Saving the Astrodome: Campaign Highlights Historic Preservation

Categories: Houston 101

Some history worth preserving at long last.
In a city like Houston, to take on the fight for historic preservation is the equivalent of slamming your face into a wall over and over. With no zoning and virtually no historic ordinances with any teeth whatsoever, the city and county have long been at the mercy of developers because of laws they created to benefit said developers. When there was an oil boom in the '70s and the need for cheap housing for both field and refinery laborers as well as management was necessary, suburbs sprang up all over town creating the sprawl we are still dealing with today.

In the last 10 years, more and more people have moved back into the inner city and preservation of landmarks has gotten at least slightly more attention. Even so it wasn't a protest even from the monied folks in River Oaks that staved off certain death for the River Oaks Theater, but rather the recession and burst housing bubble.

Ultimately, we are still a city bought and paid for by developers, which is why it is so ironic that the first salvo in the battle to save the Astrodome fired by the PAC that will run the campaign is all about protecting our history. With the committee populated by members of Harris County Commissioners Court, perhaps developers' best friends over the last 30-plus years, you'll forgive me if I have to spend some time looking for my eyes after they rolled out of the back of my head when I read this...

"It's great to have the national preservation organization and dedicated local and national groups bringing resources and expertise to the effort to save the Astrodome," said Jon Lindsay, former Harris County Judge and State Senator, and Co-Chair of The New Dome PAC Campaign in a release. "This coalition has the ability to reach important constituencies that will help revitalize the Dome, making it the world stage again."

Let me stop and say that I am for saving the Dome, for many of the reasons the PAC has outlined. The Astrodome is more than just a sports stadium. For many years, it and NASA were the only reasons people even knew Houston existed. That is the kind of landmark worth protecting.

But, around here preserving a pieces of our history that wasn't specifically built as a memorial (think the San Jacinto Monument) is extremely difficult. We are a city and county with no zoning laws meaning anything can be built anywhere someone with money damn well pleases. That makes for some fascinating neighborhoods and some eyesore nuisances. If that weren't enough, building ordinances designed to protect historic buildings are empty paperwork. Even if someone tries to stop a developer, all the builder has to do is wait a few weeks and keep going.

We've seen how this has impacted fights over the Ashby High Rise. People in their own neighborhood were powerless to stop developers. And this is in a wealthy neighborhood where some of the city's elite live. Even they can't do anything to prevent it.

Many of Houston's historic buildings are now long gone for similar reasons. Now, the county wants to save the Astrodome using many of the same arguments people have made for decades to save other landmarks only to have it fall on deaf ears.

Don't get me wrong, I want to preserve the Astrodome. But, let's not pretend this is suddenly about protecting the history of Houston, especially when virtually nothing has been to shield it until now. Maybe this is the beginning of a trend. Maybe now developers will have to go through real hurdles before they are allowed to dismantle an iconic building. I'm not holding my breath.

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The Astrodome is one of the few buildings left that defines Houston during the early years of the Space Program. Everything else is gone. It speaks poorly of a city that tries to disown its own cultural identity. It's says we're superficial; we make it up as we go along; we have no sense of place or pride about our contribution to significant past events. A few monuments are our lip service yet they do not define us. That's too bad because in reality every city is defined  by its history, and no matter how hard Houston may try to ignore its own, it will never escape its past. Those who look at the price tag of preservation will never understand the pricelessness of preservation and are doomed to walk the earth  sans roots, without a sense of place.


Here's why the county interests are supporting the $217 million proposition. That's $217 million in contracts to firms to complete the project, with most or all going to local contractors who tend to be well-connected to county government.

I'm going to need a very good explanation why this project costs $217 million before I vote yes on the proposition. It just seems like way too much to gut the building, fill it to ground level, add new A/C and build a plaza.

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