We thought this was over, too. After more than a decade of bickering about its future, the 54-year-old Astrodome was supposedly saved—just a $105 million nip and tuck away from a second life as a multi-use event space and parking structure. Then Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo surfaced a little-known detail in a recent KUHF interview: “What I’m discovering is that the 105 [million] that was allocated is not enough to air-condition the building,” she said before explaining her intention to reevaluate the county’s plans put into motion by her predecessor, former county judge Ed Emmett. What exactly does that mean for the state of the Dome? Let’s break it down.
What’s the plan that Hidalgo inherited?
Under the $105 million plan unanimously approved by County Commissioners in April of last year, the new Astrodome would feature a 1,400-space parking garage to replace the sunken playing field, along with nine acres of indoor event space on top. Indeed, replacing the Dome’s 6,000-ton air-conditioning condenser was not factored into those costs: Judge Emmett repeatedly stated that his priority was to get the Dome back in operation as a revenue-generating asset. The idea was that the space would be useable, at least initially, without full climate control. County Engineer John Blount is on the record as saying A/C was on the table for “further phases” of renovation. Yet, as Hidalgo wondered in the same interview: “Is the current design enough for folks to actually want to rent it out?”
What alternative plans have been considered for the stadium?
Many will remember the contentious $217 million Astrodome bond proposal that went before voters in 2013. Similarly to the current plan, the bond sought to convert the Eighth Wonder of the World into event space alongside 400,000 square feet of plaza and green areas, but voters, unconvinced of its value, rejected it. Other, more fanciful ideas for the landmark have ranged from movie studio to indoor amusement attraction to the world’s largest indoor park. A number of temporary “activations,” too, have been submitted to spruce up the place while we wait for construction to start; one dormant proposal for a “Star Dome” sought to harness the building’s 4,000 skylights to create “the biggest screen in the world” for light shows and movie screenings.
What would it take to install the air-conditioning?
There are only estimates so far, but to re-create what was once perhaps the largest A/C project of all time (engineers basically invented the technology for the Astrodome back in the ’60s) is sure to cost a good chunk of change. Commissioners have pegged the figure for installation in the tens-of-millions range.
This is getting expensive. Can we still just tear it down?
In January 2017 the Texas Historical Commission unanimously voted to designate the Dome a state antiquities landmark, meaning that along with other all-time classics including the Alamo and the State Capitol, you can’t knock down or even alter the stadium without a THC permit. And even if such a permit were granted, a teardown would prove challenging. For one, the Dome sits too close to NRG Stadium to safely implode, so the thing would have to be dismantled piece by piece. Then you would have to truck in enough dirt to fill the 25-foot-deep hole where the sunken playing field sits. Low-end estimates for the entire process start at about $40 million and skyrocket from there. Add the fact that flattening the Dome into a parking lot would yield roughly a third as many revenue-generating spaces as the current plan, and the county makes a logical case that renovation would prove more cost-effective in the long run.
So what can we expect going forward?
More waiting! “This is really on the back burner for us at this juncture,” Kiran Khalid, Hidalgo’s director of communications, told Houstonia. She explained that county priorities currently include how to best disburse last year’s $2.5 billion Harvey flood bond to affected communities, and the criminal-justice reform proposals Hidalgo campaigned on. The county is “still working through the plan details” with project managers to determine how to approach the Dome’s air-conditioning issue, among others. The path forward remains hazy, in other words, but Khalid made one thing quite clear: “Speculating on what will happen with the Astrodome and when is not at the top of mind for us.”