Ryan Holeywell is a staff writer at GOVERNING.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Back in February, an architecture conference focused on “concrete modernism” met in Houston. Included on the agenda: a tour of the famed Astrodome. The 65,000-seat domed stadium, the first of its kind when it opened in 1965, was the perfect destination for the group. But the visitors’ path through the venue had to be changed when, just hours before the event, an electrical fire broke out in the facility. The blaze wasn’t major, but it illustrated the extent to which the facility, once viewed as an engineering marvel, has deteriorated. “It felt like walking into a movie set of something prematurely aged,” says Sarah Whiting, dean of the Rice University School of Architecture, who was part of the group. “I find it incredibly sad to see what had been hailed as the Eighth Wonder of the World essentially crumbling before our eyes.”
The fire was the latest chapter in the unceremonious decline of a facility that continues to remain an icon in Space City. Roy Hofheinz, the first owner of the Astros baseball team, had sought a way to make baseball comfortable for fans during the sweltering Texas summers, so he came up with the ambitious solution of simply putting the sport indoors. When it opened, the building was an instant hit. Home attendance for the team tripled during its first year in the new ballpark. That same year, more than 400,000 visitors paid $1 apiece just to take a tour of the stadium. The Astrodome’s inaugural game drew 175 sports reporters from across the country who wanted to witness the spectacle firsthand. “This is the new Taj Mahal, and it must be seen to be believed,” legendary Baltimore sports reporter John Steadman wrote at the time. “Words and pictures cannot begin to adequately describe the majestic view which overwhelms the visitor.”
The facility inspired others, but eventually, tastes changed. Domes went out of style, especially as new technology made retractable roofs popular. The Oilers NFL team, which had played in the Astrodome since 1968, left after the 1996 season. The Astros left after 1999. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo -- a tenant since 1966 -- left after its 2002 season. That was essentially the end for the building, which is owned by Harris County. In the wake of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, the Astrodome famously served as temporary housing for displaced Louisiana evacuees. The last event to be held at the Dome -- a late-night, honky-tonk party affiliated with the rodeo -- was more than three years ago. Today, the Astrodome doesn’t even have an occupancy permit. It’s been officially condemned by Houston’s fire marshal.
“It’s not needed as an athletic facility,” says Harris County Judge Ed Emmett. “The question is, what purpose does it serve?”
For a dozen years now, nobody in Houston has had a definitive answer. And it’s a question that a growing number of communities across the country may soon be asking about their own stadiums and arenas. Starting about 20 years ago, localities began to realize they could make a name for themselves with unique sports venues. But as sports economist Andrew Zimbalist notes, urban populations have been growing faster than professional sports leagues have been adding teams. As a result, the teams hold a great amount of sway over localities: Build us a new stadium, they tell cities, or we’ll relocate. The upshot? Cities and counties increasingly find themselves littered with pricey white-elephant sports venues that are costly to keep up and sometimes impossible to unload. Maintaining unused stadiums costs governments millions of dollars in maintenance and forgone property tax revenue. For those governments, it’s a vexing question, indeed: What do you do when the team walks away?
The 1990s saw an unprecedented building binge for sports arenas and stadiums. Between 1990 and 2006, 82 new venues opened across the country -- more than the total from the previous 40 years. Part of the boom came from a shift in the way the facilities were purposed. Historically, stadiums were designed in a horseshoe shape to house as many different events as possible, from football games to track meets to community pageants. But that’s no longer true. “We’ve been building these things fast,” says Dennis Coates, an economics professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who has studied public financing of stadiums. “They have kind of proliferated, in part, because everything is for a single purpose.”
While it was once common for facilities to be used jointly -- baseball and football teams shared a stadium, and hockey and basketball teams shared an arena -- that’s not the case anymore. Today, there are 100 venues in the United States that host a team in one of the four major professional sports leagues, and 88 of them host just one team. By next year, Oakland will have the only stadium that hosts professional baseball and football.
Most of the facilities are relatively new -- with a median age of 13 years -- and most were funded with public subsidies. Zimbalist, in a paper with Harvard’s Judith Grant Long, estimates that stadiums built from 2000 to 2006 had an average public cost of $319 million, when maintenance and foregone tax revenue is included.
When a team ditches a venue for new digs, the city or county is often left grappling with what to do with the empty facility. Finding a new tenant can be a major challenge: Facilities designed as professional sports venues aren’t much good for anything else. For one thing, they’re enormous. The Astrodome, for example, is 18 stories tall with a 9-acre footprint; it can easily house a Boeing 777. Another major challenge with these buildings is their location. Frequently located outside of city centers -- and nearly always surrounded by a sea of asphalt parking lots -- stadiums would require a tenant that’s a destination unto itself. “When you try to convert things, it often costs more money than knocking them down,” says architect Peter Eisenman, who designed the Arizona Cardinals football stadium outside of Phoenix. “That kind of space is too problematic for other functions.”
Zimbalist agrees. Most of the time, he says, the most prudent thing a city can do is raze the facility. “Usually it makes sense to blow them up and put something else in.”
Typically that’s exactly what happens. But in some cases, localities decide to hold onto their facilities in hopes of maximizing their investment. Last year, about $10 million in public money was spent on renovations to Orlando’s 75-year-old Citrus Bowl, most famous for hosting two college football bowl games a year. Eventually, there are plans to invest another $165 million in the facility once the tourism industry rebounds. Even though nearby University of Central Florida recently opened a new football stadium, city officials say it’s important to reinvest in the much larger Citrus Bowl since it’s capable of hosting more high-profile events.
The success stories can involve some very unconventional reuse projects. Take the Memphis Pyramid, a 20,000-seat, $68 million facility opened as a joint venture by the city and surrounding Shelby County in 1991. After a decade as the home of a local college basketball team, the Pyramid in 2001 welcomed the city’s new NBA franchise, the Grizzlies. After just three years playing at the Pyramid, the Grizzlies moved to an even newer facility across town. The iconic facility hasn’t had a regular tenant since 2004. Local officials considered a host of possible uses for the space, including an aquarium or an indoor amusement park. A local congressman suggested it could house a “mid-American branch” of the Smithsonian. None of those ideas went anywhere. But earlier this year, $215 million in public bonds were approved to convert the Pyramid into a massive Bass Pro Shops store.
Many cities, though, simply try to cut their losses. In a controversial move in 2009, the state-appointed emergency manager of Pontiac, Mich., sold the 80,000-seat Silverdome, once home to the NFL’s Detroit Lions, for just $583,000. Some residents thought the city got fleeced, but in his resignation later, the manager wrote that the stadium “had been sapping the lifeblood of the city for many years while it was sitting idle.” In Washington, D.C., preliminary plans to redevelop the site where the 50-year-old Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium stands include mixed-use developments and a museum -- but not the stadium itself. “It’s kind of a shame,” says David Zaidain, a planner with the federal commission that oversees the site. “In the grand scheme of things, particularly in Washington, the stadium is not that old.” But, he adds, “there’s no professional team that would want to come back to that stadium.”
Houstonians are quick to point out that their stadium situation is trickier than other cities’, given the Astrodome’s place in history and the hearts of residents. Baseball writer Roger Angell immediately noticed the pride residents had for the building when he visited in 1966. “[I]n Houston ... the Astrodome seems to rank second only to the nearby Manned Spacecraft Center as a source of self-congratulation,” he wrote for The New Yorker.
Nonetheless, the Astros began looking for greener pastures in the 1990s. Astros owner Drayton McLane used a textbook maneuver to win a publicly financed stadium, threatening to sell the team to investors who would move the Astros to Northern Virginia if he didn’t get a new facility. The timing of the vote worked out well for McLane: Just a year earlier, Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams had announced he was moving the team to Tennessee after he had failed to get a new stadium for his football team. Voters, having learned firsthand that relocation threats weren’t empty, narrowly approved the new baseball stadium for McLane with 51 percent of the vote. (McLane has since reached an agreement to sell the team for $610 million, after buying the team 20 years ago for $103 million. Forbes magazine pegs a quarter of the value of McLane’s franchise to the stadium that taxpayers built him.)
Since the Astros and the Oilers left the Astrodome, Houston and surrounding Harris County have partnered on a troika of new venues at public expense: a baseball stadium for the Astros (2000), a football stadium for the Texans (2002) and a basketball venue for the Rockets (2003) that’s also used by the city’s minor league hockey team. Next year they’re opening a downtown stadium for the city’s major league soccer team. So the question of what to do with the Astrodome didn’t come as a surprise. After all, “It’s designed to be a sports stadium,” says Rusty Bienvenue, executive director of the Houston chapter of the American Institute of Architects, “[but] then they decided to move all the teams elsewhere.”
As it stands, there are three choices under consideration, according to the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp., which is charged by the county with overseeing the Astrodome. Option one: Demolish the Astrodome and replace it with a plaza for $128 million. Option two: Turn the building into a venue that includes an exhibit hall and planetarium for $324 million. Option three: Build the exhibit hall and planetarium, plus a museum, conference center and some other amenities, for $588 million. All of the choices could be augmented with new parking facilities, transit centers and a hotel, which would add to the costs. The most expensive combination would cost nearly $1.4 billion. Each of those figures includes about $40 million the county still owes on debt it accrued making renovations to the facility in the 1980s at the request of the Houston Oilers, who have played in Tennessee for the last 15 years. All but the cheapest renovation options are actually more expensive than the price tag was for Minute Maid Park, the new home of the Astros.
At one point, the county came extremely close to solving the Astrodome problem. A group called the Astrodome Redevelopment Corp. was granted exclusive rights to negotiate a redevelopment deal, pitching a $450 million plan that included a 1,200-room convention hotel along with shopping, amusement park rides and something akin to San Antonio’s River Walk. “Dome deal is likely weeks away,” the Houston Chronicle declared in a 2008 headline. But eventually it became clear that the developers couldn’t secure financing. “We’ve seen so many hurdles,” says Willie Loston, who leads the Sports & Convention Corp. “We thought we had some promising dialogues, and they’ve just fallen apart.”
Another complicating factor involves the man who served as a key steward of the Astrodome during much of its vacancy. From 1999 to 2007, Loston’s board was chaired by a developer named Michael Surface, who paid a county commissioner more than $100,000 in cash and gifts in exchange for the job and various contracts, according to a federal indictment. The list of gifts -- which include Western-themed vacations, ivory gun grips and the purchase of inventory from the commissioner’s failing business, the Salt Springs Spur Company -- is cartoonishly Texan. Surface and the commissioner have both pleaded guilty to charges related to the case.
In the coming weeks, Harris County is expected to release a $500,000 study that outlines the latest proposals for the facility. Over the years, the county has received many pitches, including a casino, a medical center and various ideas banking on the novelty of bringing a traditional outdoor activity inside, such as a ski slope and a kayaking course. Loston says the report will be the most thorough analysis of the issue ever conducted by the county. Others are skeptical.
“It’s a shame to make taxpayers wait 10 years or more for a viable plan that’s going to put people to work and put money in their pockets,” says Elise Hendrix, who leads Astrodome Studios, a group pitching the county on turning the Astrodome into a giant soundstage complete with facilities for every aspect of media production. “We’re just kind of sitting around, waiting, twiddling our thumbs until some decisions are made.”
In determining the fate of the Astrodome, however, sentiment may trump finances. Three generations of Houstonians grew up watching games in the Dome, which can make demolition a sensitive subject. “It’s sort of the building that put Houston on the map,” says David Bush, a spokesman for the Greater Houston Preservation Association, which is fighting to save the structure.
Emmett, the county judge, likens the Astrodome to the Eiffel Tower, which was originally built for the 1889 World’s Fair and was only intended to remain for 20 years. “I think the Astrodome kind of fills that role for us here.”
Emmett says voters will ultimately decide the Astrodome’s fate, since they’ll be the ones paying for it. He says his preference would be to gut the structure’s insides, restore the exterior and have it serve as a space for festivals. That plan would cost more than $300 million and wouldn’t be a moneymaker for the county, but it would at least keep the stadium available if someone comes along with a better idea. “People have to understand there’s a cost for preserving an icon,” Emmett says. “It’s not important to me at all that it be a moneymaker.”
Of course there are many people who don’t have a sentimental attachment to the Astrodome. They see it instead as an unattractive, outdated shell of a building, one that’s a drain on city and county resources. But most folks seem to have a deep affection -- or at least an affinity -- for the Astrodome. Douglas Kelbaugh, a professor of architecture and urban planning at the University of Michigan, says there are a lot of possibilities for the Astrodome. He envisions an indoor park with skateboarding, and a track for motorsports that snakes inside and outside the facility. “This could be quite a famous venue, if they did it right,” he says, likening the Astrodome to the Colosseum in ancient Rome. “The Roman stuff? They didn’t tear that down. It would be insane.”