Dome of Doom

Can the county's rehab plans save the Astrodome from demolition?

Make the Dome into a Houston Sports Hall of Fame, said one, which would indicate either an unhealthy interest in learning details about Houston sports stars, or a plan that would still leave one helluva lot of empty space to be filled.

Make it into a space museum, someone else wrote. Or put an indoor ski slope in there (as if the a/c bills won't already be high enough). Or install a "miniature city" that would have housing, shopping and entertainment for people who never want to see the sun.

" 'Turn it into a museum' -- yeah, right. Even if it's a good idea, who's going to pay for it?" says Loston, a lawyer and CPA. "Many of the ideas we got looked at the use of the facility, but they don't look at how financially you get to that use and support that use."

Banners hang over an empty Astrodome.
Daniel Kramer
Banners hang over an empty Astrodome.

The ideas may have been somewhat harebrained, but the deluge of them made clear that the public wanted to make sure the Dome endured.

And architectural preservationists, naturally, agreed.

"I don't think any architect, or anybody really connected to the past of Houston, wants to see it go," says Barry Moore, one of the city's leading preservationists. "It was a glorious, glorious thing for the city of Houston, and it's famous all over the world."

But no one seems to think much about the fact that the renovated facility would lose a lot of the feeling of the Dome that Houston knows. The colorful seats would be gone, the Astroturf a memory -- it would just be a large shell of a warehouse with a really big roof, the world's largest atrium.

Still, the thought of doing away with it is anathema to politicians.

While the county never intended to rush into demolishing the Dome, the looming warm-glow images of Earl Campbell, Nolan Ryan and everyone's first rodeo all have pushed them into treating that idea like some sort of cloud-cuckoo-land fantasy hardly worth mentioning.

"If in the end there is no viable use for this building, we don't need to keep it just for its own sake," Eckels says in an interview. Envisioning the backlash even such an innocuous statement might trigger, he quickly adds, "And the headline shouldn't be 'Eckels Thinks We Ought to Tear Down the Dome,' because I don't think that's going to happen."

Got it. The county is definitely, absolutely, utterly committed to keeping the Dome. If it can. Which it can. Hopefully.

Of course, it's not just baby-boom nostalgia driving the groupthink. Saving the structure, if it could be converted, conceivably might be cheaper than tearing it down and putting up something new. There have been no formal studies on demolition costs, but estimates range from $6 million to $20 million.

So the county is looking for investors and developers to come forward with ideas. But things haven't quite gone as planned.

The county sent word to the cream of the crop: companies like Disney, Universal Studios, Six Flags, Clear Channel and Anschutz Entertainment, which is proposing a $1 billion hotel/entertainment center connected to L.A.'s Staples Center. Houston's local version of those giants, Tilman Fertitta, also was asked to participate.

All passed.

"We were hoping that we had folks sitting on the sidelines and when we opened the box, they would just rush in," Loston says. "That didn't happen."

None of the companies responded to questions about why they chose not to submit a proposal. A spokesman for Fertitta says, "I'm sure he would say the numbers didn't work," but she couldn't arrange an interview with him.

Among the seven proposals received was one from the Texas Medical Center that called for changing the Dome into a diagnostics/research center. Others included mixed-use developments with such features as a 100-foot waterfall, a mini-rain forest and a kayaking course.

The only one deemed feasible and suitable was from something called the Astrodome Redevelopment Corporation (ARC), a wholly owned offshoot of Trajen Aerospace. It proposed a complex that included a hotel, convention space, amusement rides based on space exploration, and shopping and dining outlets.

It's modeled on a complex near the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport that serves as a one-stop destination for convention crowds and their families.

Trajen operates corporate and military airport facilities around the country, but its experience in redeveloping entertainment sites is largely limited to a movie theater in its headquarters of Bryan, Texas.

So who better to develop a $400 million project?

"I'm sure we'd all have a lot more comfort if we had a deal with someone who had actually done something like this before," Loston says.

There is no deal yet, of course. ARC is retooling its proposal to include more of a "hotel component," as the jargon goes. But the group is being tight-lipped. "We're in the middle of a sensitive time right now in terms of our development and feasibility studies," ARC president Scott Hanson says in declining to comment.

Why did the big companies pass? It could be that no one's ever successfully renovated an outmoded football stadium into something profitable. It may be due in part to the constrictions on putting something into the Dome.

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