In late January 2014, an Urban Land Institute (ULI) Advisory Services panel presented recommendations for the dilapidated Houston Astrodome. The report follows several ill-fated dome reuse attempts, including a plan and $200 million bond referendum to turn it into a convention center that was shot down by Harris County voters in 2013. The ULI panel was definitive in its assessment. The dome, it stated, must be saved. It also unveiled a plan, complete with design sketches and funding strategies, to transform the former stadium into a public park that could be completed in time for Super Bowl LI, which Houston is hosting in 2017.
ULI’s plan for the dome combines certain elements of some of the previous reuse schemes that have been floated, either formally or informally, and seems to attempt to forge a compromise among the most practical of them all. It proposes to raise the dome’s sunken floor to grade level and to turn the interior into a flexible public park complete with lawns, climbing walls, and zip lines.
Sheltered from the sky by the 600-foot clear span Lamella dome roof, the plan opens portals in the building at the four cardinal points. The four portals can be open or closed, and parts of the planted ground surface can be removed and replaced with hard surface for the purpose of hosting conventions, such as the annual Offshore Technology Conference.
The interior is also reconfigurable for the other regular NRG events: game day for the Houston Texans NFL team, or the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. The lower levels provide 100,000 square feet of parking (a similar, but far less bold proposal as the winner of AN‘s Reimagine The Astrodome competition).
The ULI plan also made recommendations for the 360-acre NRG Park, which includes several other large facilities—namely NRG Stadium, the NRG Convention Center, and NRG Arena—not to mention more than 26,000 parking spaces. The most significant of these is a civic park with live oak–shaded promenades that creates an ordered progression from the METRORail light rail station at the east edge of the site to the dome. Shaded promenades also link the dome to the other large facilities, and a park, planted with native vegetation, surrounds the dome itself.
To pay for it all, ULI recommended a public private partnership with money coming from TIRZ24, hotel and occupancy tax, philanthropy, project tax credits, federal and state energy funds, and a county bond if necessary. It estimated that the park’s operating budget would be between $500,000 and just under $1 million per acre, which, to provide some perspective, would put it between the operating budgets of Brooklyn Bridge Park ($460,000 per acre) and the High Line ($1.3 million per acre).
It’s too soon to tell if the ULI plan will be fully fleshed out and implemented, but if it’s going to happen in time for the Super Bowl, Houston and Harris County need to move fast. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett told Urban Land, ULI’s magazine, “I give this almost a 100 percent chance of succeeding.” Almost, of course, won’t do it, and given the nearly 20 years of dithering discussion about whether to save or raze the one-time “8th Wonder of the World” without any decisive action one way or the other, it’s hard to get too excited about this plan.