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.
“We quickly realized that the historic value of the site made retaining the Astrodome structure essential,” said panel chair Wayne Ratkovich, president of Los Angeles–based The Ratkovich Company.
The ULI panel 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 proposed 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. The plan creates portals in the building at the four cardinal points that can be open or closed. Parts of the planted ground surface can be removed and replaced with hard surface for the purpose of hosting conventions. The interior is also reconfigurable for other regular NRG events: game day for the Houston Texans NFL team and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. The lower levels provide 100,000 square feet of parking.
The ULI plan also made recommendations for the 360-acre NRG Park. 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 NRG 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 TIRZ-24, 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.
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett told Urban Land, ULI’s magazine, “I give this almost a 100 percent chance of succeeding.”
In addition to Ratkovich, the panel included Amy Barrett of Permar; Peter Hasselman of Peter M. Hasselman; Cary Hirschstein of HR&A Advisors; Todd Mead of PWP Landscape Architecture; Robert Mills of Commonwealth Architects; Tom Murphy of ULI; David Panagore of New Haven Parking Authority; Douette Pryce of Pryce Resources; and Kevin Rieger of Anschutz Entertainment Group.