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The brilliant, boring plan to save the Astrodome

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Pave over the infield, and put in an (underground) parking lot

Heralded as the “8th Wonder of the World” when the engineering marvel opened its doors in 1965, the Houston Astrodome has received a slight demotion, thanks to a new preservation plan. The world’s first domed stadium will become a parking garage.

But calling the plan by the Harris County Commissioners, the group in charge of the stadium, simple misses the genius of a solution that preserves an architectural marvel when the public seems unwilling to foot the bill.

“This is a building like any other building the county owns,” says Judge Ed Emmett, one of the Harris County Commissioners . “We refurbish county courthouses all the time. We just decided to treat the Astrodome the same way.”

After the dome was declared non-compliant with the fire code in 2008, numerous schemes to either redesign and refurbish the dome or demolish it (at an estimated cost of $30 million) have been floated, including a $271 million bond measure for a large-scale renovation that was rejected by voters in 2013.

The new plan dispenses with grand visions and simply accomplishes what’s important: keeping the stadium functional, while funding proper maintenance until a new owner comes along. The plan, which should take roughly a year to finish, will raise the field, which was sunk 30 feet below the surface, to ground level. Two levels of underground parking will be built below ground, turning the empty dome into a storage space for 1,400 cars as well as a moneymaker (it current sits within the NRG Complex, a group of stadium in Southwest Houston).

Emmett says this plan not only gives the stadium a purposeful use, but raising the ground floor makes it more useful as an events venue, and makes the upper levels more appealing to a private investor. The county doesn’t collect sales tax revenues, so parking fees are a great income source to fund much-needed upkeep.

Local preservationists are thrilled that the stadium is safe for now.

“The Astrodome is what put Houston on the map,” says David Bush, Executive Director of Houston Preservation. “Before, people had a vague idea of what the city was and where it was. This was a symbol that really got the city attention. It was a public arena, and a lot of people have very personal memories of that building.”

The parking plan also shows that adaptive reuse or preservations plans don’t have to be exciting to work, as well as the value in being patient. In the last few years, there have been calls to build a hotel for the nearby stadiums. Ironically, there used to be a massive hotel near the Astrodome, the Shamrock Hotel, but it was demolished in the ‘80s to make way for a medical center parking lot. For historic buildings, it’s better to include a parking lot, than be a parking lot.