Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Astrodome plan questions and a better option

Last week HCSCC released a new master plan for Reliant Park with three options for the Astrodome, including two large, relatively detailed chart documents and a public feedback form.  Summing up the three options in their words:
  1. Reliant Astrodome is demolished and replaced by a green space plaza - $873 million
  2. Reliant Astrodome's outer shell remains, a floor is built at grade level, and the interior is converted into a multi-use venue - $1.1 billion
  3. In addition to the improvements in Option 2, additional enhancements will be made to the building, creating a one of a kind mega venue, incorporating a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Institute, a planetarium and much more - $1.4 billion
How does demolition cost almost as much as two new Reliant Stadiums, you might ask?  Well, they cleverly included their real wish-list with all 3 options: a new mega-hotel on-site, new arena, additional exhibition space, and a large parking garage.  There's no option to vote against any of that.  It's also a clever way of making the all-out revamp package seem not that much more expensive than demolition.

Swamplot has their own humorous, mocking take on the plan here, especially the amusing sketches with hundreds of people just milling around inside the empty dome.  I was also a fan of the feel-good pictures of kids learning and graduating - who can vote against that?

First, a couple things I like about this plan:
  • With easy light rail access to the med center, the hotel might actually be viable - it could attract customers even without an on-site convention.
  • The festival space concept is pretty cool, with a nice landscaped outdoor area if the weather is nice, but also a great indoor backup option inside the Astrodome if it's not.  I think festivals could have layout plans for either scenario and make the call a day or two in advance depending on the weather forecast.
But the plan also raises a lot of questions:
  • Is there really demand for this much exhibition space, especially when the George R. Brown has already been expanded?
  • If we need a new arena and additional exhibition space, why aren't they being built inside the structure that already exists and most obviously needs viable uses: the Astrodome?  That would also mean much less parking is lost to new development, meaning we probably wouldn't need the expensive parking garage.
  • If part of the goal is the preservation of a historically significant structure, why do plans call for such a radical change of the Astrodome exterior? (which also adds more cost)
  • If a big part of the majesty of the dome is the vast interior space, why are we cutting that in half with a new raised floor at ground level? (which also adds more to the cost and diminishes the historic preservation)
  • So the best plan we can come up with dumps light rail arrivals on the ugly backside of the buildings (where the freight trucks make deliveries) and requires long, circuitous walks around those buildings to get to the Astrodome, Reliant Stadium, or even to the main entrance of the convention center?
  • What are the specifics of the STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Math) institute?  I support the goal, but what is it really?  What will it offer that's not better served with programs in existing schools?  Here's the concept I pitched in this blog before, but it had a much smaller and less expensive scope:
"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)." 
  • What would this planetarium offer that our existing one at the HMNS doesn't already?  Is the attendance at HMNS's planetarium strong enough to argue for an expensive new one?
  • What is the 'white elephant' risk of these proposed rides and planetarium?  And what's the risk these attractions will drain attendance from and weaken our existing museums?  Examples around the country show that these types of things often do well for a couple of years as all the locals try them out, then attendance drops like a rock (for example, see Seattle's $100m "Experience Music Project still struggling five years later", or The Millennium Dome in London).  Even Space Center Houston has struggled to refresh attractions to keep up attendance.  London's Millennium Dome should serve as a particularly strong cautionary tale: if a much larger number of rides/attractions can't survive in one of the largest, top-ranked world cities on the planet - one that attracts throngs of tourists every year - what chance do a handful of rides/attractions in tourist-starved Houston have?
In the end the study calls for... wait for it... another study.  This one more detailed and, of course, more expensive.  If I had to sum up this one with a car analogy, I'd say it's like taking your used SUV to the car lot and being offered 3 choices: crush it, or replace it with a Rolls Royce or a Ferrari.  Does it seem to anyone else like some more reasonable options are missing?  Harris County Judge Ed Emmett thinks so:
Emmett favors minimal improvements to the Dome that would essentially convert it into an indoor fairgrounds.
"(A) middle option preserves the Dome but doesn't lock us into a major cost item," Emmett said. It buys time, too, for the possibility of a private developer coming along with a proposal to lease the Dome for a grander project.
 (note that I don't think his 'middle option' corresponds to the middle option in the plan, but instead a new 'middle option' between demolition and the expensive plan options)
That's a plan I can get behind.  Let's set aside the gold-plating and use it as-is (well, with minimal upgrades to pass code) as a weekend festival market space on non-Rodeo/non-Texans weekends - especially during our brutal summers.  Even a modestly attractive schedule should be able to bring in enough parking revenue to at least cover upkeep.  Let a non-profit run it and evolve it bottom-up as they try out innovative ideas and raise funding (like they do now at the Zoo).  And maybe one day they'll work out a viable big project, like a massive movie studio or Smithsonian Museum of Energy and Power.  That's the prudent preservation option.

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At 9:07 PM, June 22, 2010, Blogger Jardinero1 said...

They could turn off the utilities, weld all the doors shut and just ignore it until it finally collapses. Very low cost, minimal impact on the surrounding venues, I give it two thumbs up.

At 10:09 PM, June 22, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is crazy and a disservice to taxpayers to exclude the option of just the demolition. There was a sign posted outside Texas Stadium which said "City of Irving Economic Development Project, Texas Stadium Demolition Project, $5,883,000 of your stadium funds in action"

Yes, that's $5.9 million. The Dallas Morning News also reported this cost on 1/1/2010, so this probably represents the total cost. Irving also filled in the excavation for the stadium which was similar to the dome's.

In addition, the Dallas Morning News reported on 1/23/2009 "The Irving City Council on Thursday unanimously approved an agreement under which the Texas Department of Transportation will pay the city more than $15.4 million to use the Texas Stadium site for 10 years." So Irving will recover the demolition cost in 4 years.

The least-cost demolition should be an option for the public to consider. The dome may be a little more complicated than Texas Stadium, but I'm thinking no more than $10 million.

At 11:07 AM, June 23, 2010, Anonymous Mike said...

I like the museum of energy and power idea, only don't limit it to energy and power, make it a full-scale science and technology museum, akin to Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. The Houston Museum of Natural Science could run it, and the existing HMNS site be devoted to a pure museum of natural history (like the Field Museum of Natural History, to continue the Chicago analogy).

So the Hermann Park campus becomes our natural history museum (fossils and butterflies), and the Astrodome our science and technology museum (rockets and oil rigs).

At 3:48 PM, June 25, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

$1 billion here, $1.4 billion there, soon you're talking about real waste.

Sign me up for just-demolition. If Houston thinks it needs extra condos or a new museum, it should look for places to build them and not immediately bundle the construction with Astrodome demolition. Those bundles just invite corruption.

At 11:19 PM, July 13, 2010, Anonymous GusF said...

Discussion should be parking lot vs. parking garage.

At 12:50 AM, December 09, 2013, Blogger Unknown said...

Houston needs a theme park, why not put a scaled down Astroworld inside the Astrodome? Houston summers are torrid with the heat and humidity. why not put a few rides in there that would fit in the space provided, like some of Astroworlds rides incorporated to fit, "grease lighting" "ultra twister" "dungeon drop" maybe a ride like Kemahs, "boardwalk bullet"? gift shops, restaurants, fun houses, a stage for entertainment, imax theatre, with planetarium like stuff being played on the interior roof, like Las Vegas' Freemont St.? I like this idea.


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