Astrodome to get $105m renovation in less colossal waste of funds than prior proposals

Oh, yesssss, Harris County has approved spending $105 million to renovate the Astrodome into something called an “event center”! Is that sarcasm? I don’t even know anymore!

To recap: The Astros and the Oilers departed the Eighth Wonder of the World a couple of decades back, leaving it empty. Subsequent plans to spend $1.35 billion to turn it into a convention and science center, to spend $400 million to build a sports arena inside it, and to spend $217 million into a convention and event center all failed over the years. So if nothing else, $105 million seems like a more reasonable price tag, though some of that may just be due to anchoring.

In exchange for its money, the county will reportedly get the floor of the dome raised up two floors — no, I don’t know how high a “floor” is in dome measurements — which will allow for more parking underneath and reduce seating capacity, presumably. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and the Houston International Boat, Sport and Travel Show are both excited, though if they’re that excited, they could have offered enough in increased rental fees to pay off the $105 million cost, instead of counting on property taxes, hotel taxes, and parking revenues to cover the bill.

So I guess if you want a take from me, it’s that while I’m always happy to see old buildings repurposed rather than just demolished, and also happy to see ten-digit price tags come down to nine digits, this still doesn’t seem like exactly a super use of public funds. Too bad they can’t have it serve as a rugby stadium, too — then we’d be talking!

Houston still grasping at ideas for what to do with Astrodome

Back in November, Harris County voters rejected a plan to spend $217 million on turning the long-vacant Astrodome into a convention and event center. As the Dallas Morning News’ Mark Lamster points out today, though, in one of those Timesian essays with lots of giant graphics that take up your entire browser because this is the future of journalism, dammit, the Astrodome not only hasn’t been demolished, but plans for its renovation are still kicking around.

The reasons: Demolition would cost “anywhere from $5 million to $80 million, depending on whom you ask,” and the head of the Harris County Commission, Judge Ed Emmett “absolutely opposes tearing down the dome.”

So what happens now?

What a great new idea might look like is an open question. Suggestions thus far have included a science museum celebrating Houston’s history as a center of space exploration and oil production, and transformation of the building into an enormous, doughnut-shaped parking garage, a plan that Emmett opposes. The most realistic option remains the one that was already defeated at the polls: a multipurpose venue that might accommodate events such as concerts, conferences and athletic contests.

So, the “realistic” option is the really expensive one that voters already rejected, because there’s a powerful politician behind it. Though admittedly a giant parking garage would be significantly dumber.

It’s understandable why people would want to retain the Astrodome: It’s historic, it’s kind of a cool building, and it seems a shame not to do something with it. Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s an economically viable reuse for it — old sports stadiums are notoriously difficult to repurpose, given that they’re pretty much only good for sports, and in the U.S. there are a limited number of teams to go around. What’s shaping up here is a race to do something with the dome — the Houston Texans‘ new Reliant Stadium hosts the Super Bowl in 2017, and Emmett says he doesn’t want the Astrodome “sitting like a rusted ship” next door — and arbitrary deadlines way too often end up spawning really dumb decisions.

St. Pete mayor ousted, Astrodome rehab defeated, and other stadium-related election returns

Travis Waldron of ThinkProgress thoughtfully ran down five elections yesterday with stadium implications, from a vote on rehabbing the Astrodome to decisions on new mayors for cities facing sports venue battles. And the results are:

The big one to watch immediately is clearly the St. Pete mayoral situation, given that Sternberg is undoubtedly going to be one of the first to call on Kriseman wishing to start those promised “conversations.” There are still a heck of a lot of obstacles to the Rays getting a new building — how on earth to pay for it, mostly — but Foster, at least, is no longer one of them.

Houston considers building Russian nesting stadiums

With the notion of spending $655 million to renovate the Astrodome and the neighboring Reliant Arena (neither of which have teams to play in them) predictably a non-starter, Harris County sports authority officials are now looking at building an arena inside the dome. Sports Corp. chair Edgardo Colon guesses that this would cost a mere $400 million, though seeing as that no one has decided exactly how this would be done, it has to be considered an especially wild-assed guess.

The Reliant Arena needs replacing, say Houston officials, because … okay, I can’t actually find anyone explaining why this is a good idea. The arena has been mostly empty pretty much forever, and though I guess you could argue that it’s the only 8,500-seat facility in Houston (plans for a new arena would keep capacity between 8,000 and 10,000 seats), there isn’t exactly a screaming demand for venues that size. Though Stockton, California, did build a 10,000-seat arena a few years ago, and that city’s been doing … oops.

Astrodome reno would require tax hikes or budget cuts

Just in case you were thinking that that $655 million Astrodome-renovation-plus-Reliant-Arena-replacement was going to be paid for by elfin magic or something, Harris County officials are here to assure you that no, public costs cost the public:

Bill Jackson, the county’s chief budget officer, said such a large bond issue likely would require a tax hike or deep budget cuts, particularly given other projects for which the county will need to sell bonds, such as a forensic sciences facility.

If it’s not a surprising conclusion, it is a slightly surprising public declaration, seeing that saying “this will require tax hikes” is akin to saying “this will kill puppies” in terms of public opinion in America today. It’s further evidence in favor of the argument that the plan announced yesterday is more stalking horse than serious proposal, but we’ll see.

Incidentally, a clarification on the public cost of the plan: Construction would cost $655 million, but Houston taxpayers would only be on the hook for $523 million, with the rest coming via federal historic preservation tax credits — i.e., non-Houston taxpayers. Since this is a credit that’s available to anyone renovating a historic building (Fenway Park got preservation credits as well) I don’t usually count it as a special subsidy, but it’s arguably still a public cost. So headlines saying this is a $523 million deal or a $655 million deal are both equally right — or equally wrong, if you want to be that way.

Houston proposes $655m to redo Astrodome, replace Reliant Arena

It took awhile, but Houston finally has a plan for what to do with the Astrodome, which has sat empty since 2006 and is now all wrinkly. The Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation yesterday proposed that voters be asked to approve spending $270 million to convert the dome to a “multipurpose venue” for concerts, football, soccer, and hockey, while replacing the neighboring Reliant Arena with a $385 million exhibit space and 10,000-seat arena.

A consultant for Convention Sports & Leisure, which helped the sports authority develop the plan, spoke of how the dome is “an icon to the city of Houston,” but still: $655 million?!? Admittedly, it’s cheaper than the last estimate of redoing the dome, but it still sounds like an awful lot of money to spend for creating a multipurpose venue out of what was always a multipurpose venue, plus replacing an arena that is vacant precisely because there’s already a new arena across town.

The Harris County body also included an option to spend $64 million to raze the dome and replace it with a park, and maybe that’s the real goal here: Toss out a crazy-expensive renovation plan, and let voters decide once and for all whether they’d rather throw good money after bad or just cut their losses and demolish the place, iconic or not. Or maybe we’re just seeing the beginning of a trend of building stadiums and arenas for nobody to play in.

Astrodome: To raze or not to raze?

A Houston Chronicle opinion piece published today suggests either fixing up Houston’s Astrodome, at considerable expense, or tearing the darned place down.

The piece, written by Richard Justice, suggests that a teardown might be more likely, stating, “If Yankee Stadium and Tiger Stadium can go, then the Astrodome can go, too.” Nevertheless, he recommends trying to save it, suggesting a full-scale renovation and a conversion into vast retail and hotel space so that it becomes a place “where people stop and stare and remember the spirit of a great American city.”

But stopping and staring and thinking about a city’s spirit is not likely to get the cash register ringing to the degree that might be needed to save the place, so Justice opens the floor to democratic alternatives, stating, “If my vision is the wrong one, that’s fine. Let’s hear yours. Let’s work together and come up with a consensus and see if there’s a way to save it.” Generally, when stuff of this nature hits the papers, it is a precursor to demolition, but time will tell.

Astrodome reno would cost how much?

The Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation, owners of the Astrodome, issued a report yesterday on what to do with the erstwhile Eighth Wonder of the World, which has stood vacant since the Houston Astros left in 2000. The options include renovating it into a convention and science center, “repurposing” it into a science and technology center and a place for storage (with $324 million worth of solar panels on the roof in the shape of a world map), or razing it and turning it into a park or open plaza. (Truly horrifying cheesy renderings here.)

The stunner is the price tags: $1.35 billion for the full renovation option, and $1.13 billion for the world’s largest storage shed. Even knocking down the dome would carry a high cost: $873 million if you believe the Associated Press, $128 million per the Houston Chronicle, or a mere $88 million if you use the Dallas Morning News numbers — which is still nearly triple what it cost the build the thing in the first place.

It’s hard to say which numbers are correct, as if the HCSCC doesn’t seem to have put any financial details into its master plan book, though there are plenty more grandiose renderings. (Including, for some reason, of a monster truck and Minnie and Mickey Mouse. Presumably because when you think science and technology, you think robot cars and horrible human-mouse hybrids.)

In any case, given the huge price tags, most of which would come out of public funds, you might think it’d be cheaper and simpler just to let the dome rot in place — right now it only costs Harris County about $2 million a year in insurance and maintenance, plus debt service, but of course the debt would need to be paid off either way. However, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett insists that the dome must go, and fast, apparently because $1 billion is a small price to pay to rid Houston of an iconic-building-turned-eyesore.

“It’s beginning to look like an old ship that just kind of washed up out there,” Emmett told the Chronicle, noting that when fans attend the NCAA Final Four at neighboring Reliant Stadium next year, their eyes will be accosted by the sight of the empty Astrodome. “I don’t think people will tolerate it much longer.”

That’s what they said about the human-mouse hybrids.

White Elephant Watch: Stadiums for sale or lease, cheap

The Wall Street Journal, killing time over the holiday season like the rest of the news world, has a look at some stadiums that are sitting empty after their tenants up and left for newer digs. (The official excuse is “last-minute gift ideas” for “well-heeled holiday shoppers.”) Among the highlights:

  • The Astrodome: “After plans fell through to convert the facility into a hotel and convention center, there are groups lobbying to turn it into everything from a movie studio to a planetarium.”
  • The Beijing “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium: “With annual operating costs of roughly $10 million, the facility was placed under government management in August to curb financial losses.”
  • San Antonio’s Alamodome and Memphis’ Pyramid Arena, both of which were abandoned by their anchor tenants before their 13th birthdays.

Or, if a used stadium is too tacky a gift, you could also build your loved one their own for $20 million. It’d be “temporary,” but if there’s any kind of lesson here, it’s that all stadiums are.