How Lina Hidalgo can mend fences by razing the Astrodome

Will a change in office mean a change at NRG Park

In The Loop
November 09, 2018 - 10:51 am

© Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

By John P. Lopez

Ed Emmett’s baby has been an albatross since the last Bush administration.

It was then, early in his tenure as Harris County Judge in 2007, that Emmett began wringing hands and leveraging power. Come hell or high water, Emmett tried to find a way to preserve a decrepit building closed in 1999, left unkempt and decaying after serving as a Katrina shelter in 2005 and on the verge of being shuttered for good when he took office.

Emmett always has contended that his ambition and infatuation with the Dome was fiscally motivated. But over the last dozen years, it became obvious to all that it was more a personal mission.

Most significantly, it became obvious to those tenants and partners whose opinions should have mattered the most to Emmett – the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, Lone Star Sports & Entertainment and the Houston Texans.

Outside of taxpayers, no one pays the County bills quite like that triumvirate at NRG Park. Rest assured, however, the rest of us have indeed paid a steep price for Emmett’s obsession over the years.

To say Emmett’s relationship with the Texans and Rodeo has been fractured in recent years would be an understatement as big as Emmett’s Eighth Blunder Of The World itself.

For all his leadership and the steady hand with which Emmett guided Harris County through the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, the Rodeo and Texans decision-makers still shake their heads at Emmett’s obsession with this stench-riddled carcass of memories.

They – like the majority of constituents who voted against a $217 million renovation bond FIVE years ago – would rather it be demolished.

It is not the most popular thing to say publicly, considering the vast history and architectural impact the Astrodome once had, not to mention sentimental value to all of us who once marveled at it, and in it.

But the Texans’ and Rodeo’s actions have been loud and clear. Not once has any of the big three tenants supported either financially or otherwise any of Emmett’s hair-brained schemes regarding the Astrodome.

Start with that bond election of 2013. Constituents voted it down 53-percent to 47-percent. And in the aftermath, Emmett’s own spokesman, Joe Stinebaker, said, “Rather than leave the Astrodome sitting out in the parking lot rotting, the judge would prefer to see it taken down.”

Problem solved, right? A respectful farewell would be made, the Dome would be honored and NRG Park would move on, bigger and better.

Put up a memorial, perhaps, maybe even a small museum of the Dome’s great moments. And start saving taxpayers money, too.

But that answer wasn’t good enough for Emmett.

He did not want to see the Dome razed on his watch. He changed his own narrative, saying that the bond was for a specific plan – not demolition, as his spokesperson said -- and he had not given up the fight.

Over the next five years, Emmett floated every balloon imaginable on what to do with and how to pay for a renovated Astrodome.

Among the proposals: A water park, a casino, an indoor ski slope, a cycling track, green space, a convention center. In 2015, Emmett and entourage even traveled to Germany to tour a former Zepellin hangar that had been converted into an indoor tropical island.

Finally last year, Emmett spearheaded a plan to make the Astrodome a State Antiquities Landmark, offering limited protection to the building.

And then, while thousands of Houstonians remained flooded and homeless in the wake of Harvey, he approved $105 million – without voter approval – to turn the Dome into 1,400 parking spaces and some event space.

While the Texans and Rodeo offered cursory approval of that plan in a press release, the reality was it fractured the relationship even more.

The points of contention between Emmett’s office and the tenants were – and are --multi-layered.

Foremost, the County is contractually obligated to provide a, “first-class facility,” including upgrades, to the Texans and Rodeo. Because the Astrodome dream has sucked resources from other NRG Park necessities, most recent upgrades to the stadium and surrounding areas have been paid-for by the Texans and food and services provider Aramark. That did not sit well.

Neither has it sit well that a mold-, rat-, cat- and asbestos-infested building deemed uninhabitable since 2009 still cozies up to the first-class NRG Stadium. Despite so many failures trying to find financing and equitable plans, even the current $105 million plan remains mostly theoretical.

On top of all that, neither the Texans nor Rodeo feel altogether comfortable that Emmett’s plan will cost just $105 million. They believe that they, in fact, might be asked to pony up for a project they do not even support. That’s to say nothing of losing valuable space around their facilities for at least a year if not longer, if the plan ever does come about.

Thus, it was music to the collective ears of those decision-makers when Lina Hidalgo upset Emmett in Tuesday’s election. Hidalgo criticized Emmett’s $105 million baby during the campaign and said the County should focus more on transportation and flood control than pet projects.

While Hidalgo has not tipped her hand on whether she would take a more direct approach toward razing the Dome, or what her exact thoughts are regarding the Astrodome, rest assured she would mend numerous fences with her most important tenants with a more practical approach.

As for the State Antiquities designation, that is not as significant a hurdle as it appeared to be when designated. No matter what Hidalgo and her court decides, the stated protection of the designation says the building, “cannot be removed, altered, damaged, salvaged or excavated without a permit from the Texas Historical Commission.”

In other words, no matter the plan, a special permit will have to be obtained. Demolish it. Renovate it. Doesn’t matter.

But once she meets with her biggest tenants, Hidalgo just may realize what taxpayers and her biggest tenants have wanted all along. Enough with the albatross.