Going into the meeting of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation board last week, held in the glassy glory that is Reliant Stadium, there was a certain dread hanging in the air. (This is Houston, after all. The city where you so much as think something is a historical landmark, and someone else comes along with a bulldozer to knock it down. To build a parking garage. It seems as if it's always a parking garage.)
If you looked out the window, the Astrodome — once dubbed the eighth wonder of the world, now just a piece of Houston's history — sat there next to Reliant Stadium looking like the ancient — by Houston standards — landmark that it is, oblivious of the little group of people in the ostentatious building next door who were about to announce the Dome's future, which has been a matter of debate for years.
Only one speaker asked to address the HCSCC before the board members made their announcement.
Quoting from a speech President John F. Kennedy made in Houston in 1962, Arpad Lamell urged the board to remember where the impetus to build the world's first domed, air-conditioned sports stadium came from, the spirit of the age that created it:
"When President Kennedy made the speech, he said, 'We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do other things. Not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills,'" Lamell said. "Well, ladies and gentlemen, one of the 'other things' included the Astrodome. It opened three years later."
He said the Dome defined us as a city of "yes" and told the board that tearing it down for no reason would redefine Houston as a city of "no."
His impassioned speech earned some hearty applause from the audience. Then Willie Loston, executive director of the convention corporation, got up and announced what his group was recommending the board do with the Dome. (While everyone in the audience likely wondered if the board was going to implode the building or just take it apart piece by piece.)
"We do not recommend tearing down the Astrodome," Loston said.
Hair Balls is not exaggerating in the least to report there was an audible sigh of relief and a couple of hushed, exuberant cries of "Yes!" from the crowd when Loston said the Dome, opened in 1965, wouldn't be torn down.
Instead, it would be renovated and repurposed, he said, reawakening the other fear concerning the famous structure's fate — that it would be consigned to becoming a parking garage.
"Parking. Parking. Parking. Many people talked about parking," Loston said, noting that Reliant Park has more than 26,000 parking spots and they're almost never entirely filled. "Do we need 2,500 parking spots where the Astrodome sits?...We don't need those spaces."
Having assured the crowd that the space that was once a marvel of modern engineering would not be keeping people's cars out of the rain in its new life, Loston moved on and described what is actually in store for the Astrodome. It's basically a total facelift for the building, one that will take 30 months, cost about $194 million to pull off and leave the structure with a different purpose at Reliant Park.
In the New Dome Experience plan, as Loston called it, they'll go in and remove pretty much all the guts of the stadium, stripping the interior down to the bones of the structure, which are still strong. They'll also raise the floor to street level and establish a command post inside the building for security and for running events at Reliant Park.
The outside of the building will get stripped in a similar way. The ramp towers, installed in 1989 to be compatible with the Americans with Disabilities Act, will be taken off. The same goes for all the clutter and concrete that have grown up around the stadium over the years, which will be replaced with green space, restrooms and food places.
"What we want the Dome to become for major events at Reliant Park is the front door. We want everyone to come to go to the Super Bowl through the Astrodome," Mark Miller, general manager of Reliant Park, said.
The mood of the meeting was downright jolly by then as the audience got pretty sure they weren't having to attend the building's wake.
Board members called a vote on whether or not to recommend the plan and send it on for review at the next Harris County Commissioners Court meeting. When board chairman Edgar Colon called the vote, there was a chorus of ayes and one soft-spoken, unexpected dissenting vote. Even Colon wasn't sure who voted against the project, saying he'd have to consult the meeting minutes to figure that out.
County Judge Ed Emmett was on hand for the announcement, and he spoke of the plan to renovate and revitalize the Dome in terms that can only be described as glowing, saying going this route wasn't just about preserving a historic landmark; it was also a choice that would benefit the people of Harris County. He also acknowledged that, of course, as with any public project, this one will have to be paid for at least in part by the public.
The announcement finished up with a lot of smiling and handshaking before everyone began trickling out of the grotto-like cool of Reliant Stadium to make the trek through the heat to their cars.
Antonia Spiller stood outside in her neon-green shirt in front of the west entrance of the Astrodome, directing traffic out of the complex. She swiped a hand across her forehead, wiping away beads of sweat.
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"They aren't going to tear it down? Well, that's a blessing," she said, smiling and turning around to look at the Astrodome, which looked tired and old, a far cry from the gleaming newborn creation it was when it opened on April 9, 1965, and the Astros played the Yankees and Mickey Mantle got the first hit and the first home run in the building's history.
"That's really nice it won't be torn down," she said.
Yes, the Astrodome looked tired, but weirdly triumphant. The way Houston's best-known landmark might look when it knows in its bones that it won't be torn down or become a place to park SUVs.
Now it's all about what the Harris County Commissioners Court thinks.