New $243 Million Astrodome Renovation Plan a Hodgepodge of Recycled Ideas

When the Urban Land Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based organization, released its report on Monday detailing what it recommended for preserving the Astrodome, it sounded an awful lot like what had been previously proposed. The suggestions included a large indoor park, meeting space for the massive annual Offshore Technology Conference, an area for Rodeo events, a history museum, a pre-game activity center for Texans games and even additional parking buried beneath the structure. The only former suggestions not represented were an indoor amusement park, a luxury hotel and a giant fake ski slope.

In all, the proposed renovations were rather underwhelming considering the iconic nature of the building. I am someone who has written about preserving the old gal for future generations and I respect the findings of the ULI, but I have to wonder just who they surveyed and how much influence the plans already on the table had on their findings.

The report states that the opinions of 75 Houstonians who volunteered (no one sent me a questionnaire!) were gathered and used to help form at least some of the basis for the institute's recommendations. Above all, they emphasized the need to preserve the building using "the same bold, creative and determined leadership that created the Astrodome 50 years ago." The anniversary of the opening of the Dome is next month. They also admitted the success of the project would be determined by the shareholders of NRG Park, a nod to the Rodeo, the convention facilities and, of course, the Texans.

The problem is the ideas weren't all that creative or bold, and they came from disparate parties without any central -- never mind determined -- leadership. And there are legitimate questions that spring to mind when reading the 40-page report: Who are these 75 mystery tastemakers the Urban Land Institute surveyed? How were they chosen? What is their stake in this process?

That's worth knowing when you consider the $243 million price tag the group estimates a project like the one proposed will cost. At least this time, the recommendation is a public-private partnership given the fact that every private investor who has come forward with a big idea has been more about trying to get the county to fund his or her venture.

The idea of funding renovations with public money hasn't fared much better and has been met with skepticism from residents who clearly want to save the Eighth Wonder of the World, but only if it is really the right idea. Unfortunately, no one has managed to come forward with something to inspire the voters, and, speaking of skepticism, I'm not certain this plan is going to light any fires either.

Perhaps the bigger issue is handling the other tenants of NRG Park. It's no secret that were the Rodeo and the Texans to have their way, the Dome would have long since gone from architectural marvel to rubble to additional parking spaces. Both organizations have, since NRG Stadium was built, regarded the Astrodome as a nuisance rather than a historical landmark.

That is why it is both disappointing and unsurprising that the ULI's report leans fairly heavily on making those entities happy. Frankly, who cares what the Rodeo or the Texans want? The public spent hundreds of millions of dollars on NRG Stadium and the surrounding park and the biggest beneficiaries are the tenants, not the taxpayers. Generally, you don't ask your tenants for permission when deciding to make changes to your property, but that is clearly not the case here and there are plenty of goodies in here for both.

There's also the whole indoor park concept pushed by County Judge Ed Emmett and, naturally, a tip of the ol' ten-gallon hat to the oil interests via the space for the OTC. It's a patchwork quilt of ideas shoehorned into one concept that feels less like a vision for the future than a way to placate a bunch of people who probably shouldn't have a say in the matter in the first place.

The last attempt to get the public on board with a somewhat similar plan failed miserably at the polls. The county better come up with a better way to market this one or it will be dead faster than you can say Judge Roy Hofheinz.

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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