With rolls of Astroturf lying on carts and seats scattered about like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, Houston's Astrodome has obviously seen better days. But standing in the middle of the concrete floor of the hot and musty-smelling arena during a press conference earlier this week, Harris County 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 said he 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 said.
"Having a climate-controlled park would really put Houston back on the world stage again," said Judge Ed Emmett.
Hike, bike and fitness trails could wind through the upper levels, while an archery range and horseshoe pits could find permanent homes under the dome. An income-generating amphitheater could draw concertgoers, while a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics center could become a magnet for area students.
"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 because Harris County already owns the Astrodome, converting it into a park makes sense. He says the dome is structurally sound and paid for. Attractions can be added as public or private funds become available; some, like the amphitheater, could attract sponsors to become moneymaking operations.
"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 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 Land Institute, who will be in Houston next week, also will be asked for ideas, Emmett said.
"I've really just wanted someone to come up with a big vision that was very forward-looking," said preservationist Phoebe Tudor.
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," he said. "Obviously some sort of green space on the floor is a start, because that makes it available for people to use.
"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," said preservationist Phoebe Tudor, who has been a leader in the fight to preserve the Astrodome. "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."
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."