Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Let's turn the "world's biggest room" into an indoor park, with trees, flowering plants, and an aquaponics research lab.
Back in December, the Urban Land Institute assembled a panel of planners, architects, and other experts to think about the future of the Astrodome. The Urban Land Institute just produced a report based on the panel's findings that praises the design and history of the Astrodome and offers some suggestions for its future.
Good news for fans of the Eighth Wonder of the World: The panel's report recommends that the Astrodome be restored. Saving the Astrodome—by converting it into a multi-use indoor park—will be "contingent on the same bold, creative, and determined leadership that created the Astrodome 50 years ago."
Here's the bad news: Bold, creative, and determined leadership comes at a cost. The report explains at length how a plan to turn the former Astrodome stadium into a multi-use park could succeed. It even provides a sketch for the total costs, financing options, and timeline for work involved. But voters in Harris County have proven gun-shy about saving the Astrodome so far—at least when it comes to voting to spend the money.
The Urban Land Institute report details a $242 million proposal for securing the fate of the Astrodome. That total exceeds the $217 million bond measure that Harris County voters rejected in 2013, which would have funded a plan to turn the Astrodome into a convention center. The Urban Land Institute proposal is larger in scope and price than other proposals put forward, including a $66 million plan to replace the Astrodome with a tiny Astrodome.
Of course, the Urban Land Institute report presents a far more detailed vision for saving the Astrodome than anyone's offered to date. Chaired by Wayne Ratkovich, president of Los Angeles's Ratkovich Company and an expert on infill development, the panel considered the Astrodome as a larger part of the NRG Park complex, which is home to both the Houston Texans and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. The report carefully factors for their interests as stakeholders.
The centerpiece of the panel's proposal is not unlike what Harris County Judge Ed Emmett has recommended, that is, turning the Astrodome into an urban park. (Emmett, the county's highest elected official, has made it his mission to save the stadium.) This time, though, the panelists explained precisely how the former professional sports stadium could be made into a verdant domed retreat:
The Astrodome's famed vast interior space—as one author called it, "the biggest room in the world"—can accommodate a variety of public space and civic experiences, some simultaneously, others on a seasonal, rotating basis.
These spaces include parks, gardens, and green spaces. The large interior space is well suited to offer a variety of parklike spaces featuring trees, gardens, and flowering plants. Agricultural uses could also accommodate suggestions ranging from partnering with the University of Houston's aquaponics research lab to creating a center for sustainable farming.
Ratkovich and nine fellow panelists—drawing on expertise in planning, landscape architecture, development, and other bases—present in the report detailed illustrations for how such a park would work. The document drills down to how seating trays can be removed or reconfigured to make way for park space. Parking spaces, too: The proposal would add 1,500 new parking spaces to the Astrodome facility.
For better or for worse, the panelists appear to understand that a lot of the planning for an Astrodome park will revolve around rodeo and football, at least early on. Parking revenue represents a healthy share of the projected funding stream for the Astrodome park's operating costs (maybe about 8 percent, if I'm eyeballing the pie graph).
Folks who want to see the Astrodome restored and also want to see Houston develop as a more walkable city shouldn't worry that the plan rests on building a park on top of a parking lot inside the Astrodome. It's an improvement over surface parking lots, but moreover, it's not the whole plan. The framework also calls for a "live oak allée" to be constructed between the Astrodome and the Reliant Park METRORail Station, plus other amenities. That garden path would serve as the front door for all of NRG Park.
Two technical points stand out in this framework. One, it will require a county-level "Astrodome czar" to wrangle all the stakeholders and funding sources to implement this vision (or maybe any vision). Judge Emmett should get on that. Two, the time to save the Astrodome is now, in advance of the Super Bowl that Houston will host in nearby NRG Park in February 2017. It might not be possible to finish the work on the Astrodome by then: The timeline put forward in this framework isn't counting on it. But to the extent the Super Bowl narrative matters to the city, it will either be one of "Houston is saving the Astrodome!" or "What's Houston going to do with the Astrodome?"
So, how about it? What is Houston going to do with the Astrodome? The Urban Land Institute has identified the right first steps and an entirely plausible roadmap for moving forward. The city's got a plan. Will Houston save the Astrodome?
Astrodome photo courtesy Flickr user Ed Schipul.