green. I love Discovery Green and I’m generally favorable towards more parks, but I am skeptical of this analogy. Discovery Green is a park surrounded by city blocks that are full of people who can walk to it. Astrodome Park would be surrounded by acres of parking lot that abuts a highway on one side. Who’s going to walk to it? I admit, it’s true that a significant number of Discovery Green visitors arrive by car, so I may be overblowing this. But as I look at the renderings, I can’t escape the feeling that this is something that’s being grafted on to the space. It just doesn’t feel natural to me.

Maybe that’s not important to the proponents of this idea, which include at least two members of Commissioners Court, Steve Radack and Jack Morman. (El Franco Lee is undecided but not obviously opposed, Jack Cagle did not comment for the story, and County Judge Ed Emmett is strongly against it.) Perhaps all that matters is that it would be used Rodeo attendees and Texans fans, and would make a pleasing backdrop for Super Bowl LI. I wonder if they’ll be happier about paying to maintain a lightly-used park than they are about upkeep on the aging Dome.

Reactions I’ve seen so far to this range from ambivalence and resignation to outrage, with a healthy dose of the latter on Facebook. I fall more into the first two camps. I’ve never had an emotional connection to the Dome but I don’t relish the idea of tearing it down, and I still think repurposing it is the better way to go. But after the bond referendum was voted down last year, even if one interpreted that as a rejection of that specific idea rather than of preserving the Dome, it wasn’t hard to imagine this kind of scenario playing out. The powers that be would like to have a plan in place to Do Something by 2017, when the Super Bowl arrives. There’s no consensus for a preservation plan, and no funding source, either. Demolition is the easy way to go, and hey, at least this beats more parking lots, right? If you feel strongly about this one way or another, I advise you to contact your County Commissioner and let him know how you feel. Time is running out. Hair Balls and Swamplot have more.

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.

They don’t make historic landmarks like they used to

If it can still be demolished, it’s fair to ask what was the point.

Not historic but still standing

The impending designation of the Astrodome as a so-called “state antiquities landmark” has offered new hope to those who want to save the iconic stadium, but the special title would not outright protect the former Eighth Wonder of the World from the wrecking ball, even though it would make it far more difficult.

At an “Astrodome Stakeholder’s Meeting” on Wednesday convened by Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, preservation groups pointed out that the county still could seek a demolition permit from the Texas Historical Commission, even if the 13-member body votes this summer to deem the dome an antiquities landmark. Emmett noted that the county, under state law, could also make the case that redevelopment is too much of a burden on taxpayers in asking the commission for permission to tear down the now-empty structure.

[…]

“If we can’t find a group or a solution to use that building, we’re going to get to demolition eventually,” said Beth Wiedower, a senior field officer for the National Trust. “Yes, this is great that it’s been recognized as historic but our efforts are going to be focused on reusing the building because that’s ultimately what’s going to save it.”

Emmett said he organized the Wednesday meeting because he wanted everyone to be “on the same page” about where things stand with the dome, particularly the antiquities designation he says will impose added difficulties as the county tries to figure out what to do next.

The historical commission is slated to consider the designation at its meeting July 30-31.

[…]

Emmett said Wednesday the goal – as it was before the failed bond proposal – is to find a private entity to redevelop the dome at its own expense, something the county has been seeking for years now to no avail. He also said demolition still is not on the table, although he mentioned a provision in state law that would allow the county to make the case to the commission that demolition is necessary because redevelopment is too costly, if no plan pans out.

“Part of this antiquities landmark process later on could be going to the historical commission and saying ‘Look we’ve tried we’ve tried, we’ve tried. We’ve not come up with an answer and this is too great a burden on the taxpayers of Harris County and that is a provision in the law that you can take into consideration,” he said.

Emmett said he expects the commission will approve the designation, preventing demolition at least for the “short run.”

“If they grant the landmark status then I think that will force some people to come to the table and say, ‘OK, we’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do with the dome’ because I think it would be unlikely then, in the short run, that the historical commission would approve tearing it down,” he said.

See here, here, and here for the background. Not sure we’re any closer than before to agreeing on What To Do About The Dome. Well, at least now we agree that it can still be torn down. Whether or not that’s what we want to do is a whole ‘nother question. So I guess we’ll just keep talking.

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.

A step forward for the historic Astrodome

From CultureMap:

Not historic but still standing

Efforts to make the Astrodome a State Antiquities Landmark took a key step forward Tuesday as the state Antiquities Advisory Board voted unanimously to forward the application to the Texas Historical Commission. Such a designation would prevent the Astrodome from being altered or demolished without approval from the commission.

The commission will make a final decision on the application in July — and that could be the impetus (finally) for a frank and serious discussion on what to do with the world’s first domed stadium.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett plans to hold a large “stakeholders’ meeting” next month, bringing RodeoHouston and Houston Texans officials, preservationists and a host of interested parties on both sides to discuss “where to go from here,” said spokesman Joe Stinebaker. Emmett also plans to hold public meetings around Houston in an attempt to build consensus toward a solution that can be presented to the historical commission this summer.

“There is no move to tear down the Dome,” Stinebaker said. “But historical designation could tie the county’s hands in making it more difficult and expensive to do anything.”

Backers of efforts to save the Astrodome believe it cleared a “major hurdle” Tuesday with the advisory commission’s vote. “There’s no going back now,” an elated Ted Powell said in a telephone interview from Fort Worth after the vote.

[…]

Once an application is filed, no changes can be made to a structure under consideration during the review process, Texas Historical Commission spokeswoman Debbi Head told CultureMap, so the Astrodome has technically been protected from major changes or demolition while the process for antiquities landmark designation winds its way toward a resolution.

But Powell believes the vote signals an important turning point for the Dome’s future. “It brings qualified folks to the table to make sure the historical integrity (of the building) is preserved,” he said.

See here for the background. Designating the Astrodome as a historic structure doesn’t solve the problem of what to do with it, nor does it solve the problem of how to pay for whatever needs to be done. It does keep the Astrodome standing, which perhaps adds a bit more incentive to find those solutions. That’s a good thing. I don’t know how this ends, but I won’t complain about giving the Astrodome a reason to exist.

Astrodome: Deep Space Nine

This is now my favorite idea for What To Do With The Dome.

Houston, the final frontier

Right now the folks in Houston are trying to figure out what to do with the Astrodome, which has been sitting vacant for several years. Many plans for the dome have fallen by the wayside, including this multi-use approach which I really like. I’m going to throw my esteemed hat into the ring and declare that the Astrodome be converted into Deep Space Nine.

That’s right: a mega Star Trek tourist destination in the very city where the Space Program resides. This resort would look and feel like the space station seen in the show.

This is made possible by building the central hub and encircling promenade in the middle of the field, with three bridges that connect to the existing concourse in the Astrodome. The dome’s circular shape is quite handy here!

Thanks to the dome you can create a lot of celestial facades within, making it feel like you’re in deep space when you’re looking out of the windows of the station.

The resort would feature a hotel with lots of “housing quarters”, restaurants, bars, shops, and a casino (Quark’s bar and casino, naturally). In addition to the main bridge and promenade, other destinations would include “docked” spaceships like the Defiant. There is still plenty of real estate in the dome to include rides, a few space museums (of the non-fiction and science-fiction variety), Imax theaters, and so on.

Click over to see his illustration of how this would work. I don’t care how feasible this is or what the financing situation is, this needs to happen. Who’s with me on this? Link via Swamplot.

The historic Astrodome

Not sure what effect this will have.

Not historic but still standing

The National Park Service has added the Astrodome, the world’s first domed stadium, to the National Register of Historic Places, making it eligible for tax breaks to aid in its rehabilitation but offering no real protection from the wrecking ball.

Historical preservationists, who successfully pushed for the Dome’s inclusion on the National Register, pledged Friday to continue their battle to save the Houston icon by asking the state to declare it an antiquities landmark – a designation that could limit Harris County’s power to alter or demolish the 49-year-old structure without a permit from the Texas Historical Commission.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett responded through a spokesman that he would “oppose anything that would tie the hands of officials elected by Harris County taxpayers, who own the Dome.”

The National Register’s decision Thursday to add the Astrodome, which opened in 1965, makes it eligible for inclusion on the state list. The historical commission normally takes six months to rule on such nominations, but once the process starts, a site is protected until a decision is reached. In recent years, said Gregory Smith, the agency’s national register coordinator, commissioners annually have granted fewer than six landmark designations to buildings.

[…]

Nominating the Astrodome for the national register were Cynthia Neely, owner of Black Gold Productions, a Houston film company, and Ted Powell, a LaPorte retired chemical engineer who led the fight to save and restore the Hurricane Ike-damaged Sylvan Beach pavilion.

Through the efforts of Friends of Sylvan Beach Park & Pavilion, the 1950s-era building was saved from demolition and restored in a $4.9 million project funded largely by federal hurricane recovery funds.

Neely and Powell confirmed Friday that they plan to push for the protective antiquities landmark designation.

The issue as always is whether someone – Harris County or a private investor – is willing to put up the money to Do Something with the Dome. Being added to the Register makes the Dome eligible for various tax breaks, but I don’t know how much effect, if any, that may have on the financial calculations for this. I suppose designating the Dome as a nationally historic structure might add to the pressure to not demolish it, but that doesn’t move it forward otherwise. But hey, every little bit helps.

Saving Rice Stadium

Houston has another historic stadium in it that’s seen better days, but this one is still in use and has some hope of being restored to its former glory.

Rice Stadium, 1951

As a place to watch a game, there are few better than Rice Stadium, thrown up almost overnight between the 1949 and 1950 seasons. But it also was a time before television discovered college football. And before professional sports discovered Houston. Times changed.

Today, as the Rice Owls play for their first outright conference championship since 1957, it is an apt moment to ask whether the city’s first great stadium, with seating for 70,000, has outlived its usefulness. Rice boosters say yes, reluctantly. And no, emphatically.

“Over the years it has been looked at as under-utilized asset – we don’t need it, we can’t take care of it,” said architect and Rice alum Jack McGinty. “It’s been recommended that it be demolished. I think that time has passed. They realize its architectural value. It was the most famous football stadium in America.”

“Was” is the operative term in McGinty’s assessment. Less than a generation after it was built, another Houston stadium became the most famous sporting venue of any sort. But he remains ever-loyal, in no small measure because his father was on the team of designers.

“It’s a far greater architectural treasure than the Astrodome,” McGinty said. “Not from a civic or historical point of view, of course, but architecturally speaking. It won all sorts of awards for its architecture.”

All true. Yet with the passing years it became a little too big, and a little old, and more than a little lacking in modern amenities. Now a plan is afoot to do something about that.

The school has contracted with HKS Architects, a leading national firm with the Dallas Cowboys’ new stadium among its many credits, to do a study of stadium enhancement and athletic department needs. Their conclusions will result in a plan that will supplant the one approved by trustees two years ago that went nowhere. That in turn will spark a major fundraising effort to put the school’s athletic facilities on a par with those of comparable schools, including Stanford and Duke.

“The former project is dead,” said David Gibbs, an alum and major benefactor who has been devoted to refurbishing the stadium. “What I call the historic preservation and comprehensive enhancement of iconic Rice Stadium is just getting started.”

Offcite had a nice story about Rice Stadium and its historic value the other week. It’s worth clicking on just for the pictures. As someone who has been at Rice Stadium for nearly every home game since 1988, I can tell you it’s a great place to see the game. You’re close to the action, the sight lines are outstanding, there’s really not a bad seat in the house. The amenities, if you can call them that, are embarrassingly bad, and are a big impediment to the football program being seen as modern and competitive. Just having concessions and bathrooms that aren’t 1950’s vintage would go a long way. We fans have been clamoring for upgrades for years, maybe now we’ll finally get them. I sure hope so.

The Dome’s status is complicated

Is it a landmark or not? If so, what kind?

We still have the memories

Mayor Annise Parker this week called an effort by the city historical commission to designate the Harris County-owned Astrodome a city landmark “ill-advised,” and said she had no plans to put the item before City Council for approval.

The Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission on Thursday is expected to vote to seek landmark designation for the 48-year-old stadium, where the county currently is carrying out $8 million worth of work, including asbestos abatement and demolition of exterior pedestrian towers added in the late 1980s.

[…]

City Attorney David Feldman said that if the commission votes to start the designation process, “the Astrodome would be subject to the requirement to get a ‘certificate of appropriateness’ for almost any activity affecting the exterior of the structure, including demolition, unless the county establishes that the ordinance does not apply to them.”

The historic preservation ordinance specifically applies to property owned by “a political subdivision of the state of Texas; provided such entities are not otherwise exempted from this article by law.”

In a memo sent to City Council members on Monday, however, Parker suggested it would be inappropriate for the city to impose landmark status on a building owned by another governmental entity.

“While a resolution supporting preservation of the Astrodome might have my support, the Astrodome is a Harris County facility, and imposing a city historic designation on it without approval of the property owner would be unprecedented,” Parker wrote.

The historic landmark idea came up shortly after the election. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett has said it likely won’t make any difference since the main thing that designation does is put a halt on demolition for 90 days, and as we know they’re in no hurry to do anything permanent. There are other possibilities as well.

Meanwhile, a separate effort is afoot to get the Dome designated a national historic landmark, which would make it eligible for federal funding and also for designation as a state historic landmark – like the Alamo – which would bar demolition.

“That’s the ultimate goal,” said Cynthia Neely, who helped prepare an application to nominate the 1965 stadium for placement on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Texas Historical Commission approved the application in October. Neely said she expects the National Park Service to add it to the register in January.

Ms. Neely has a long history with Astrodome advocacy. I think I remember seeing something about the Texas Historical Commission taking action, but this is the first I can recall hearing about the National Register of Historic Places possibly being involved. If that happens, I wonder what the implications would be for any private investors that may be lurking out there. Like I said, it’s complicated.

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.

Where the early vote was

As you know, I thought that the high turnout we were seeing in Early Voting for this past election was not so much an indicator of high turnout but of a shift in voting behavior similar to what we had seen in even-year elections. That prediction was incorrect – final turnout was higher than I thought it would be, and the reason for that was it was still the case that a majority of the vote was to come on Election Day itself. However, it is the case that behavior is shifting, and a bigger share of the vote was cast early than in prior odd-year elections. Let’s take a closer look at the early vote numbers, beginning with how much of the vote was cast early in each of the City Council districts:

Dist Total Mail Early E Day Mail% Early% EDay% ========================================================== Hou 174,632 20,280 60,135 94,217 11.6% 34.4% 54.0% A 13,532 2,347 4,513 6,672 17.3% 33.4% 49.3% B 13,753 1,868 5,563 6,322 13.6% 40.4% 46.0% C 32,466 3,107 9,791 19,568 9.6% 30.2% 60.3% D 19,663 2,295 7,462 10,652 11.7% 37.9% 54.2% E 18,702 1,788 6,920 9,994 9.6% 37.0% 53.4% F 7,790 564 3,516 3,710 7.2% 45.1% 47.6% G 27,286 3,879 8,215 15,192 14.2% 30.1% 55.7% H 10,249 1,041 3,109 6,099 10.2% 30.3% 59.5% I 9,538 1,133 3,110 5,295 11.9% 32.6% 55.5% J 5,942 679 2,193 3,070 11.4% 36.9% 51.7% K 15,461 1,479 5,563 8,419 9.6% 35.6% 54.5% All 259,962 24,000 87,925 148,037 9.2% 33.8% 56.9% Non 85,330 3,720 27,790 53,820 4.4% 32.6% 63.1%

“All” is all of Harris County. “Non” is Harris County minus Houston. As you can see, districts B, F, and A are the trendsetters in early voting, while Districts C, H, G, and J are behind the times. The city of Houston overall was more likely to vote early than Harris County, and much more likely to vote absentee than the non-Houston parts of the County. This makes sense because it’s usually candidates that drive absentee voting. Note that the four districts with multi-candidate races – A, B, D, and I – were all above average in absentee participation; District G was the other big performer there, and it was a contested race.

I don’t have any grand conclusions to draw from this, I was just curious about what the numbers looked like. I continue to believe that we will see a shift towards early voting in these elections – the level we saw this year was easily the high water mark for odd-year elections. Note that the higher early totals for the city, admittedly driven more by absentee ballots than by in person early voting, suggests that the Astrodome wasn’t a major component of early vote turnout. It was a modest driver of non-Houston turnout, as the city of Houston comprised 67.2% of all Harris County votes. That compares to 73.6% in 2011, 69.5% in 2009, and 63.6% in 2007. For those of you that had been playing the “guess the final level of turnout based on early voting” game, the right scenario among the ones I presented was 45% early plus high Houston turnout, which pegged it at about 170,000. More data to file away for 2015.

Not in a rush about the Dome after all

We’ll get to deciding what to do with the Dome when we get to it.

We still have the memories

Harris County leaders are in no rush to decide what to do with the Astrodome, leaving the empty and decaying stadium to languish further following last week’s voter rejection of a $217 million plan to convert the iconic stadium to an events center.

Although a majority of court members said prior to Election Day that demolition would be the obvious choice in the event voters turned down the event center plan, not one of them is championing a tear-down.

“I’m kind of over it. I mean, I’m going to go do other things for awhile and see what happens,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said Monday. “This really isn’t the top priority in my life.”

The delay could give historic preservationists time to gain some type of landmark status for the 1965 Dome, which could block its demolition or place limitations on what could be done with it.

Even Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, who has suggested turning the sunken floor of the Dome into a detention pond in an effort to mitigate flooding and slash the cost of filling the 35-foot-deep hole, said he has no plans to push for a vote to demolish the dilapidated stadium.

“I do not intend to put that on the agenda anytime soon,” Radack said. “We’ll see what other ideas emerge.”

[…]

Commissioners Court will have some built-in lag time: Dome asbestos abatement, slated for approval Tuesday, is expected to begin in December and will take an estimated six months to complete.

“I have no deadlines in my mind,” Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said last week after the election.

Look, I voted for the Dome resolution. I myself suggested that the referendum didn’t specify demolition if it failed. I’m as happy as anyone that we’re not fitting it up for the wrecking ball right now. But something needs to happen, and Commissioners Court needs to make up its mind. We can’t go back to the status quo, if only because the 2017 Super Bowl is looming, and there will for sure be plenty of pressure from the Texans and the NFL to Do Something. If demolition is in the future, then let’s be clear about it and not raise any false hopes. If Commissioners Court really doesn’t want to demolish the Dome, then they need to get another plan out there pronto. There is a deadline, and we can’t just sit around and wait any more.

In the meantime, other groups that do know what they want to do are taking their own action.

The city of Houston’s historical commission has voted unanimously to consider an effort that could give landmark status to the endangered Astrodome.

Maverick Welsh, chairman of the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission, put forward the motion at the agency’s monthly meeting last week.

“I think it was the right thing to do,” Welsh said. “We have to focus on saving this building.”

The move, however, was principally symbolic. Such a designation would only put a 90-day hold on any demolition.

“It’s the only thing we can do as a commission to try and raise attention of saving the dome,” Welsh said.

If the commission decides to move forward, City Council would have final say on the historic designation.

I don’t know that this is anything more than a symbolic gesture, but at least it’s a direction. If the stakes in this election were “vote for the New Dome Experience or we’ll be forced to try and figure something else out” and not “vote for the New Dome Experience or the Dome goes bye-bye”, then Commissioners Court needs to get cracking on figuring out that something else. If it was the latter, then I’d rather get it over with quickly than string it out. But please, we’ve had the vote. Please tell us what it meant and then do something about it. Campos and Texpatriate have more.

Precinct analysis: The Dome and the jail

Now that precinct data is out, the Chron has an updated take on what sunk the Astrodome referendum.

We still have the memories

Overall, 53.4 percent of Harris County voters rejected the bond issue that would have renovated the long-vacant Dome into a convention and exhibit space. In Houston, 50.1 percent of the voters turned it down, while in unincorporated Harris County, 56.4 percent snubbed it.

Political analysts saw overlapping trends with the preliminary data, released last week by the Harris County Clerk’s Office.

First, residents who lived farther from the Dome were more likely to vote it down. Second, conservative areas – not only the suburbs but also inside the city, particularly the west side – tended to oppose the measure. And third, whites opposed the measure, with blacks in support.

University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus and others agreed race was not the controlling factor, however. Rottinghaus said age could explain the correlation: Many black neighborhoods inside the city are full of older folks who have lived in their homes for decades, he noted, and might have more memories of the Dome.

“If you conceive of the Dome question as being a question of those who had a nostalgic feel for the Dome, older people gave it what little support it had,” Rottinghaus said. “But newer areas of Houston or people who have been transplanted from other places, those people are less likely to have a nostalgic feel for the Dome.”

Rice University political scientist Bob Stein was less convinced that nostalgia was a driving force. Data shows the deciding factor was proximity to the Dome, he said.

Political philosophy drove the Dome’s poor showing in typically conservative areas, including the suburbs, said Republican communications consultant Jim McGrath. He noted the ballot language specified, at the request of Harris County Commissioners Court, that approval would result in a tax hike.

“I kept hearing it was a boondoggle and nobody wanted to sign on for that,” McGrath said. “A lot of people said it was great architecture and ought to be preserved and it was the Eighth Wonder of the World. I get all of that, but the passion was on the side of the folks who said, ‘We ought not be spending this kind of money, we have other priorities in the county.’ ”

A lot of what is being said here was said before, only this time now we have the numbers. And here’s what they look like by my check:

Dist For Against For % =============================== A 7,172 8,693 45.21% B 6,817 6,203 52.36% C 15,428 15,288 50.23% D 9,874 7,954 55.38% E 7,819 12,302 38.86% F 3,674 4,189 46.73% G 11,049 14,766 42.80% H 4,761 4,390 52.03% I 4,400 4,042 52.12% J 2,782 2,540 52.27% K 7,872 6,420 55.08%

Here it is broken down by various groups:

Group For Against For % =============================== Houston 81,648 86,787 48.47% Harris 30,312 41,699 42.09% Dem 49,152 44,297 52.60% Rep 26,040 35,761 42.14% Swing 6,456 6,729 48.96% AA 24,563 20,577 54.42% Latino 9,161 8,432 52.07% Anglo 41,468 51,049 44.82% Other 6,456 6,729 48.96%

My percentage for the city of Houston is lower than what the Chron cites because of split precincts, by which I mean precincts that are partly in Houston and partly not. I’ve tried to tease it out where I can, but for the most part in a precinct where there are city of Houston votes, all of them are counted towards the Houston total.

The other groups are determined by Council district. I’ve defined “Dem” as Districts B, C, D, H, I, and K; “Rep” as A, E, and G; and “Swing” as F and J. Similarly, African-American districts are B, D, and K; Latino districts are H and I; Anglo districts are A, C, E, and G; and Other are F and J.

The numbers basically speak for themselves. I agree with the observation Houston Politics makes in its presentation of maps that show the vote by precinct that there was a lot more fervent opposition to the Dome project than there was fervent support. There were people who were passionate about saving the Dome, but that didn’t necessarily translate to them being passionate about this specific plan to save the Dome. I agree with Jim McGrath’s point about people thinking this plan wasn’t worth a bump in their property taxes. Now, I’m sure some of these people would rather starve to death than vote to increase their property taxes, but I think a lot of people just didn’t see the value in this particular plan. Some of that may be due to lack of campaigning for the Dome, some of it may be due to lack of a clear understanding what the New Dome project would mean and how it would work, and some of it may be due to other factors. While at this point I think it’s probably best to take another crack at finding a private investor to do something with the Dome, I do think it’s possible that a different referendum for a publicly-financed Dome project to pass. That referendum will need a clear statement about what the money is going to be used for and how it will benefit the County, and it will need a better conceived and executed sales plan to get the voters to buy in to it.

I believe a similar lesson can be learned from the successful but too-close-for-comfort joint inmate processing facility referendum. Here are those numbers, with the same disclaimers as above:

Dist For Against For % =============================== A 7,146 7,707 48.11% B 5,797 6,146 48.54% C 15,897 12,366 56.25% D 7,864 8,437 48.24% E 8,295 10,719 43.63% F 3,530 3,884 47.61% G 13,390 10,726 55.52% H 4,075 4,370 48.25% I 3,543 4,258 45.42% J 2,620 2,371 52.49% K 6,754 6,320 51.66% Group For Against For % =============================== Houston 78,911 77,304 50.51% Harris 33,468 34,600 49.17% Dem 43,930 41,897 51.18% Rep 28,831 29,152 49.72% Swing 6,150 6,255 49.58% AA 20,415 20,903 49.41% Latino 7,618 8,628 46.89% Anglo 44,728 41,518 51.86% Other 6,150 6,255 49.58%

Here it’s clear that this referendum owes its passage to the voters in Districts C and G. What this says to me is that just because an item has no opposition doesn’t mean it needs no advocacy. In the absence of other information, it’s likely that some people read this referendum and wrongly concluded that it meant increasing jail capacity like the failed 2007 bond, or another bump in taxes like the Astrodome item. People can’t be blamed for reaching faulty conclusions if they have incomplete evidence. There needed to be a campaign to create and send mailers to targeted voters explaining the virtues of this referendum – no new taxes, no increase in jail capacity, better city-county cooperation, better and more efficient means to divert non-violent offenders into drug counseling and/or mental health treatment, etc. Given that there were no outside groups that had a stake in this, and given that it was an item on the to do lists for Commissioners Court and the Sheriff, I think what should have happened is that Judge Emmett, Sheriff Garcia, and each of the Commissioners should have kicked in a few bucks from their personal finance accounts to help create a PAC to advertise this referendum. Mayor Parker could contribute, too, since closing the city jails was a key component of this. They could work it out among themselves who gave how much, then they could find a couple of respected folks from the mental health or drug rehab worlds to over see the PAC and design the message. If accomplishing an important piece of local government business requires a vote from the public, then local government leaders need to do more than just put the question before the voters and hope the come back with the right answer. There may be campaign finance issues to be dealt with for something like this to happen, but my bottom line remains the same: No opposition doesn’t equate to automatic approval. Let’s learn that lesson and be happy we didn’t have to learn it the hard way.

A lot of people wanted a piece of the Dome

Unfortunately, most came away empty-handed.

This one is not for sale

Wearing a floppy orange hat and an Astros baseball shirt, Dene Hofheinz grabbed a front-row seat for Saturday’s auction of iconic items from the domed stadium her father built more than four decades ago.

She joined thousands of others who waited for hours in long lines to get a piece of history from the world-famous Astrodome. Popular items, including stadium seats and squares of Astroturf, sold out as organizers acknowledged being overwhelmed by the turnout.

Ted Nelkin, whose family owned a sports memorabilia store in Houston for decades and formerly operated a trading card store at the Astrodome, waited more than 11 hours in line and left with a receipt for two pairs of seats, which he was told he could pick up in December.

The manner in which the sale was conducted was “the worst,” Nelkin said.

“I’ve got nothing good to say about it,” he said. “They could have cared less that we were there. It was ‘If you want your seats, you will wait in line as long as it takes.’ We were kept in the dark and had no idea of what to expect.”

Nostalgic fans started lining up around 5 a.m., three hours before the sale was set to begin at the adjacent Reliant Center.

Nelkin said he was told that organizers ran out of Astroturf pieces at 11 a.m. and ran out of physical seats that had been removed from the Dome by 2 p.m., forcing buyers to receive receipts for seats to pick up next month.

Mark Miller, Reliant Park’s general manager, said sale organizers expected about 1,500 people to show up but that the actual crowd was six to eight times that size.

“I apologize to everyone for the wait,” he said. “The sentiment for this building is just overwhelming, but the crowd was very cordial and very understanding, and we had no real issues.”

[…]

“We were going to feel good if we had sold 500 pairs of seats,” Miller said. Instead, organizers sold 900 pairs and accepted orders for another 1,500 pairs.

Miller said Reliant Park will conduct an online auction starting at noon Nov. 15 for customers who were unable to get to the Saturday morning sale. Plenty of seats remain, he said, but he is unsure how much Astroturf, if any, remains available.

The Reliant Park folks guessed at the level of demand for Astrodome items by basing it on the volume at other stadium auctions. Never let it be said Houston isn’t a sports town, I guess. As far as the subsequent online auction goes, I’d love to tell you more, but there’s nothing in the story about it, there’s nothing on the Reliant Park events calendar or on their Facebook page. So who knows when or at what URL it will be. On the plus side, that ought to keep demand under control. John Coby, who attended the sale and came await more disappointed than anything else, has more.

Theories abound about why the Dome referendum failed

I have three things to say about this.

We still have the memories

University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said the outcome of both county bond propositions, as well as the Katy stadium, is indicative of resistance among conservative voters to big-ticket spending items they believe are not necessary, or, in the case of the Dome, that could be paid for with private instead of public dollars.

Rottinghaus noted that dozens of redevelopment proposals from private companies have been floated for the Dome since the Astros moved out after the 1999 season. None of them have panned out, but Rottinghaus said county leaders did not adequately address a “burden of proof” to explain why the proposed “New Dome Experience” project had to be paid for with public money.

“These are fairly large numbers, and I think people look at that amount of money and are worried about the rising tax burden of their house,” he said.

[…]

Rice University political scientist Bob Stein, who conducted the pre-election poll, said the outcome of both county bonds proposals came down largely to lax, or disparate, campaigning by county leaders, not an unwillingness to spend.

“I just don’t think there was any significant effort to explain to people why they were doing this,” Stein said. “They just wanted the voters have a chance to say yes or no, which they clearly did.”

[…]

University of St. Thomas political scientist Jon Taylor pointed out that historic preservation groups, who drove a rented truck dubbed the “Dome Mobile” around Houston in the two weeks leading up to the election, actually campaigned fairly hard for the bond.

Considering there was no organized opposition, though, Taylor attributed the outcome to a “quiet conservative backlash,” with many voters “quietly without telling anybody saying ‘No, we are not going to accept this.’ And they didn’t.”

He and Rottinghaus also said they think that all the bonds approved last year could have led to “bond fatigue” for some voters.

“The voters may be wary of going back to what they consider a dry well,” Rottinghaus wrote. “Combine that with a growing sense that government should handle their fiscal matters more responsibly,” and you get “limited support for the Dome and the joint processing center.”

1. I doubt at this point that any of these professors have seen precinct data from this election yet. I know I haven’t. In the absence of such objective data, people will be influenced by their own opinions in explaining a vote like this. I personally lean closer to Prof. Stein’s explanation – all due respect, but driving a billboard around town doesn’t meet my definition of “campaigning hard”; to the best of my recollection, I got no mail, received no phone calls, or saw any ads relating to the Dome referendum. My personal opinion, as I have mentioned before, is that I think many people had become cynical about the whole thing. I think they didn’t trust the County after so many years of inaction and false starts, and I think they weren’t impressed by the New Dome plan. I do agree that many people were not willing to have their property taxes raised to renovate the Dome, but I think this was more about priorities than a general anti-spending mood. I base my opinions on anecdotes and hearsay, mostly resulting from talking to a few people on Tuesday night and from reading the arguments over the Dome at places like the Swamplot comments. I freely admit these are my own entirely non-scientific impressions, and I make no claim about their objective veracity.

2. To add on to Prof. Stein’s point about the city bonds from last year, I will note that Prop 6, the statewide referendum to create a $2 billion water infrastructure fund, received over 75% of the vote in Harris County (see page 2 here). That’s not quite the same as a bond, but that did have organized opposition who clearly cast it as a spending issue, yet that had little to no effect here, or overall. That said, the electorate for the city bonds in 2012 would be much more Democratic than the county voters this year, so the comparison to last year’s vote needs to be kept in perspective.

3. “Bond fatigue”, like “ballot fatigue”, strikes me as a lazy and meaningless expression that poli sci profs sometimes reach for when some pesky reporter is pressing them to explain something for which there is at best insufficient data. Let us please agree to drop these expressions from the vernacular.

So what happens now with the Dome?

It’s mostly dead, but I suppose it’s not all dead just yet.

We still have the memories

The board of the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., the county agency that runs Reliant Park, passed a resolution in April saying that if a vote were to fail, the agency would ask Harris County Commissioners Court to allow it to “prepare a plan to decommission and subsequently demolish the Reliant Astrodome.”

“That still stands,” said Willie Loston, sports corporation executive director. However, he said, “there’s nothing we have to do now. We’re awaiting direction. That’s the bottom line.”

All eyes now are on the five-member Commissioners Court, which holds the power to determine the fate of the vacant stadium, which has served as nothing more than a storage facility since city inspectors declared it unfit for occupancy in 2009.

[…]

“We said before the vote that absent a vote to transform the Dome into something useful that didn’t bankrupt the county or the taxpayers, then the likely result would be for the Dome to come down, but that’s not my decision – that’s the decision of Commissioners Court,” Emmett said this week.

Asked about demolition on Tuesday, Emmett said the event center plan was “the only option that was viable and, so if the voters rejected the only viable option, then I wouldn’t know where to go next.”

Strictly speaking, I don’t think Commissioners Court is required to authorize demolition at this point. Someone check me if I’m wrong, but I see no reason why they couldn’t choose to pursue another bond referendum next year, perhaps with one of the creative and unfunded plans that had been rejected. I also see no reason why they couldn’t continue to seek out a private investor, or just leave things as they are. They won’t do nothing, but it won’t surprise me if they take a little time before moving forward with something.

What that something is, even if it is the threatened demolition, remains unclear.

County engineers have estimated it would cost $20 million to demolish the dome and create an “open space.”

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, who voted against the bond and predicted its failure, said he plans to push an idea to turn the dome into a detention pond after it is torn down, eliminating the need to fill in the hole – and the cost – and exempting the county from having to pay a controversial city drainage fee.

“We spend millions every year digging holes, so why would we spend $200 million covering up a pretty good hole that can help with flooding? It makes no sense,” he said.

If that happens, then I believe the very least we can do to commemorate what used to be there is to come up with an appropriate name for what follows. Something like “Lake Hofheinz” or if you prefer formality, the “Judge Roy Hofheinz Memorial Retention Pond”, for instance. Or maybe just call it “Radack’s Hole”. I think The People should be left to settle the question on this, too. Feel free to leave your own suggestion in the comments. Houston Politics, PDiddie, Swamplot, Burka, Mean Green Cougar Red, and Hair Balls have more.

Election results: Harris County

The big story: RIP, Astrodome.

We still have the memories

A $217 million bond measure to fund a massive Astrodome renovation failed by several percentage points, a decision expected to doom it to the wrecking ball.

Proposition 2 would have allowed Harris County to issue up to $217 million in bonds to turn the beloved but bedraggled stadium into a massive event and exhibition center.

County commissioners have said they would recommend the wrecking ball if the bond failed.

“We’re going to have to do something quick,” County Judge Ed Emmett said afterward. “We can’t allow the once-proud dome to sit like a rusting ship in the middle of a parking lot.”

He called it “an interesting evening to say the least” and added, “We have an electorate that is for whatever reason anti-bond.”

The news came as a blow to representatives of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“There’s no disputing this building is an icon,” said the Trust’s Beth Wiedower. “Its legacy will live on even if it doesn’t. It seems like it’s fate is sealed obviously we are disappointed in the outcome.”

I voted for the Dome, and I’m sad to see it end this way. I saw a lot of mourning about this on Facebook and Twitter last night. I wonder how many of those folks were Harris County residents, and how many of them voted. I will be very interested to see what the precinct data says about this one.

Thankfully, the joint inmate processing center passed, though by a very close margin. My theory on the Astrodome was that in the end, this effort came too late. I think too many people had become cynical about the whole thing, and perhaps the somewhat staid New Dome proposal, chosen over a number of imaginative but fanciful alternatives, turned people off. I’m just guessing here. The pro-Dome campaign wasn’t particularly high-visibility, either, and that probably didn’t help. Like it or not, the people have spoken.

The Pasadena power-grab redistricting plan was passed in a squeaker as well, 3290 to 3203, with the No vote carrying Election Day, just not quite by enough. There were three other Pasadena proposals on the ballot, and they all passed with 64% or more of the vote. Expect the lawsuit against this to be filed any day.

Finally, in a race I paid only passing attention to, voters in Katy ISD rejected a $69 million bond proposal that included a massive new stadium by a solid 55-45 margin. I had no opinion on that one, but as an AP wire story I spotted on the Chron website said, it was a bad day for stadiums yesterday.

On the uses of the New Dome

So it’s looking pretty good for the Astrodome renovation referendum. But what exactly will we get if it does pass? In particular, will the New Dome be economically sustainable in a way that the current one is not?

To date, Harris County and Reliant Park officials have offered little more than verbal assurances the New Dome would be an economic winner.

The closest thing to a fiscal analysis that has been released since the Harris County Commissioners Court voted in August to put the bond proposal to voters came a month later on a single sheet of paper brought to a Houston Chronicle editorial board meeting. Projections on the paper show a converted Astrodome would generate $1.9 million a year – $4 million in revenue, minus $2.1 million in expenses.

The $4 million includes usage fees, concessions, parking and revenue from “incremental” naming rights. The $1.9 million net income likely would be spent on utilities or other operating costs, but officials say they are certain the facility would pay its own way.

“The goal, at the very minimum, is to break even,” said Edgar Colón, chairman of the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., which devised the New Dome plan.

Consultants the sports corporation hired to devise various reuse plans found last year that “all options have operating shortfalls,” including a multipurpose facility virtually identical to the New Dome plan.

A sports corporation list of potential uses of the New Dome spans more than four pages. Major events include fan parties during the Super Bowl and NCAA Final Four, as well as Wrestlemania.

The list of new prospects, everything from a Star Wars Convention to the Junior Olympic Games, is much longer than the one of existing events that could locate there, which includes only the annual Offshore Technology Conference and the Mecum Auto Auction.

The OTC, which has outgrown Reliant Center, has said it would use the New Dome.

The economic argument officials make the most is akin to “Build it and they will come.”

“You put together a facility that is unique in the world and then you go out and sell it, and that’s what we have here,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who said the new venue would spur hotel and other development in the area.

[…]

Even if the New Dome is not an economic boon, Emmett has suggested that expecting it to break even is not a reasonable goal, comparing it to a public park.

“There are a lot of things that government does that provides an asset or a service to the taxpayers that doesn’t necessarily pay for itself,” he said in his September newsletter.

The “public park” angle is interesting, and it makes some sense. I don’t recall it being brought up before now, which is the sort of thing that can come back and bite you afterward. I look at it this way: The current Dome is costing us something like $2 million a year, and we’re getting no use out of it. If what we build winds up costing less, never mind breaking even, and we get some use out of it, it’s a win. If it does wind up breaking even, so much the better. People clearly find value in the preservation of the Dome, which is a part of Houston’s identity in a way that few other things are, and if we wind up with something that costs a few bucks a year, that’s what we chose to do. Houston Politics has more.

Want to buy a piece of the Dome?

Now’s your chance, but act fast.

This one is not for sale

Five hundred pairs of upper-deck “rainbow gut” seats and old Astrodome space helmets worn by the grounds crew nearly 50 years ago are among the items up for grabs Saturday during a sale and auction at Reliant Center.

Larger Dome items, like turnstiles and dugout benches, are headed for auction, while smaller items will be sold at a fixed price.

Registration for the 9:30 a.m. auction begins at 7 a.m. The sale of seats and turf begins at 8 a.m.

The roughly 500 pairs of upper-deck seats – some of which still had years-old peanut shells stuck to the sides from fans – will be sold for $200 per pair. There’s a limit of four pairs of seats (eight seats total) per person.

For those looking for a piece of history on the cheap, a 12-inch-by-12-inch piece of turf will go for $20. Again, there is a limit. Buyers can take home only four squares of turf per person.

The auction is run by Reliant Park officials and the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., which manages the county-owned Reliant Park.

Proceeds from the event will go to the Astrodome renovation project.

Note that this partial disassembly is necessary whether the Dome referendum passes or not. Recall also that the sale of Astrodome memorabilia was built into the estimates for the Dome renovation project, so by buying that upper deck chair you’re helping the preservation cause. Who out there plans to make a bid for something? Swamplot has more.

First day EV totals

It was pretty brisk, with higher turnout than any of the previous three elections. Here are the relevant daily totals:

2013
2011
2009
2007

And here are the numbers for each for day one:

Year In person By Mail Total ================================= 2013 5,025 8,560 13,585 2011 2,557 2,079 4,636 2009 4,089 2,073 6,162 2007 1,681 957 2,638

I suspect some of this is behavior-shifting, but still, that’s quite an upturn. The Astrodome referendum is probably helping some, but we won’t know till the end how much it drove non-Houston votes versus Houston votes. Another big difference this year is in the total number of mail ballots sent as of Day One:

2013 – 28,620
2011 – 12,041
2009 – 17,413
2007 – 11,646

We’ll see if the in-person pace keeps up. I probably won’t post daily updates on this, but will check in with it periodically, when there’s something interesting to say. I’ll hold off on making any turnout projections till the end of week one. If you voted today, how did it go? I voted at the end of the day at the West Gray Multi-Service Center. There was no line, but there were other people voting while I was there. Let us know what it was like at your location. And speaking of such things, here’s simple image view of the early voting schedule and locations, put together by my friend Robert Nagle for for people who don’t like PDFs.