Before a room full of Houston movers and shakers, including representatives from RodeoHouston and the Texans, the prestigious Urban Land Institute presented an ambitious plan to renovate and repurpose the Astrodome and dared Houstonians to make it happen.
"You are at an intersection of choices," said former Pittsburgh mayor Tom Murphy, part of a 10-member panel of nationwide developers, economists and urban planners who came up with the plan. "You can act or you can procrastinate. You can demand quality or you can settle for mediocrity. You can be bold or you can be timid. You can protect the status quo or you can reach for the future."
"You can protect the status quo or you can reach for the future."
The panel has been in the Bayou City for a week to interview more than 125 Houstonians, tour the Astrodome and related sites and prepare the comprehensive plan, which took more than an hour to present in a meeting room at NRG Center. It was paid for by the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation and through a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Established in 1936, the The Urban Land Institute is a nonprofit education and research institute providing leadership in the responsible use of land.
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
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.
Emmett hopes that the park space inside the Dome will be ready in time for the 2017 Super Bowl.
"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."
Emmett hopes that the park space inside the Dome will be ready in time for the 2017 Super Bowl at next door NRG Stadium. "How nice would it be to come next to the stadium where the Super Bowl is going to be played and have some of the fan experience," he said.
Civic leaders respond
Civic leaders who are longtime supporters of the Dome were thrilled with the report. Ed Wulfe called the plan, "audacious, brilliant, it's amazingly comprehensive; it is a road map — we've just got to act."
"We've been looking for a big vision and that's what they're given us," said Phoebe Tudor. "They are challenging our community to work together, be creative and look to the future. Now it's going to be up to people in Houston to see if we can take this and make it work. I think it's super-exciting."
"It took out-of-towners to teach Houston what we should have known all along," said preservationist Cynthia Neely, who spearheaded the drive to have the Astrodome named a state landmark. "I'm hoping that the county will take this ball and run it for a touchdown as fast as possible."
See a copy of the initial report here.