Houston 101

Astrodome Renovation's Only Misstep is Timing

The Astrodome is getting renovated and not everyone is happy about it.
The Astrodome is getting renovated and not everyone is happy about it. Photo by Ed Schipul via CC
On February 13, Harris County decided that the Astrodome deserved one last shot at redemption, approving a $105 million plan to turn the decaying stadium into an exhibition hall despite voters voting down another plan in 2013. State Senator Paul Bettencourt, a long-time tax hawk for the GOP, called it "tone deaf" as did my colleague, Cory Garcia, in this very publication. For Bettencourt, it's a waste of tax money. For many others (my friend included), it's about an extravagent expenditure on the heels of Hurricane Harvey's devastation.

In truth, the Astrodome's biggest problem is timing.

In fairness, I should state up front that I am a fan of the stadium having spent many nights and afternoons there in my youth taking in sporting events ranging from pro football and baseball to high school sports and even an indoor carnival. I have led tours inside the sad interior in recent years and even wrote a perhaps melodramatic ode to it in this very space. I've actually written and talked about the Eighth Wonder of the World quite extensively. One of my good friends even has a pair of the seats he bought during an auction.

Having said all that, I am not blind to the needs of the city where I was born and grew up. No one would argue the great tragedy we suffered last August doesn't demand our complete and full attention. But, the money spent on the Astrodome, while sizable, would never have been spent on flood relief any more than the dollars for upkeep and renovation that continue to pour into Minute Maid Park, NRG Stadium, Toyota Center and BBVA Compass Stadium could be diverted to expand the bayous or pay to put homes on stilts.

We could also argue that funds used to renovate beloved theater facilities (nearly $50 million on the Wortham Center alone) and parks should be turned toward buying up condemned housing and creating new retention ponds, though no one seems outraged at those expenditures. Or that the city should revoke tax incentives given to huge corporations in favor of better drainage and building a third reservoir even if it meant some of them might leave Houston taking jobs with them.

What I keep wondering is why do we think we can't do all of it: mitigate flooding, help Houstonians and renovate the Astrodome. How short sighted must we be to assume that we can only have flood protection or convention facilities? Are we suddenly dependent upon a trade off to make anything happen? We are the fourth largest city in the country. If we can't do it, nobody can.

Back to that timing thing. The Astrodome stopped regularly hosting events over 20 years ago. An entire generation has been born and grown to adults in the time since the Astros and Oilers played there. You would have to go back at least another decade to find a time when it was considered one of the better stadiums in sports.

Had we done something about the Dome when the Oilers abandoned us for Tennessee and the Astros moved to greener pastures downtown, none of this would have even been up for debate. Instead, we sat and we waited and we did nothing until, finally, a last-ditch effort had to be undertaken to preserve what is now an actual historical landmark.

Where were the visionaries in the '90s? Where was the grand plan for a grand venue then? It's not tone deaf to decide to do something now. It was tone deaf to pass the problem on to another generation then. And make no mistake, it's a problem. In a city that tends to value land more than whatever occupies it, the Astrodome is one of the few remaining vestiges of real vision, the same kind that dug a ditch and turned it into the second largest port in America. But instead of a monument to industry — the kind we are embarrassed to admit is a part of who we are — the Dome is a beautiful building open to the public.

If it makes you angry, turn your ire to those who did nothing. We're just the ones left to clean up their mess.

As they say, timing is everything.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke