Realistically repurposing the AstrodomeWell, in my kickoff post I promised something on realistically repurposing the Astrodome, and today's Chronicle article seems to be a good lead-in. The current focus is on trying to convert it to a "mammoth, luxury convention hotel", similar to the Gaylord Texan outside Dallas. And I'm ok with that if the economics truly work. But I suspect we're getting into dangerous "white elephant" territory. There have been articles lately talking about the grossly overbuilt convention space situation in this country (there was even a picture of the recently-expanded George R. Brown in a Newsweek article), as well as ones talking about the pain our downtown hotels are feeling since so much capacity has been added without matching demand (occupancy hovering around 50%). And, from what I've heard, the Gaylord Texan is great, but it's a true resort with a lake and golf courses. Do convention groups really want to hang out at Reliant Park with no lake, no golf, and no nearby street life? There seems to me a high risk of ramming through a very big mistake because of desperation to do something with the Astrodome.
During the original proposal-seeking phase in 2003, I teamed up with the Houston International Festival to propose converting it to a Festival Dome that could hold climate-protected weekend festivals year-round (don't worry, the main annual HIF would still stay downtown). Houston has a great festival scene, but they are packed into narrow spring and fall windows when the weather is (usually) just right (and even then there is substantial rain risk). The proposal listed up to 30 weekend festivals a year, many focused on international cultural themes to draw on Houston's broad global diversity.
This is the kind of use that is extremely inexpensive and low-risk, while still more than covering the maintenance costs of the Dome. Incremental improvements could be made over time as funds are raised (like maybe a freeze-proof tropical botanical garden if the the painted roof panels were cleared?). This use would be also be totally compatible with the concert venue concept mentioned in the Chronicle article, which would be a great compliment to the Woodlands Pavilion - not to mention a heck of a lot closer for most people.
It's also compatible with a concept we've been kicking around at the Education Foundation of Harris County: a large-scale Math and Science Summer Academy for jr.high and high school students. While festivals would use the Dome on weekends, summer weekdays could accommodate thousands of kids spread in small groups throughout the seating tiers doing fun science projects like building robots for competitions, solving Rube Goldberg challenges, understanding the physics of Astroworld rides, and taking light-rail field trips to museums, the zoo, Rice University, the Texas Medical Center, and even Minute Maid baseball games (after learning the physics of baseballs, of course).
Ultimately, our proposal was not picked as a first choice, which I perfectly understand. If the county can find workable proposals that draw $200-$400 million of private investment, they should certainly explore them. But if those proposals look increasingly shaky, have negative side-effects elsewhere (like downtown), or start asking for public money, then they should start looking at the less grandiose proposals that could still be a wonderful asset to our community.
Update: Alison Cook at the Chronicle suggests a food market inside the Astrodome modeled on the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia.