Saturday, December 20, 2014

Thoughts on ULI's bold Astrodome proposal

My own snapshot of the old grey lady on a rainy day as I left the ULI event.
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Longtime readers know I've talked a lot about the Astrodome over the years, with my own thoughts on the indoor park idea here.  Yesterday I was able to attend a 10-member ULI panel presentation at NRG/Reliant Park on their proposal for what to do with the Astrodome.  This panel consisted entirely of experts from outside of Houston (so no conflicts of interest), and they were surprisingly enthusiastic in their recommendation to save and re-purpose the dome.  This was not a presentation of, "well, if the all the stars line up you might be able to make this work."  The theme was more, "this is an absolutely incredible opportunity and you would be fools to not seize it."  In fact, Tom Murphy, former mayor of Pittsburgh, was the anchor speaker and threw down the gauntlet, challenging us to step up to the plate, think big, and make this happen (you can see some of his speech in this KHOU Ch11 video).  He said they see way too many cities with "it'll-do disease" where they're not willing to think big, but just do enough to get by at the lowest possible cost, and it would be a tragedy if Houston went down that path here (it certainly would be a break from our big thinking past, from the ship channel to the Astrodome to NASA).  His recommendation: lock all of the relevant players (including the Texans and Rodeo) in a room with a strong local leader and don't let them out until they come to a consensus on the plan!

I'm not going to go a lot here into the details of the proposal they labeled a "Grand Civic Space" - the Chronicle and CultureMap have that well covered, including a supportive quote from me in the front page Chronicle story.  The complete presentation slide deck has also been posted online here.  Here are my thoughts on aspects of it:
  • Brilliant putting 1,500 to 2,000 parking spaces in two levels at the bottom of the dome's bowl, which makes it a lot easier to sell to the Texans and Rodeo.  In general, they said they bent over backwards trying to accommodate their needs, as well as the OTC.
  • They smartly called for refreshing the different tenet agreements at NRG Park, rather than just trying to stay within their limits that never envisioned re-purposing the dome.
  • Clever idea of making a good part of the interior green space removable like the turf trays at NRG Stadium. That allows it to be converted to hard floor space for events like the OTC, or a dirt floor for the Rodeo.
  • They did look at using it for fixed-seating concerts/events, but determined there were already plenty of venues in Houston for that, so that functionality was not included.  There certainly may still be concerts in there, but they will be more of the festival lawn variety.
  • They very explicitly did not recommend a replacement for the NRG/Reliant Arena, whose functionality they believe can be included inside the revamped Astrodome.  Boom - $150 million saved right there!  That may give the Rodeo a little heartburn, but - as I've said before - it's the right call.
  • In any discussions of finances for this, that $150 million savings of an Arena replacement should absolutely be factored in, including communications with the public.  They mentioned a ballpark potential cost number of $200 to $300 million (a bargain compared to similar scale projects elsewhere, they said), which means the Arena savings gets us more than halfway there!
  • They believe it might be possible for operating costs to be covered by revenues, so it won't be an ongoing burden.  The capital costs are the trickier part, although they laid out a lot of options there.
Overall it was far better than I had hoped or expected.  I'm looking forward to their complete report in 2-3 months, but hope the Judge Emmett and the County don't wait that long to get the ball rolling - we've only got two years until the Super Bowl and the eyes of the world are upon us.  If Brown and Root could build Rice Stadium in one year in 1950, then we should be able to do amazing things with the Astrodome in two - we just have to think big and get cracking!

Update: A video of the complete ULI panel presentation has now been posted online here.

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3 Comments:

At 11:49 PM, December 22, 2014, Anonymous Mike said...

Exciting stuff. My concern is with the indoor parking idea. Part of the awe of the Astrodome, maybe the biggest part, is the vast enclosed space. If you take away a fourth of its height for a parking garage, you diminish that impact. You also hurt the idea of a continuous promenade running from Fannin through the dome to NRG stadium, since now everybody has to climb upward to get over the parking (unless they're fitting it all in the below-grade portion of the dome?).

It also seems like a huge cost to build a parking structure inside an existing structure. Seems like you could build a parking structure double the size for the same cost to the south of the dome, making up for the parking lot area lost and not compromising the building.

 
At 7:26 AM, December 23, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yes, the parking will be in the below ground level bowl of the dome. It actually will raise the floor of the dome, bringing it up closer to ground level, so it will be an easier walk-thru promenade. They said one of their core principles was not compromising the majesty of the giant single room, which I think this accomplishes. Yes, the floor will be a bit closer to the ceiling, but it still will be one giant room.

I'm also guessing part of the appeal with the garage is that these could be premium VIP parking spaces with weather protection, a simple elevator ride up into the dome and a short walk to whatever event they're attending. The bottom level of the garage is high ceiling to accommodate rodeo vehicles like 18-wheeler trucks.

 
At 1:21 AM, December 27, 2014, Anonymous Rich said...

Can it be a tax-free enterprize zone, perhaps? Elsewhere there's been chaos as Texas struggles to keep up with (parasitic) federal mandate$ while remaining a going concern:

http://blog.chron.com/primeproperty/2014/12/groups-says-spiking-property-values-could-push-businesses-out-of-houston-state/

 

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