I met Ed Emmett at his office late one afternoon in early June. He was well-dressed, in a grey suit minus the jacket, and a blue tie. It was my first in-person interview since the pandemic hit, and after 14 and a half months of doing everything by Zoom with its more casual, work from home approach, I think I was expecting something more along the lines of slacks and a polo. Or maybe I subconsciously expected the “disaster casual” attire I was more accustomed to seeing the former Harris County Judge wearing in press conferences on television during hurricanes.
I was there to talk to him about the Astrodome. A month before, I wrote about some of my childhood memories of the Dome. Growing up, I loved baseball but was completely unaware of the significant role the Astrodome played in the desegregation of Houston. After the story came out, Emmett extended an offer: “If you decide to write more about (the Astrodome), I’d welcome the chance to provide some details.”
In recent months, the Astrodome has been back in the news. In May, the Astrodome Conservancy kicked off Future Dome, an eight-week campaign to solicit public opinion and feedback on what could or should be done with what it calls Houston and Harris County’s greatest civic asset. Soon after, the Houston Chronicle editorial board renewed its call to save the stadium.
For 12 years, the Astrodome consumed much of his public life, yet Emmett has insisted it holds no emotional significance for him: “I don’t have any great attachment to the building. But it’s a building and it’s paid for and it’s usable. And it makes sense to use it. And that was always my thing.” Though, shortly after we begin, he gets up and retrieves a sampling of the Astrodome swag he keeps in his office at Rice University, where he’s a fellow in energy and transportation policy in the Center for Energy Studies at the school’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
He has always argued that demolishing the Astrodome would make no sense because, in addition to being fully paid for, the county-owned stadium is structurally sound: “When Hurricane Ike came through in 2008, almost every building in NRG Park was damaged, except the Dome. Because it’s just this monstrously strong structure.”
No other building in Houston comes close to approaching the level of navel-gazing and nostalgia (not to mention word-counts) that the Dome has inspired — nothing is even in the same ballpark (my apologies). But for almost two decades, it has languished. As it sits unused, I’m reminded of a visit to the Colosseum in Rome, which, like the Astrodome, looks rather intact from far away. It isn’t till you get up-close that you can see where it’s crumbling.
The Harris County Domed Stadium, fondly known as the Astrodome, was seemingly willed into existence by Roy Hofheinz, the county judge turned two-term Houston mayor turned promoter, and marketed (possibly by Hofheinz) as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” The Grand Canyon, the Taj Mahal, the Empire State Building and Andre the Giant are among other amazements that have been touted as the world’s Eighth Wonder. Of these, all but Andre Rene Roussimoff still stand (sadly).
However, it’s another Dome nickname, one earned by the Oilers for a brief span in the late 1980s, that may more accurately fit Emmett’s dealings with the place: The House of Pain.
“I only half-jokingly tell people all the time, the Astrodome is the bane of my existence.”
The long road to renovation
When Ed Emmett took over as Harris County judge in 2007, the Astrodome had remained mostly dormant in the five years since George Strait played its last rodeo in 2002. The major exception came in 2005 when the Dome along with the hearts of Houstonians were opened up for thousands of Hurricane Katrina evacuees.
At the time, there was a possibly ill-advised $400 million plan already in the works to remake the Astrodome as a convention hotel-entertainment complex, but after the Great Recession hit in 2008, the developers abandoned the plan.
In 2013, Harris County, through the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation, turned to the public for ideas on what to do with the Astrodome.
“We got hundreds of ideas, I mean, hundreds,” says Emmett, a former senior fellow at the Kinder Institute. Some of the more obvious ones, he says, were an indoor ski facility and a mountain-biking facility. And “there was always the office building idea.” (“Frankly,” he admits, “if the county years earlier had thought about it, rather than building a lot of the new office buildings they built downtown, maybe they could have put them in the Dome.” But by then it was too late.)
The Judge saves his favorite pitch for last: “Now, the Dome floor sits 30 feet below ground level, and one guy wanted to come in and flood it and reenact naval battle scenes. That’d be fun, but I’m not sure how the finances would work on it.”
While the plans submitted by private groups ran the gamut, each one had the same flaw: “They all wanted the county or the taxpayer to pay for them to run a business,” Emmett says.
It was at that point, and after “a lot of gnashing of teeth,” that Harris County officials revealed “The New Dome Experience” — their plan to turn the facility into the world’s largest multipurpose events space.
Ultimately, the decision would be left to voters, with the proposal hinging on the approval of a $217 million county bond referendum. In November 2013, Harris County Proposition 2 was on the ballot.
“And it failed,” says Emmett. “Failed 53%-47% in a very low-turnout vote. A lot of us just didn’t work it hard enough. I mean, I’ll take the blame for that.”
What Emmett says he won’t take the blame for is the erroneous assumption of some voters that by casting a ballot against the referendum they were voting for the demolition of Astrodome.
“I still get people who send me emails that say, ‘we voted to tear the Dome down, and you ignored us!’” referencing the calls for the Dome’s demolition that continue to this day. “By voting against the bond, all they said was you can’t borrow $217 million and pay it back with taxpayer dollars.”
Back to the drawing board
Following the referendum, Emmett and his staff began looking around the world for inspiration in solving the Astrodome problem. They came across a huge dirigible hangar in Germany that had been converted into an indoor park. So, they took an exploratory trip (not at taxpayers’ expense) to visit the park for themselves. (Incidentally, longtime New York Times sportswriter Jeré Longman once observed that the design of NRG Stadium, the Astrodome’s retractable-roofed replacement and next-door neighbor, had “all the imagination of a hangar to park a blimp.”) Emmett and his team eventually concluded the German model wasn’t a feasible solution, but it led them to the realization that what Houston needed was a covered space for festivals and other events, one that would provide shade and protection from the region’s infamous heat and rainfall. What would that look like? I’ll let Emmett explain:
“We came up with the idea of building a new floor at ground level, that would give you nine acres of covered space. And not to try to air-condition it, because that would cost way too much money. And don’t worry about what happens to the upper reaches of the Dome, we’ll take care of that later. But for right now, let’s just create the nine acres and rent it out as often as you can for festivals and gatherings.”
Emmett says the plan would also solve the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo’s biggest beef with the Astrodome: the fact that it sits in-between the carnival midway and NGR Center, blocking the flow of guests.
“The Rodeo’s complaint about the Dome was always (that) it’s in their way. You know, the carnival is on one side of it, and NRG Center is on the other side of it. And so you have to walk around it to get anywhere in the NRG Complex. Well, this way, particularly if you raise the sidewalls to where people could just sort of walk through, it’s not in the way. And they could then move their kiddie rides and petting zoo and things like that, and have them under cover all the time.”
The new Astrodome plan would also provide room to accommodate many of the commercial exhibitors on the Rodeo’s long wait list. Organizers of other events like the auto show, boat show and Offshore Technology Conference were on board as well.
Emmett felt confident the county had a simple, viable and affordable solution that would raise the Dome’s floor to ground level, build two floors of parking (roughly 1,400 spaces) beneath it, and turn the whole thing into an open-air venue for festivals and conferences. With the renovation, the Astrodome’s certificate of occupancy, which the Houston Fire Department revoked in 2009, would also be restored. “And we could do it for $105 million, without a tax increase or any bond,” Emmett says. Instead, the renovation would be paid for with funding in equal parts from the county’s general fund, which is derived from property tax revenue, hotel occupancy taxes and county parking fees.
The Harris County Commissioners Court unanimously approved the plan.
“And that was our decision as late as 2018,” Emmett says. “But then I lost the election in 2018.”
Two years later, the only progress that’s been made is asbestos removal. Soon after Judge Lina Hidalgo took office she put the project on hold, claiming the money could be put to better use. The COVID-19 pandemic has only further jeopardized any hopes of the plan in its current form being carried out.
“My fear is we’re gonna look up 10 years from now and it’s still just going to be sitting there, rusting like an old ship,” Emmett says.
What are the constraints and what’s next?
In 2013, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Astrodome a National Treasure and placed the stadium on its annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. “It is a marvel of modern engineering, and was designed to embody Houston’s innovative, entrepreneurial and space-age development as a major U.S. city,” the National Trust said at the time. Since 1988, more than 300 places have been added to the Trust’s most-endangered list, and fewer than 5% of those have been demolished. A year later, the Dome was named a National Historic Landmark on the National Register of Historic Places. Neither of these designations alone guarantee preservation or protection.
However, in 2017, the Texas Historical Commission designated the Astrodome a state antiquities landmark, which basically protects it from being torn down. That also means the Texas Historical Commission has to sign off on any changes, and no changes can be made that can’t be undone.
It remains to be seen if the Future Dome campaign will draw any winning ideas out into the open, or if any will be as entertaining as the last time the county tried the crowd-sourcing approach. The Astrodome Conservancy organizers have set a goal of 10,000 responses for Future Dome, and they report they’re about halfway there. According to the group’s estimates, the annual cost of maintaining and operating the Dome is less than 1% of Harris County’s budget. The County Commissioners Court has said any plan for the stadium has to meet three criteria: it must require no significant public funding, it must generate revenue to offset expenses, and it must benefit the public.
In response to the Future Dome campaign, the Houston Chronicle’s editorial board called for Houstonians to “dream big” in re-imaging the Astrodome, declaring that “an empty Astrodome leaves an even larger empty space in the city’s psyche.” The paper’s editorial board also called for the stadium to be saved leading up to the 2013 referendum, which it supported.
The editorial points to the enormous success of Travis Scott’s Astroworld Fest as evidence of an appetite and opportunity for a public space in Houston like the one mapped out in Emmett’s plan. The third installment of Scott’s two-day music festival, which once again sold out even before a full lineup was released, returns to NRG Park (more specifically the NRG parking lot) in November. The Houston native’s homage to another Hofheinz brainchild takes place outdoors at a more hospitable time of year than did the now-defunct Free Press Summer Fest, which was relocated from Eleanor Tinsley Park to the NRG parking lot in both 2015 and 2016 because of heavy rains and flooding just before the event. Anyone who suffered through the daytime sets at Summer Fest either of those years can testify to how much the shade alone offered by an open-air Dome venue would have improved the experience.
I’ve heard Houston summed up as a city full of engineers, just give them a problem and they’ll find a solution. It’s exactly that mentality that made the Astrodome a possibility in the first place. Can it be done again? It would require significant private support, something that’s also very Houston. Throughout the city’s history, the private sector has provided the seed funding for world-class universities, hospitals, museums and parks, so why not the Eighth Wonder of the World?
I ask Emmett if he’s concerned that, in the end, the Astrodome, and the unsatisfied sense of closure that it represents to a lot of people, will be his legacy.
“Oh, it will be part of it, no question,” he responds without hesitation. “But then you have the Judge Ed Emmett Mental Health Diversion Center. That’s a building that's named after me. And that means more.
“I don’t think the Dome had any great impact on my career; it just gave me more gray hair than I should have.”