HOUSTON—Hanging on the walls of Chris Alexander’s living room are the proof of his boyhood fascination with The Astrodome.
"I did these drawings when I was fifteen after the first time I went to The Astrodome. I had the germ of this idea," he said.
The sketches look like the work of a teenager enthralled with science fiction. But the scale model sitting in his apartment, built in his retirement, looks like nothing less than a design for transforming Houston’s great architectural landmark.
"This is reimagining The Astrodome," he said.
Alexander’s vision would convert the dome into a pedestrian planetarium simulating the sights of space travel. A monorail would ring the entire complex. Underground parking would sit beneath a huge green space, converting what was once the world’s largest parking lot into one of Houston’s largest city parks.
"Green space on the outside, outer space on the inside," he said.
Don’t misunderstand him. Alexander is just a retired artist with a dream. He’s no architect or urban planner and nobody in government paid him to create the models and computer images in his living room. But his plan bears one striking similarity to the options now under consideration by county authorities mulling the future of the Astrodome: It would cost a whole lot of money.
Harris County officials have commissioned a $500,000 study on the Astrodome’s fate, and are now considering four options. All of them are estimated to cost taxpayers between $124 million to $324 million.
"It is quite a dilemma," says Edgardo Colon, the chairman of the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation.
"One of the things that we’re finding is that there is a lot of support for keeping the structure, but then we have a lot of disagreement on what to do with it. That is where we have disagreement. But then again, the next question becomes, ‘Keeping the structure at what cost?’ There is going to be a cost associated with saving the building. And that is a decision that we are going to have to ask the taxpayers."
The issue came back into the spotlight last week when KHOU 11 News broadcast exclusive video shot inside the Astrodome showing the deteriorating state of the stadium. Although the structure may be sound, the dome no longer qualifies for an occupancy permit. The showers where generations of Houston sports legends cleaned up after games are now rusting and the seats once occupied by fans cheering the Houston Oiler are ripping apart. Vandals have smashed windows and sprayed fire extinguishers around floors.
County officials say there’s no reason to spend money repairing the damage because the facility will almost certainly be gutted.
"All of the defects there at this time will be, quite candidly, removed," says Willie Loston, the sports and convention corporation’s executive director.
There are currently four different options for the future of the Astrodome. One of them is to keep with the current plan, which is to do nothing. This will cost Houston more than $2 million a year in maintenance.
The second option is to cover the footprint of the dome with a green space plaza. But even this option is startlingly expensive, costing an estimated $84 million, due to some unusual circumstances. The dome cannot simply be imploded, county officials say, because that might damage the nearby AstroArena and Reliant Stadium.
Asbestos would be remediated. The county would even have to spend money hauling in dirt to fill the hole left by the portion of the dome that’s underground. When you add the roughly $40 million still owed on bonds that financed stadium renovations, this seemingly simple option would cost taxpayers an estimated $124 million.
Third, the city could gut the dome and leave the shell. This option would also include construction of a technology center and a planetarium inside the old stadium building. The roof would be covered with solar panels that look like a map of the world when viewed from the air. The estimated cost: about $324 million, including the $40 million in old Astrodome bond payments.
The final option, Astrodome renaissance, is the most expensive plan, costing more than a half-billion dollars. It would include everything in the third option, but private investors would be invited to build everything from an alternative energy center to a movie studio. The estimated cost: about $324 million from taxpayers and about $264 million from private sources.
The consultant’s report is expected to be completed within a matter of weeks. After that, the sports and convention corporation will make a recommendation to Harris County Commissioners Court, which will decide upon an option for the dome’s future.
All of the options are so expensive, a decision will almost certainly require a bond issue. That means Harris County voters will have the final say on the fate of what was once considered the "Eighth Wonder of the World."