We recently had the opportunity to speak with Beth Wiedower, senior field officer of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Houston Field Office. The NTHP has sought to encourage Houston and Harris County to protect its signature landmark the Astrodome through advocacy and education.
Houstorian: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought the Astrodome was going to be demolished if Proposition 2 failed? Didn’t Harris County just vote on this?
Beth Wiedower: Proposition 2 called for the public to support one proposed plan – The New Dome Experience – by issuing Harris County bonds to turn the Astrodome into the world’s largest multipurpose space. As we all know, that proposition did not pass. Although county officials mentioned prior to Election Day that demolition was an alternative if the referendum failed, there has been no proposal made to tear down the Dome. Moving forward, we hope that the 112,087 Harris County residents who voted to reuse the Dome have convinced the Commissioners Court that a solution must be found to save this iconic landmark.
Houstorian: So then what’s the deal with all the recent demolition work? Why did the towers go?
Beth Wiedower: The demolition and site work that we’ve all heard so much about are part of the ongoing maintenance and upkeep of the Astrodome. The non-historic circular exterior ramps that were demolished this month were not an integral part of the Dome, and won’t be needed in the building’s reuse. In fact, Harris County, which owns the Astrodome, appropriated the funds for this site work prior to the November 5 election. All of this work needs to be completed regardless of what happens in the future. For now, the Dome isn’t going anywhere.
Houstorian: Isn’t the Dome being listed as a local, state, or national landmark? Won’t that protect it?
Beth Wiedower: There’s actually quite a bit of confusion about the impact and meaning of historic designation. Unfortunately, historic preservation laws at the local, state, and federal levels do not protect buildings from demolition. Believe me, we in the preservation field certainly wish they did! Instead, these laws recognize buildings as historically significant for their architecture, their association with an important person, or their cultural importance in the history of the United States or the world. With this recognition come incentives to encourage property owners to protect their buildings and their defining characteristics. Bottom line – historic designations at any level do not prohibit a building from being demolished.
Houstorian: So why don’t you just make it a National Monument?
Beth Wiedower: National Monuments, like their counterparts National Historic Landmarks, do offer historic buildings and landscapes more protection in that they are recognized as having national importance. Some also receive limited funding from the federal government. They do not, however, prevent demolition if a property owner so desires. A National Monument is declared by the President of the United States, and unlike a National Park or National Heritage Area, it does not need the approval of Congress. A National Historic Landmark is designated by the Department of the Interior following a set of regulations and qualifications laid out by the National Historic Sites Act of 1935. The Astrodome is a good candidate for one or both of these designations, though neither is a short-term solution for saving or reusing the building.
Houstorian: Earlier you mentioned incentives that exist for owners of history buildings. Tell me more about these. Is there money available to save the Dome?
Beth Wiedower: When a building is designated as historic, governments often offer incentives to the property owner to help with the costs associated with maintain it. These incentives can be tax abatements, property tax exemptions, state and federal tax credits, or special funding resources for historic preservation. Unfortunately, the availability of these special funding resources, both at the state and federal levels, has decreased significantly in the past decade due to budget cuts and shifting priorities within governments. But yes, long story short, there might be money available to help preserve and reuse the Astrodome.
Houstorian: What options exist for the county? For a private developer?
Beth Wiedower: It appears that there are limited options for Harris County to redevelop the Astrodome itself. Although voters rejected The New Dome Experience, there are other options to explore, such as an innovative public-private partnership where a limited county investment could leverage private dollars, or a development that is 100% private. This latter option might jeopardize public access to the Astrodome, but it could be a viable option for the reuse and ultimate preservation of Houston’s most iconic building. As I mentioned before, there are economic incentives for private development, and we hope to work with the county and any potential investors to make sure those incentives and resources are utilized to their maximum capacity.
Houstorian: Given where we are today, what can the average citizen do to show support for saving the Astrodome?
Beth Wiedower: Harris County voters can and should continue to talk to their elected officials – both at the county and the city – about saving the Astrodome. County officials have said that they were disappointed by low voter turnout on November 5, and that they still want to hear from people who support saving the Dome. We’ve created an easy-to-use form for citizens to contact Harris County officials directly with one click of a button. You can find that here: http://savingplac.es/1d8nzvf Collectively, we need to keep the conversation moving forward. Saving places is never easy and rarely straightforward, but when you believe in something, you stay your course. And a lot of people out there believe in the Dome. I know I do.
photo courtesy of NTHP.