Friday, July 18, 2014

Emmett says Dome park plan 'silly', but it isn't

Ed. note: This post has been updated throughout.

It's really all there is left to do, it just needs to be done the right way.  Jeff Balke at Hair Balls summarizes the situation well.

According to a report in the Houston Chronicle, County Judge Ed Emmett has no desire to see a recent plan put forth on the part of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and Houston Texans put into place. The plan would demolish the "Eighth Wonder of the World" and replace it with an open green space and a Hall of Fame surrounded by a "fence" made of pieces of the existing Dome's structure. They even provided some nifty renderings including a Photoshopped ESPN set and hosts with the, let's call it an Astro Park, in the background, clearly hinting that a decision needs to be made quickly with the 2017 Super Bowl to be held at NRG Stadium.


Emmett called the idea "a silly plan" and even quipped that it would haunt him after he retires. Emmett no doubt remembers the one tarnish on former Mayor Bob Lanier's record allowing Bud Adams to move the Houston Oilers to Tennessee. Adams wanted to contribute half to a downtown retractible roof stadium (sound familiar) that would cost around $250 million. NRG Stadium cost nearly twice that with taxpayers footing the lion's share of the bill.

It has long been a foregone conclusion amongst many around town that both the Rodeo and the Texans have wanted to see the Astrodome demolished for years. The iconic structure is taking up a huge space in Reliant Park, impeding their ability to create space for their patrons. Most had believed the plan all along was to turn it into a parking structure so this green space concept is at least a step away from something so mundane and utilitarian.


So, while I'm with Emmett in his assessment, there is no question the hour is growing late. Like it or not, the Super Bowl coming here in 2017 puts a kind of stopwatch on the situation. No one wants a rotting Astrodome grimly resting next to NRG Stadium. Emmett wants to take another shot with the meeting space. The Texans and the Rodeo are opting for some strange memorial to a stadium that isn't yet gone. Virtually everyone agrees something radical must occur and the likely approach is demolition, but no one wants the Astrodome imploding on their watch.

Eventually, someone at some point will flinch. The question is who? The when is sooner than you think.

As I commented at Kuff's post, the area around the Dome is eminently walkable, even more so today than it was when we lived in the area (about 5 years ago).  I believe that fences, gates, and perimeter security as it exists should be modified to allow easy, free access to parkgoers, on foot and on wheels.  And I remain of the opinion that Ryan Slattery's plan, at gray2green, is the benchmark solution that would make the most people happy, if that plan were revised to include bi-level subterranean parking in the 35-foot below-grade depression over which the Dome sits (instead of the retention pond at the base of a conical decline, as pictured below).

That could be premium parking for event VIPs and anyone else who wants to get popped $25-$40 or more for a spot with the shortest walk.  (Jerry Jones allegedly charges $75 for close-in parking at AT&T Stadium.  And Beyonce'-Jay Z concertgoers locally are getting "surge priced" downtown this weekend for parking.)  Costs for construction of auto ramps, elevators, and stairs, not to mention a second level, perhaps consisting of those stackable or robotic parking mechanisms already in use in many cities, and a ceiling for the garage that would serve as a floor for the park -- overlaid with turf, much like the football stadium now -- need to be added to the $66 million already proposed.

The park itself would need a lot of shade in order for it to reach its full utilization, and for that you'd need a roof, in whole or in part.  The primary cost concerns remain unanticipated overruns for rehabilitating the structure and liability insurance (what if part of the roof or walls fell on people in high winds or a plain old SETX thunderstorm, to say nothing of a hurricane.  No one would, of course, be sheltered there in a hurricane, but repairs to damage might be too high to do anything but demolish and rebuild).

The HLSR and the Texans want something done in the least expensive way, with the least exposure to liability.  Emmett, the only decision-maker in opposition to the park plan -- the other four commissioners are supportive but noncommital -- wants an exhibit hall, but that's mostly because he is wary of the political consequences of authorizing demolition.  And that's despite public sentiment to do so was fairly much the majority in last fall's referendum, and may be creeping more in that direction... if the's overwhelmingly conservative commenters are any indication.  Emmett is insulated from immediate blowback no matter his choice; though he is up for re-election in November, it's only nominal challengers Ahmad Hassan (Democratic) and David Collins (Green) on the ballot against him.  Four years from now, after both the park's completion and the 2017 Super Bowl are in the rearview mirror?  Who the hell knows?

As far as money goes, the Rodeo and the Texans are simply going to have to cough up the cash to make most of anything happen.  If Emmett acquiesces to their plans for a park and gives them the parking revenue, then he ought to be able to commit to some flat figure of existing county funds  -- no bonds, thus no public referendum -- that is well under half of what is currently proposed for remodeling.  And then he should bill the two tenants for the rest.  With easy credit terms for them to pay off the note, if need be.

For the simplest math, let's assume the renovations increase the price tag to $100 million, and the three parties each chip in a third.  Do the Texans have a spare $33.3 million lying around?  Of course they do; they sign star players for much more than that every year.  Does the Rodeo have a spare $33.3 million?  Sure looks to me like they do (and I doubt they'd have to cut back on any scholarships for the kids, either).  Does the county have a spare $33.3 million to kick in?  Even if they have to spread it over a two-year construction time period, I think the answer is 'yes'.

Am I missing anything here?

To get a handle on the potential parking revenue, how many cars can be parked in the nine-acre footprint of the Dome, on two levels?  This site says 172 cars per acre, for a total of 1,548 parking spaces per level.  Thus, the most conservative estimate of additional annual parking revenue is $500K apiece for the Rodeo and the Texans (25 bucks a car for 2000 cars x 10 days, 8 regular season home games and two pre-season ones).  The Rodeo has perhaps 15 or more dates, the unit price for parking could easily be more and so could the number of cars, bringing the windfall well above $1 million a year.  Each.

As for the Dome being converted into a hotel/casino... that will NEVER happen as long as Talibaptist Republicans rule in the Lege.  And a Governor Greg Abbott would veto it even if Hell caught a polar vortex blizzard and a bill did pass legalizing casino gambling in Texas.  How do I know this?  I point you back to this post about campaign finance reports, and this sentence from Wayne Slater's story within it.

Abbott’s largest out-of-state contribution was $50,000 from the Chickasaw Nation political committee, which operates casinos in Oklahoma.

If there actually are any quivering independent voters who like to play slots, blackjack, craps, or Texas Hold 'Em, and are still looking for a(nother) reason not to vote Republican... there you go.

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