Anne Heinen 2017-01-24 04:06:01
Culture on the Move ENHANCING HOUSTON'S CULTURAL INSTITUTIONS —INCLUDING THE ASTRODOME AND THE THEATER DISTRICT—PROMISE BENEFITS FOR A THRIVING COMMUNITY. Cultural institutions in Houston are community assets that add dollars to the tax base, entertain Houstonians and visitors, and serve as key elements of a thriving metropolitan area. Now the Astrodome, the Houston Theater District, and Avenida Houston are becoming even more relevant as forward-thinking public officials, community members, and businesses pursue enhancements that promise to bring benefits for decades to come. NEW DOME LIFE The Astrodome, opened in 1965, was home for many years to the NFL’s Houston Oilers and the Astros baseball team, as well as the beloved Houston Rodeo. The roof that made it the first domed stadium in the world and its pioneering use of artificial grass known as AstroTurf are among the features that make the Astrodome a beloved landmark, though it fell into disuse and was declared unsafe in 2008. Preservationists have fought for years with those in favor of razing the Astrodome and freeing the property for a park or other public use. Last year, the Urban Land Institute and Harris County created a plan, approved by the county commissioners, that would raise the nearly 7.5-acre playing field, now 30 feet below ground level, and install a two-level, 1,500-space parking garage beneath it. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett has been a strong proponent of the profitable re-use of the Dome, but not because of an emotional attachment. “As Harris County judge, I realized it was an asset to taxpayers and an icon to community. It doesn’t make sense to take a good asset and destroy it.” The sheltered parking would generate income during events at the Astrodome, nearby NRG Stadium, or NRG Center, Emmett added, while the playing field would be available for events that would benefit from a climate-controlled environment, such as festivals, children’s activities during the rodeo, and industry events like the Offshore Technology Conference that require big spaces for equipment displays. The county estimates that repurposing the Astrodome will cost $105 million, with $35 million coming from Harris County’s general revenue, to be repaid at a later date. Demolition would cost the same $35 million and leave taxpayers with only the land, rather than a structure that can generate ongoing revenue. The project has begun with $10.5 million in engineering work. The Texas Historical Commission is considering an application for the Astrodome to be named a State Antiquities Landmark, a designation that would protect the aging structure from demolition for the foreseeable future. It has already been named to the National Register of Historic Places. “If you’re recognizing historic landmarks in the state of Texas, other than the Alamo and the San Jacinto Monument, if you don’t designate the Astrodome, what else would you designate?” Emmett said. THE SHOW GOES ON Making history in Downtown Houston is the Houston Theater District, already an amazing asset with more than 12,000 theater seats within 17 blocks, a density that some say is second only to New York. Professional, world-class companies in opera, ballet, symphony, and theater have performed for years at Jones Hall, Hobby Center, Wortham Center, and the Alley Theatre, but until now the surrounding downtown streets lacked amenities and public spaces to knit the venues together and to provide a welcoming destination for patrons before or after performances. Behind the effort is Houston First, the local government corporation that works with the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau (GHCVB) to enhance Houston as a destination and that manages a number of city-owned buildings and properties. Houston First’s orchestration of pedestrian-friendly, aesthetically pleasing outdoor areas, restaurants, and retail, including a revamp of Jones Plaza and Bayou Place, will be implemented in phases until completion in 2025. “The Houston Theater District will benefit both local residents and be a bigger attraction for out-of-town visitors,” said Mike Waterman, President of GHCVB and Executive Vice President of Houston First. The expected $80 million infrastructure investment will include making Jones Square a more inviting space with shaded seating and an outdoor cafe. And the project would bring aesthetic design consistency to lighting and building signs, creating flow and connectivity among the area’s open spaces, parks, plazas, and buildings. LIVELY CONNECTION Avenida Houston, a $175 million transformation project largely completed in preparation for the Super Bowl, links the George R. Brown Convention Center and the city park Discovery Green with a walkable, lively plaza. Restaurants, installations of major works by artists, entertainment, and other attractions are woven into Avenida, created when Houston transformed lanes of the major street Avenida de las Americas in front of the convention center and Discovery Green into the inviting area. “This investment is meant to spur and promote tourism, but it also adds options for local folks who live and work downtown, or who come in to experience something different,” Waterman said. Avenida includes a wharf area, cypress trees, and outdoor seating, flanked by several new restaurants that will join established dining venues such as The Grove. The new Marriott Marquis Houston offers several culinary options, including Xochi, Cueva wine bar and Texas T Tavern. The convention center now includes Bud’s Pitmaster BBQ, Grotto Downtown, Kulture, and McAlister’s Deli. Nightlife, entertainment, and shopping are bringing extra energy to the area, while major attractions such as Minute Maid Park, Toyota Center, and BBVA Compass Stadium are easily accessible from the plaza. The Super Bowl gave the city a hard date to work with. “It’s like having your family visit—the Super Bowl gave us a time frame to get our house in order,” Waterman said, noting that citywide, there have been $2 billion in infrastructure improvements that will remain in the city after the event is over. “We’ve benefited immensely from Houston hosting this kind of event.”
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