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A drawing of the proposed indoor park space, including zip lines and other attractions.

Houston’s iconic NRG Astrodome “can and should live on” as a multiuse park that will enhance the quality of life for residents of the city, serve as a popular tourist destination, and catalyze economic development that enhances the greater NRG Park and benefits the region as a whole, according to a report released by the Urban Land Institute (ULI).

The Astrodome, Harris County, Texas: A Vision for a Repurposed Icon is a comprehensive follow-up to recommendations made last December by a panel of nationally renowned land use and urban planning experts convened by ULI to evaluate reuse possibilities for the vacant sports facility, which is part of the 350-acre (142 ha) NRG Park that also includes NRG Stadium, NRG Center, and NRG Arena.

The Harris County Commissioners Court, the county’s governing body, approved ULI’s proposal and referred it to the county’s Sports and Convention Corp., which oversees the Astrodome and the neighboring NRG Stadium, says Joe Stinebaker, spokesman for the court’s head, Judge Ed Emmett.

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The panel was chaired by longtime ULI member Wayne Ratkovich, president of the Ratkovich Company, a Los Angeles–based firm that specializes in urban infill and rehabilitation projects, primarily in southern California. “We quickly realized that the historic value of the site made retaining the Astrodome structure essential,” Ratkovich says. He notes that the panel understood the importance of factoring in the impact of an overhaul on the two primary tenants of NRG Park—the National Football League’s Houston Texans franchise and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo (HLSR). “Our vision for the Astrodome is one of a grand civic space that enhances the entire NRG Park Complex,” Ratkovich says.

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A drawing depicting a rock-climbing wall and other amenities.

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The report provides details on the following recommendations from the panel:

  • Recognize the iconic status of the Astrodome with a museum celebrating its history as the world’s first domed sports stadium and create a new vision that rehabilitates the dome and the surrounding portions of NRG Park.
  • Redevelop the Astrodome as a multiuse facility.
  • Develop 1,500 additional parking spaces in the lower levels of the Astrodome.
  • Create a new ground floor in the Astrodome interior that can accommodate a variety of uses, including a park.
  • Develop a new outdoor public space of live oak allée as a promenade between the nearby light-rail station and the east entrance to the Astrodome.
  • Construct permanent outdoor covered pavilions along the allée.
  • Enhance the outside of the Astrodome with hardscape and landscape features.
  • Reuse the various floors of the Astrodome for a variety of programmable space, such as new space to extend the game-day experience for Houston Texans fans, new spaces for the HLSR, and additional space for the Offshore Technology Conference (OTC), which is another major user of NRG Park facilities.
  • Use the transformed space for activities such as community festivals, farmers markets, movie nights, charity events, and private events that will generate new revenue streams.
  • Identify and tap new sources of capital and operational funds.
  • Create a new leadership initiative to unite vision with action.

The report notes that the complexity of such a monumental transformation—turning a vast empty interior space (dubbed the “biggest room in the world” by one panelist) into a programmable indoor park and civic space—calls for the adoption by Harris County of a framework of guiding principles to ensure a high-quality outcome. “The repurposed Astrodome must be aesthetically and historically sensitive as well as functional and self-sustaining,” the report says.

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The recommended guiding principles include a commitment that the Astrodome will be rehabilitated as a civic space accessible by train, bike, and car; and that the facility’s historic and architectural importance will be respected and not treated as a relic, but rather enjoyed as an active, dynamic public space. Other principles include the following: that the Astrodome will be a regional destination for residents and visitors; that it will be designed to celebrate arts, education, technology, innovation, and history; and that it plays a significant, functional role within the entire NRG Park, serving as an asset to the Texans, the HLSR, and the OTC.

“The creation of a truly unique indoor park, accessible to all in the region, harkens to the early 1960s (when the Astrodome was built) by providing an innovative, provocative approach to how public space is created and used,” the report concludes. “It is inconceivable that the Astrodome should not be the centerpiece of NRG Park.”

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