With rolls of Astroturf lying on carts and seats scattered about like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, the Astrodome has obviously seen better days. But standing in the middle of the concrete floor of the hot and musty-smelling arena Tuesday afternoon, Judge Ed Emmett laid out a different and brighter future for the Eighth Wonder of the World.
Looking up at the roof, which remains a magnificent site, Emmett envisions removing the paint from the panels to allow sunlight in so "we can find out what grows in here." A large, open green space in the rotunda would make a great place for festivals, he says. Hike, bike and fitness trails could wind through the upper levels while an archery range and horseshoe pits could find a permanent home under the Dome. An income-generating amphitheater could draw concert-goers while a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics center could become a magnet for area students.
"Having a climate-controlled park would really put us back on the world stage again," Emmett said.
"Converting the Dome to the world's largest indoor park is a vision worth pursing, so we can restore life to this building," Emmett told reporters, preservationists and a smattering of officials.
Emmett said that since Harris County already owns the Astrodome, converting it into park makes sense. He says the Dome is structurally sound and is paid for. Attractions can be added as public or private funds become available and some, like the amphitheater, could attract sponsors and become a moneymaking operation.
"This is a paid-for asset. And before we toss it on the trash heap, we need to take a look at what do people need in our community? I think we're very short of park space," Emmett said. "Having a climate-controlled park would really put us back on the world stage again," Emmett said.
Emmett dodged questions about the cost, saying "it depends on what goes into it like any other park. You start by acquiring the park land. In this case, the county's already got the land. Everything after that will determine how much the total cost is. It will always be a vision-in-progress."
He has asked the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation to consult with architects and come up with a plan within the next three months to submit to Harris County Commissioners Court. Officials from the Urban Lane Institute, who will be in Houston next week, will also be asked for ideas, Emmett said.
He sees the park open "in some form or fashion" before the February 2017 Super Bowl, to be held next door in NRG Stadium. "But that doesn't mean it's complete. Obviously some sort of green space on the floor is a start because that makes it available for people to use," he said.
"We own this park space," he reiterated, "now it is a question of what to do with it."
Preservation officials seemed excited with the idea. "We want the Dome saved; it's a little bit less about how we reuse it, but it's about let's reuse it in a way that captures this architectural majesty," said Stephanie Ann Jones, executive director of Preservation Houston.
"I'm happy to see a big vision. I've really just wanted someone to come up with a big vision that was very forward-looking. I think there are so many possibilities that could be brought to bear in this," said preservationist Phoebe Tudor, who has been a leader in the fight to preserve the Astrodome.
Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo officials, who have floated their own plan to demolish the domed stadium and replace it with an outdoor park, appeared to have a wait-and-see attitude.
In a statement, rodeo officials said they have received "only a preliminary conceptual briefing on a proposal for repurposing the NRG Astrodome into an air conditioned indoor park. The briefing contained no drawings, renderings or detailed information. [We] look forward to evaluating the proposal in depth when presented with a defined plan that exhibits program space, planned vehicle and pedestrian ingress and egress, and operational and economic feasibility.
"Until such detail is presented and until such analysis is completed, Show officials will have no further comment on this proposal."