Urban Land Institute's Bold Report Declares, "the Astrodome can and should live on"

April 9, 2015 by Beth Wiedower

In December 2014, the National Trust co-sponsored a national Urban Land Institute (ULI) Advisory Services Panel to examine reuse alternatives for the iconic Astrodome in Houston. A well-respected service of the Urban Land Institute, the Advisory Panel pulled together experts in historic preservation, land use, parking management, financing, development, and design from across the country. The one-week, intensive exercise included conversations with more than 100 stakeholders and organizations around Houston and Texas, and culminated in a public presentations of initial recommendations from the ULI panel of experts.

The final report and recommendations were released by the Urban Land Institute in March 2015 to much applause by most stakeholders and Houston area leaders. The report is bold and prescriptive. In it, the Advisory Panel calls for the unequivocal preservation and reuse of the landmark Astrodome. “The panel concluded that the Astrodome can and should live on” as a grand civic space complementing the surrounding NRG Park’s current and future tenants.

The execution of the ULI Advisory Panel and the subsequent release of its recommendations are key steps forward in the ongoing effort to identify and implement a viable and sustainable reuse for the Astrodome. Lovingly known as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” during its heyday, the first domed stadium, constructed in 1965, has been vacant since 2008 when it was deemed unsafe for occupancy. With its designed/intended use replaced by newer stadiums and ballparks in Houston, the challenge to preserving this engineering marvel is to find a viable reuse.

And in the can-do spirit of Houston and Harris County (the entity that owns the Dome), government leaders are thinking big once again. Per its original intent to provide climate-controlled entertainment and recreation for residents and visitors who otherwise must cope with the city’s oppressive heat and humidity, as well as ravenous mosquitoes and the more-than-occasional summer storm downpour, the “grand civic space” will carry the concept beyond the bleacher seats to allow for recreational and educational activities for all visitors to the Astrodome park.

The panel recommends creating a flexible and innovative indoor park space to function as a multi-use facility with public, philanthropic and private components to the design and programming. The space will become a cultural and recreational destination for residents and visitors to Houston, and will honor the history and innovation of the Astrodome and those who attended events and played there. The park will recognize and play a special role in the continued growth of the existing NRG Park tenants, the legendary Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and the NFL’s Houston Texans, as well as the giant annual Off-Shore Technology Conference – the largest energy industry gathering in the county. It will celebrate Houston’s diversity while welcoming its citizens and guests to a truly public space.

The report outlines design, programming, development, and financing, and offers a suggested timeline for implementation. While the report doesn’t set out a specific plan, it offers detailed recommendations, accompanied by examples, references, and possible reuse scenarios to aid Harris County leaders and their partners in thinking about the Astrodome’s reuse. This framework draws heavily on the foundation of the Astrodome – the can-do spirit, technological prowess, innovation, and big thinking that built the Dome amid America’s energy revolution and the race to space in the 1960s. It is bold. It is new. It is challenging. And it won’t happen overnight. But the tides seem to have turned in favor of preserving and reusing the Eighth Wonder of the World and the landmark most associated with Houston’s innovative spirit.

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