Just in time for Christmas, Preservation Houston has begun marketing a new type of Astrodome memorabilia: 4-in. beverage-coaster-sized squares of AstroTurf removed from the stripped-down stadium — along with loads of other major league hardware — in October 2013. Each one bears “a unique serial number and a certificate of authenticity,” according to the seller, and they come in packs of 4 that cost $100, plus tax. (That’s more than a 200-percent price hike since the last big Astrodome yard sale 5 years ago offered up 12-in.-by-12-in. squares for $20 each.)
During the lead-up to the defeated 2013 bond proposal that would have paid for extensive renovations to the Astrodome, these particular patches of turf road along with staffers from the National Trust onboard the “Dome Mobile,” a 26-ft. truck that the preservationist organization commandeered as part of a public campaign to save the building from demolition. It wasn’t until afterward that Preservation Houston got its hands on them en masse. Shipments of the items, it now says, should be delivered to buyers no later than December 17.
Photos: Preservation Houston
Holiday Yard Sale
METRO is currently seeking some public input on replacing the Reliant Park light-rail stop’s outdated moniker. The agency’s preface to the poll notes that the naming rights to the station itself were never a part of Reliant’s $300-million park-branding deal back in 2002, and says any new name “needs to be reflective of the area, but should not include any reference to a corporate entity which might require another change in years to come.”
Setting aside any potential consideration of that plan from a reader to go ahead and get nearly 30 potential future name changes over with at once, the nominated names currently in the running are (drumroll):
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In response to word from the Chronicle‘s Dug Begley this week that the Red Line’s Reliant Park light-rail stop might get its station name updated to an even older name, a Swamplot reader jumps on the case with a system-wide list of potential station name changes that might remain unaffected by the sale, rebranding, or demise of any nearby venues or landmarks. Begley notes it could cost Metro around $486,000 to change the Reliant Park stop’s signage. The agency says it would prefer to make the switch at the same time as 2 other station name changes currently under consideration (if they’re approved) — but not until after the Super Bowl, for which a set of cheaper temporary stickers will be deployed to help visitors find NRG Stadium.
The reader, in the spirit of Houston’s budding redesign-it-yourself urban planning scene, suggests that paying up now to swap out all the names that might become a problem later might actually be a long-term cost-saver. The proposed scheme makes sure every station name mentions a cross-street (or maybe a bayou), and keeps some references to existing transit centers, parks, or neighborhoods.
Here’s the full list of suggested switch-outs, separated by rail line, with the current names on the left:
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What’s In a Name
Here are some of the plans the Harris County commissioners looked over this week as they reviewed the engineering study for the proposal to raise the Astrodome’s below-grade floor and stick a parking garage beneath it. The view above shows an entrance ramp for cars from the east, with a service ramp running up from the southwest; NRG Stadium is shown peeking in on the scene from the left.
Got questions about the plan, or about anything else Dome-related? Someone claiming to be involved with the project is now taking inquiries from all comers over on Reddit. The thread started up yesterday and was still active this morning; topics addressed so far have included how the latest proposal would be funded, the feasibility of that spiral-ey skeletonized park idea, and the surprising number of people who have suggested turning the Dome into an indoor skiing venue.
The poster says they’ll try to keep checking back to answer new questions. While you wait, have a look at more views of the proposed changes to the structure — here’s what the ground-level park on Level 3 might look like, with pedestrian entrances on all 4 sides:
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Park and Parking Plans
Architects James Richards and Ben Olschner, dissatisfied with the current talk of turning the Astrodome into the world’s largest air-conditioned park, have started drumming up support (and selling t-shirts) for their own idea for overhauling the long-empty structure: stripping the building of all but its core steel structure (“like the Eiffel Tower in Paris”, the duo’s website reads) and adding a spiraling hike and bike trail up to the center of the roof. The duo estimates the project would cost $180 million to execute ($62 million less than what the indoor park plan is estimated to cost); they expect the work could be paid for as a public-private effort like the one that funded Discovery Green (and branded all of its features).
The plan (which also removes all nonessential letters, redubbing the place A-Dome Park) calls for the replacement of some 13 acres of existing Dome-side parking lot with live oaks, planted in alignment with the building’s steel columns (as seen here from above). Below are a bunch of renderings showing the trees and walkways in place, and some zoomy depictions of the stripped-down ‘Dome back in action:
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THE ASTRODOME’S FIRST SOLUTION TO ITS CAN’T-SEE-THE-BALL PROBLEM Before players had that problem losing fly balls in the glare, before a portion of the skylights were painted over, before anyone in Houston had ever considered replacing the outfield grass with something called AstroTurf, there was another system installed in the Astrodome meant to help baseball players keep their eyes on the ball. The Houston Chronicle‘s special section on the Harris County Domed Stadium — on the occasion of its 50th anniversary (today) and birthday party open house (tonight) — includes a reprint (PDF) of the same newspaper’s Astrodome extra from April 8, 1965, the day before opening day. And featured on page 62 is a short preview of the stadium’s space-age air-cleaning technology: “An unusual Honeywell-engineered ultraviolet sensor will run a continual check on the transparency of the air. If it gets murky — from dust or tobacco smoke — the system will signal stadium engineers to open a battery of cupola exhaust dampers.
Because air cleaners continuously scrub the air electronically, then pass it through special charcoal filters to sieve out any odors, air inside the stadium normally will be fresher and cleaner than the air outside. ‘In fact, it should be the cleanest air in all Texas,‘ says Lamar Bordelon, Honeywell project engineer on the stadium job.
The Honeywell system has an ultraviolet lamp underneath the seats along the third-base line, focused on an ultraviolet sensor in similar position along the first-base line, 700 feet across the stadium. These continuously indicate the transparency of the air between them on a meter located on the control center. Any time the transparency of the air drops to the point where a player would have a hard time seeing a baseball in play 350 feet away, a warning light flashes on.” [Houston Chronicle] Photo: Russell Hancock
JUST A BUNCH OF GUYS HANGING OUT ON THE ASTRODOME ROOF Astrodome security wasn’t the tightest during the Rodeo of 2012, it appears. That’s when builder Russell Hancock snuck inside the unused stadium and sent photos of some of the sorry scenes he found there to Swamplot — sparking a spate of media interest in the long-ignored venue. But Hancock wasn’t the Astrodome’s only unauthorized visitor that year. Brewskies in hand, 4 dudes with cameraphones also snuck into the structure, though it appears they spent much of their time exploring the structure’s peripheral spaces. Over this past weekend, one of the 4 posted an album of pix from their years-ago nighttime venture, the stars of which are the explorers themselves; with blanked-out faces, they’re seen hanging out in locker rooms, hiding in ice machines, operating the scoreboard controls, and pretending to tend bar in an upper-level suite. The highlight, though, is clearly the roofwalk: “After walking around on the top floor,” the anonymous poster writes, “I decided we should try to find our way onto the roof. Not kidding at all — the first door I opened, what looked like a closet door, had a ladder in it. So of course we climbed that shit. It went up about 15 ft. to a hatch that wasn’t locked. So we popped our head out and there was the roof. To the Astrodome. It was surreal. We started to climb up the sky lights to try to get to the top, but about 20—30 ft. up we realized that was probably not the best idea.” [imgur] Photos: Astrodome713
What’s next in Astrodome beauty treatments after the unused county stadium’s powerwashing late last year? How about a little color magic? As noted by the KHOU chopper sent out to record the incident earlier this week (which produced the image above), test paint patches recently appeared at the top of the vacant structure’s walls. In concert with the removal of the eighties-add-on stair towers and the latest grime-spray efforts, the painting of a dark bluish-black color on the upper sections of wall just below the roof would help return the stadium exterior to something closer to its original 1965 appearance.
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THE NEXT BIG EVENT PLANNED FOR THE ASTRODOME WILL BE A WASH When was the last time anyone bothered to clean the exterior of the Astrodome? Long enough ago to merit media coverage for word that the Dome’s caretakers have now decided to do something about the building’s growing exterior grunge. The Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation, having presided for 15 years over the former sports stadium’s steady decay, is about to embark on its first notable Dome maintenance operation since firefighters used fans to blow smoke out of the building in the aftermath of a 2011 transformer fire in the vacant facility. With approval from the Texas Historical Commission, reports Fox 26’s Mark Berman, the agency will award local building restoration and pressure-washing practitioners Green Team Services $63,800 to clean the outside of the structure. [My Fox Houston; previously on Swamplot] Photo: Green Team Services
CURIOUS POLL PUSHERS WANT TO KNOW: SHOULD THE COUNTY SPEND ANY AMOUNT IT WANTS ON AN ASTRODOME REDO? The last time a concrete proposal to spend public money to repurpose the Astrodome was on the ballot, Harris County taxpayers voted it down. So how hard could it be to come up with a new poll showing potential voters aren’t especially eager to shell out for the latest floated idea, to turn the public facility into a giant indoor park — about which no details, price tag, or even feel-good drawings have yet been released? Maybe harder than you might think: In stories about a survey sponsored by KHOU and Houston Public Media whose results were released yesterday, a few news outlets did produce dutiful variants of a “Taxpayers Oppose Money for Astrodome” headline. But coming to that conclusion from the actual data collected in the survey might have been a bit of a stretch. Here’s the somewhat ambiguous wording of the question presented, with no context, to likely voters in the coming election: “Harris County proposes turning the Astrodome into an indoor park. Should the taxpayers of Harris County spend any amount to make the Astrodome into an indoor park if no private investors want to fund the entire project?” 31 percent said yes, 51 percent said no, and 17 percent of respondents said they didn’t know. The subset of respondents who thought they were being asked if they’d be willing to give county government a blank check for a plan they’ve never seen wasn’t broken out separately. [Houston Chronicle; KHOU; Houston Public Media; Astrodome coverage on Swamplot] Photo: Russell Hancock
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett’s new “not fully hashed out” plan for reusing the Astrodome is to turn the structure into the world’s largest indoor public park and recreation area. The park might incorporate a number of public institutions and museums within it. Plus: a pavilion for music and other events, and sports facilities such as archery ranges and hiking and biking trails, an archery center, and a large open green space. The fully air-conditioned park would be open to the public every day — except when used by the Rodeo and conferences such as the OTC.
Will Harris County citizens support turning the Astrodome into a park? Strangely, the best evidence that a majority would favor it may come from a recent survey commissioned by 2 organizations that have been trying very hard to get the building torn down.
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Texans and Rodeo Fans on Board?
JUDGE EMMETT SAYS HE’LL REVEAL A ‘MAJOR’ PROPOSAL FOR REUSING THE ASTRODOME TOMORROW For a good while now, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett has been dropping hints about a new proposal to renovate the Astrodome. He’s set to reveal a few details about it tomorrow afternoon, after he holds a press conference set up in a “special little section” of the Astrodome made safe for media attendees. “Emmett has been in discussions with a series of elected officials, stakeholders and interested parties in recent weeks, laying out the general concept for an innovative reuse of the world’s first domed stadium,” a press release from the judge’s office declares. “All [the judge’s spokesperson] could tell me is that it’s ‘public use,’ tweets the Chronicle‘s Kiah Collier. [County Judge Ed Emmett; previously on Swamplot] Photo: Joe Stinebaker
UNMASKING THE CRAFTY NSA, NFL PLAN TO TAKE AWAY OUR PRECIOUS ASTRODOME AND MONITOR YOUR PHONE CALLS Using techniques, he explains, from “The Consipiracy Theory Style Manual” (“I used as many facts as I could come up with, then I made up a few more”), Houston Chronicle penpal Dave Nagel notes the striking similarities between the reconstructed ring of drive-thru concrete pillars meant to be built as part of a memorial to the Astrodome in a proposal released last week by the Rodeo and the Houston Texans and the circular antenna array called the AN/FLR-9 built in several locations during the Cold War to support U.S. intelligence operations. And concludes: “[I]t’s obvious. The National Security Agency has plans to construct a listening post here in Houston. We know the Supreme Court says the police cannot grab cell phones without a warrant, but now the NSA will just grab all the signals emanating from Texas and will process them from the new intel center at Reliant/NRG. By the way, in military parlance, NRG is National Reconnaissance Group!
I believe the NSA is planning to collect intelligence on all known and suspected Republicans here in Texas, and turn it over to the Administration. Every proper conspiracy theorist will say YES! Or, does the NSA plan to eavesdrop on all those nefarious and dangerous children pouring across the border from Honduras and Guatamala? If you have ever worked in a school, you know how dangerous children are, especially ones without parental supervision! Children carry cell phones. Cell phones transmit and receive signals. Do you understand now?”
A chilling prospect! But what’s the upshot? Continues Nagel: “[I]f the NSA wants to run an intelligence gathering station at Reliant/NRG, then we won’t have to use local tax money to tear down the dome, we can let NSA do it with their classified budget!” [Houston Chronicle ($); previously on Swamplot] Photo of AN/FLR-9 radio direction finder at United States Army Security Agency Field Station Augsburg: Wikimedia Commons/Chaddy [license]
Swamplot will dig into some of the more entertaining and eye-opening details of the proposal later. But in the meantime, before folks go around shouting “heck, yeah!”, hyperventilating, or considering it all but a done deal, you might want to make note of a few circumstances surrounding the release of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and Houston Texans‘ 37-page illustrated guide to spending $66 million of somebody’s money to tear down the Astrodome and build a memorial park and “Hall of Fame” in its place.
The proposal was leaked to reporters yesterday — likely before the Rodeo and the Texans had planned, a source tells Swamplot. (A sample “huh?” slide from it is illustrated above.) Nevertheless, the release marks the latest evolution in the 2 organizations’ willingness to publicly acknowledge their (likely longstanding) role as the foremost opponents of preserving the Astrodome in any form. (Last year the Rodeo and the Texans released a cost estimate for turning the Dome into a parking lot.) Whether this is a concerted strategy in the organizations’ campaign to kill the Dome or a fumble, it does signal a possible risk for them: What would happen if the until-now-growing sense among many Houstonians that everything possible has been tried and somehow mysteriously “won’t work” (blow up the place already, I’m tired of hearing about it!) gave way to a realization that the same 2 parties may have, in fact, been responsible for bungling, blocking, discouraging, sabotaging, or outright vetoing every single proposal for saving or revamping the Astrodome over the last dozen years? Would it kill all the seeming public-sentiment victories they’ve achieved so far?
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Dome-Be-Gone for $66 Million
One of the largest rhetorical weapons in the arsenal regularly wielded by proponents of repurposing or demolishing the Astrodome over the last several years has been a brutal financial factoid regularly drawn into arguments over the Houston landmark’s future. How much money in maintenance and debt-service costs have county taxpayers had to spend just to keep the retired sports stadium around and rotting? Why $2.4 million or so each year, claimed news report after news report after editorial after news report. Like the once-record-breaking 642-ft. clear span inside, it was just one of those things people who were paying attention knew.
But that figure isn’t accurate, Harris County’s budget chief now says. And at a meeting called by Judge Ed Emmett this week, Bill Jackson tried to set the record straight: First, he said, the Astrodome is “essentially debt free“; all but 5 percent of outstanding debt payments connected to the facility stem from work done in 2002 and 2003 — after the Dome had been retired from professional sports — to prepare the larger park for the Texans to use it. (The total amount of that remaining debt, according to a Houston Chronicle recalculation earlier this year, is $6 million.) Using the accounting principle of “first in, first out,” this means that all debts attributable to the Dome itself have now been paid for, Jackson said.
How about maintenance and insurance costs, then?
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Now Down to $171K a Year, Give or Take?