Board backs turning Astrodome into convention hall

HOUSTON (AP) — The Houston Astrodome, an iconic stadium that’s fallen into disrepair since it was shuttered four years ago, could see new life as a giant convention center and exhibition space under a plan recommended by a county board on Wednesday.

The Harris County Sports & Convention Corp. opted to go with its own plan for the world’s first domed, air-conditioned stadium instead of one of 19 private-sector plans submitted for its reuse. The board said the groups promoting the private plans didn’t meet the project’s criteria by a deadline earlier this month.

Among the private plans was one that would have turned the Astrodome into a tourist area with retail and restaurant space and another that would have stripped the structure to its steel frame and turned the area into a park.

“We have a chance to honor the dome’s legacy and do it in a functional manner that continues to preserve the memories and history of the building while inspiring the future,” said Kevin Hoffman, the sports corporation’s deputy executive director.

The project, dubbed “The New Dome Experience,” would cost an estimated $194 million and take about 2½ years to complete. The plan now goes to Harris County commissioners, who will discuss it at a June 25 meeting.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett called the proposal the “perfect solution” for dealing with the Astrodome.

“This really isn’t about saving a historic building. This is about properly using a county asset. We have an asset that is unique in the world. It would be a shame not to then use that asset …,” Emmett said.

Officials say tax breaks and other incentives might lower the project’s cost, but that it will likely require voters to approve public funding for it.

The proposal calls for creating 350,000 square feet of exhibition space by removing all the interior seats and raising the floor to street level. Other changes include creating 400,000 square feet of plaza and green space on the outside of the structure.

Mark Miller, general manager of Reliant Park, the overall area that includes the dome and the Houston Texans’ football stadium next door, said the changes are designed to make the Astrodome “the front door” for major events at the park, which also hosts Houston’s annual Livestock Show and Rodeo. The proposal envisions events associated with the rodeo or the Super Bowl in 2017 at Reliant Stadium being held inside the renovated Astrodome.

“The dome becomes your gathering place. It creates a great event space,” he said.

The county’s commissioners have been considering the fate of the Astrodome since it was deemed unfit for occupancy and closed for good in 2009. Last year, a consulting firm recommended a $270 million plan to turn it into a multipurpose facility.

The building, one of Houston’s signature structures, costs taxpayers about $3 million per year for basic maintenance.

Officials say there is still consistent support to preserve the building for sentimental and historical reasons.

Earlier Wednesday, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the Astrodome on its 2013 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

Discussion of the Astrodome’s future has also included talk of tearing it down and building a parking lot that would be used by the Texans and the rodeo.

“It is a major piece of history. It is a major legacy. It defined us as a can do city, a city of yes,” Houston developer Arpad Lamell told the county board, asking it to not recommend its demolition.

Willie Loston, the sports corporation’s executive director, said the group did not consider tearing down the Astrodome, adding the 2,500 parking spaces demolition of the structure would create are not needed.

Opened in 1965, the Astrodome was dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” It was spacious enough to fit an 18-story building under its 208-foot high roof.

The 400,000-square foot dome was once home to MLB’s Houston Astros and the NFL’s Houston Oilers and also hosted Muhammad Ali boxing matches and the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King in 1973. It also hosted the city’s rodeo until 2003. It’s most prominent use in recent years was as a shelter for Louisiana residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

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Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: www.twitter.com/juanlozano70

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