Voters may have sealed Astrodome's fate

Photo provided by National Trust for Historic Preservation
Thursday, November 7, 2013 - 10:00am

Is the dome doomed?

Voters may have given the Astrodome, Houston's iconic and once cutting-edge stadium, the kiss of death.

It's too early to write an obituary for the structure once deemed the "Eighth Wonder of the World," but the defeat of the bond initiative Tuesday night stacks the odds against the dome.

Voters in Harris County were given a voice on whether to issue $217 million in bonds to transform the deteriorating structure into a mammoth exhibition and event space.

The county owns the Astrodome, and its commissioners had warned that if the measure did not pass, the only course left would be to demolish it.

The proposition was rejected by a 53%-47% vote.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett "said that with voters rejecting the only viable public option and no viable private option on the table, there's little choice but to demolish the dome," the judge's spokesman, Joe Stinebaker, said.

However, nothing can happen until the county commission meets and votes to go ahead with the demolition. The item has not been added to the commission's agenda, but it could happen as early as next Tuesday.

A majority of the commissioners had said that if the proposition failed, that they would favor demolition.

Nostalgia not lacking

Whether they voted for or against the measure to save the Astrodome, Houstonians share a nostalgia for the stadium.

Completed in 1965, it was the first domed stadium in the world and was deemed a remarkable feat of engineering. The dome was the primary home of the Houston Astros and the Houston Oilers, in addition to hosting rodeos, concerts and other events.

Stephen Chmaitelli, 38, remembers being dropped off at the Astrodome with his friends as children and catching a ball game before walking to the nearby (and now defunct) Astroworld theme park.

"It was a fun way to spend your days during the summer," he said. "There are just so many memories there."

Chmaitelli voted in favor of saving the dome based on the renderings he saw of the kind of space the new dome would be. The space would make it bigger than the city's convention center, and the redesign would retain the feel of the old stadium while modernizing it.

Remodeling made economic sense, he said: The county could not buy land in such a prime location and erect a structure of such ambition for such a good price.

The Astrodome was always a symbol of pride for the city, said Bowen Shepard, a 32-year-old Houston native. But he voted against the resolution because the structure had already begun to fall into disrepair years ago.

The dome looked outdated sitting next to the more modern Reliant Stadium, and fixing it up just didn't seem worth the cost, he said.

"Everything has its time, and everything's time comes to an end," he said.

Endangered building

Months before the vote, before it was even announced that a vote would be held, the National Trust for Historic Preservation included the Astrodome on its yearly list of "11 Most Endangered Historical Places."

On the same day that the Harris County revitalization proposal was floated, the trust named the dome one of 35 "national treasures" in the country.

The designation meant that the trust put its resources to work in an attempt to save the Astrodome.

"We're disappointed this morning," Beth Wiedower, a senior field officer for the trust, said the day after the vote.

"I think (the outcome) was less of a comment on the value of the building, the heritage associated with it and more the confusion that surrounded the Astrodome these last years," she said.

For the past five years, the Astrodome has been essentially vacant. The electricity and water are still on, but it is unoccupied and used mostly for storage.

It costs the county an estimated $2 million to $3 million to maintain it, the county said.

Several ideas from the private sector have appeared over the years, but nothing with funding. As ideas have come and gone, Wiedower believes that many voters misunderstood that Tuesday's vote may have been a definitive move on the building's fate.

Now that the votes have been cast and the Astrodome is in serious jeopardy, Wiedower predicted there will be a great number of Houstonians who will regret the loss of the stadium.

If the city indeed has a change of heart at this point, the only way out might be for a "white knight" from the private sector to swoop in with a plan, said Stinebaker, the county judge's spokesman.

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