History of the Astrodome
The Astrodome is Houston’s most significant architectural and cultural asset. Opened in 1965, and soon nicknamed the “8th Wonder of the World,” the world’s first domed stadium was conceived to protect sports spectators from Houston’s heat, humidity, and frequently inclement weather. The brainchild of then-Houston Mayor Roy Hofheinz, the former Harris County Judge assembled a team to finance and develop the Dome, with the help of R.E. Bob Smith, who owned the land the Astrodome was built on and was instrumental in bringing professional baseballs’ Colt 45s (now the Astros) to Houston. The Astrodome was the first Harris County facility specifically designed and built as a racially integrated building, playing an important role in the desegregation of Houston during the Civil Rights Movement.
The Astrodome was revolutionary for its time as the first fully enclosed and air conditioned multi-purpose sports arena – an engineering feat of epic proportions. The innovation, audacity, and “can-do” spirit of Houston at mid-Century was embodied in the Astrodome. It was home to multiple professional and amateur sports teams and events over the years, as well as hosting the annual Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo (HLSR), concerts, community and political events. When the skylights that make up the roof of the Dome prevented outfielders from seeing fly balls, they were quickly painted over causing the turf grasses that covered the field to die. The solution? Astroturf — a chemical product developed to simulate real turf grass without the maintenance and dependence on sunlight. The Astrodome was also the first sports stadium in the county to feature luxury skyboxes and suites for owners and super-fans, as well as levels and levels of themed dining and drinking options.
Renovations and Reuse
The Astrodome has undergone several alterations and renovations since its opening in 1965. Within the first year, a section of the skylights that make up the Dome’s roof were painted over to cut down on the glare from the sun blinding the Astros’ outfielders during baseball games. In the mid-1970’s, the roof of the Astrodome was re-sealed and the original skylights were replaced. And in 1988 and 1989, the Astrodome underwent a $100 million renovation — the iconic original scoreboard, the ‘Astrolite’, was removed and replaced, and Judge Hofheinz’s luxurious six-story residence inside the Dome was demolished to make room for 10,000 more spectator seats in order to persuade the Houston Oilers to stay in the Astrodome. During this same renovation, an additional 72 luxury boxes were added and four cylindrical towers with pedestrian ramps flanked the exterior of the Astrodome. Most recently, Harris County has removed the four pedestrian ramp towers, abated the asbestos in the building, and given the Astrodome a bath, cleaning away years of dirt and grime that had built up on the exterior screens and pillars.
Since its closing in 2009, there have been many ideas proposed for the reuse of the Dome, including a hotel, event and convention space, festival space, amateur sports arena, theme park, movie studio, entertainment venue, museum, park or recreation space, disaster relief space, and, sadly, its demolition. So far, none of these proposals have been presented with viable funding sources that work within the current operational structure of NRG Park.
In 2013, after being closed for several years, a $217 million proposal to convert the Astrodome into a multi-use event space was narrowly defeated by Harris County voters.
In 2013 and 2014, the Astrodome was named a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In 2017, the Astrodome was designated a Texas State Antiquities Landmark, effectively securing its future on the Houston landscape and paving the way for redevelopment.
In 2018, a pared-down $105 million version of the 2013 proposal was approved by Harris County Commissioners Court. This version proposed a multi-use event floor brought up to ground level with two levels of parking underneath.
In 2019, the project was put on hold due to concerns over the usability of the Dome once re-opened. Currently, it is estimated that the Dome costs less than 1% of Harris County’s annual budget to maintain and operate each year. Harris County Commissioners Court has expressed the need for an Astrodome reuse and redevelopment plan that does not require significant public capital investment, will generate revenue to offset expenses and one that has a public benefit.
Who owns the Dome?
The Astrodome and NRG Park are owned, maintained, and operated by Harris County. NRG Park has two primary tenants, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo (HLSR) and the Houston Texans. Their leases run through 2032, and give them a lot of influence over how the site is operated, including and impacting the Astrodome.
What is the Astrodome Conservancy?
In 2016, the Astrodome Conservancy was founded as the champion of the landmark Astrodome on behalf of the people of Houston and Harris County. As a private, non-profit organization, their mission is to promote the Astrodome’s legacy through preservation and development, advocate for public access, and create programming that inspires and engages. And the Conservancy wants the Astrodome to be dynamic and accessible to all.
Since 2019, they have been working diligently to explore alternative financing tools for redevelopment, perform public outreach, identify possible energy alternatives and incentives, and build partnerships locally and nationally to support reinvestment in the Eighth Wonder of the World. In 2020, the Astrodome Conservancy raised enough private funds to launch this community engagement campaign to understand what the public envisions for the future of the Astrodome.
What is ‘Future Dome’ and what are we trying to do?
“Future Dome” is a two-month-long community engagement campaign where we are asking for your input on the future of the Astrodome through a series of surveys, engagement activities, informative materials, and public meetings. The information provided here is aimed at giving you the information you need to formulate informed opinions and helpful feedback, but our main goal is to listen to you, the public.
The results of this campaign will be used to develop and demonstrate support for an innovative, feasible, and community-backed approach to the reuse of the Dome. Let’s make it ours!
There are several constraints that make reuse challenging, such as the Astrodome’s location in the middle of NRG Park, the large size of the structure itself, the need to complement the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo (HLSR) Texans activities in NRG Park, and the desire to be financially sustainable while also benefiting the public. There are also numerous opportunities that can make reuse feasible and advantageous to Harris County, its citizens, and the tenants of NRG Park.
Funding and Public Benefit
Redeveloping and reusing the Astrodome will be an expensive process. Harris County, the owner of the Astrodome, has stated that any public money that goes into the building needs to be justified by public benefit.
Over the past decade, there have been a lot of proposals for how to reuse the Dome that do not take public benefit into account. Ideas for redeveloping the Dome for private, profitable use — like a hotel for example — continue to run into obstacles. Private uses require private owners, developers, and financing, and to date, not one private proposal has been able to show all three in the twelve years that it has sat vacant. For a private developer, reusing the Dome, especially with the HLSR and Texans event and site restrictions, is not a financially sound investment without the aid of public dollars. It is unlikely that the Astrodome will be sold to a private entity or developer, so focusing on reuses that benefit the public and can leverage limited public investment with private dollars is an ideal route forward.
- The Astrodome is located in the center of NRG Park and surrounded by acres of surface parking lots
- NRG Park is 350 acres of Harris County-owned property surrounded by the City of Houston
- NRG Park is the size of 108 downtown Houston city blocks
- NRG Park could fit the entire Downtown Houston Convention Center district, including BBVA Stadium, Minute Maid Park, Discovery Green, GRB Convention Center, and Toyota Center within its footprint
- Although a Harris County public asset, NRG Park is behind secured fencing with controlled access, limiting public access and free entry
- Located in the center of NRG Park, there is no public access to even the exterior of the Astrodome without purchasing a ticket to an NRG Park event
- NRG Park is located on the Red Line of METRO’s light rail system between Downtown Houston and the South 610 Loop
- NRG Park is connected to the growing system of bikeways across Houston by an existing off-street bike lane running along Holly Hall Road
- There is interest in “greening” NRG Park to create a park-like setting along main pedestrian pathways within its footprint
- The Astrodome is huge: 9 stories tall, 1 million square feet, and could seat over 70,000 people
- The interior space is 208 feet tall and spans 642 (column-free) feet across
- It is similar in size to Discovery Green in downtown Houston
- It could easily fit 10 Houston City Hall buildings, the Toyota Center, or 168 Whataburger stores inside it
- The area is significantly greater than many single uses would require (bigger than a typical hotel, museum, or exhibition hall), which lends itself to a multi-purpose reuse
- In addition to the floor space, there is more than 400,000 square feet of space in the 9 stories of concourses surrounding the floor
The current contracts of the tenants of NRG Park, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo (HLSR) and the Houston Texans, present hurdles to the Dome’s redevelopment right now.
- Harris County owns the Astrodome and NRG Park, but the HLSR and the Texans have contracts that give them complete control of the site during special events and game days
- HLSR can use any part of NRG Park, including the Astrodome, during their time on-site each spring
- The Texans have rights to all of NRG Park, except the Astrodome itself. They do utilize all of the parking surrounding the Dome, blocking its access on game days
- Given their current contractual rights, the amount of time the HLSR and Texans block access to the Astrodome make it difficult to propose private uses such as retail, restaurants, and hotels inside the Dome
- The HLSR and Texans will continue to be the anchor tenants of NRG Park, so any reuse of the Astrodome needs to be compatible with (and hopefully have the support of) both groups
- With its domed roof, the Astrodome can still function as it was originally intended – to host events, art, and entertainment year-round
- The HLSR and Texans could potentially grow their presence and offerings by utilizing the Astrodome during the Rodeo and on game days for special events and one-of-a-kind experiences
- The Astrodome’s redevelopment will be as cutting-edge and innovative as it was when it was conceived and built
- There are no examples in the U.S. of buildings of this size and scale being redeveloped successfully, which presents challenges to identifying compatible reuses and viable funding sources
- The Astrodome is essentially protected from wholesale demolition due to the Texas State Archeological Landmark designation
- The Astrodome is structurally sound, but not everything the in Astrodome can be readily reused; the electrical and mechanical systems need to be updated and accommodations added to make the building accessible to all
- Historic preservation and rehabilitation standards will impact what and to what degree historic elements and designs can be altered
- Some proposals that strip the Astrodome of its character-defining elements would jeopardize financial incentives and the historic and landmark status of the Dome