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Top county official proposes turning Astrodome into huge indoor park with green space, trails

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HOUSTON - The iconic but shuttered Houston Astrodome could come back to life as an indoor park that county officials say would be the world's largest, according to the newest proposal for reusing the stadium and saving it from demolition.

The pitch came from Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, the county's top elected official, during a news conference Tuesday on the floor of the 49-year-old county-owned building.

Emmett said while some people feel the structurally sound but dilapidated stadium should be demolished, he views the Astrodome as an asset that's still useful.

"Before we just toss it on the trash heap, we need to take a look at what people in our community need," he said.

Emmett said he came up with the idea while on a morning walk during one of Houston's hot and humid days.

The proposal includes a green space for festivals and other gatherings, a possible amphitheatre and an area for sports activities. Emmett pointed to the Astrodome's upper seating levels Tuesday, saying they could be a good location for hiking, biking and fitness trails.

Opened in 1965, the so-called Eighth Wonder of the World once housed MLB's Astros and the NFL's former Oilers but hasn't been home to a sports team since 1999 and has been closed to all events since 2009. Many of its brightly colored seats were sold to the public last year, along with the AstroTurf that once covered the floor.

It's not in any immediate danger of being demolished after voters last year didn't authorize $217 million in bonds to turn it into a multipurpose special events centre. But local officials have continued to struggle to find an alternative use.

Other proposals have included a water park and sports memorabilia museum, but none has gained much traction.

Emmett did not offer a firm funding plan or a cost estimate for his indoor park proposal, though he suggested creating private-public partnerships to pay for it.

A detailed proposal on the indoor park idea could be presented by the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp. to Harris County commissioners, the group of local leaders who manage the county, within three months, officials said.

"I think it's got legs," Beth Wiedower, senior field officer with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said of Emmett's idea. Wiedower's organization has been one of various groups that have been working to save the Astrodome from the wrecking ball. Wiedower said she is not aware of any other indoor park on the scale that Harris County is proposing.

The world's first multipurpose domed stadium is also under consideration for a "state antiquities landmark" designation from the Texas Historical Commission that would make it more difficult to tear it down. But a decision from the commission is on hold.

Emmett's idea comes after a $66 million proposal by the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo was unveiled last month that calls for destroying the structure to make way for green space and a 25,000-square-foot replica of the stadium that would house an Astrodome hall of fame.

The rodeo and the Houston Texans have been proponents of demolishing the Astrodome, which sits next to the sleek and modern NRG Stadium, where the NFL team plays and where the rodeo is held each year.

The stadium's most prominent use in recent years was as a shelter for Louisiana residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The National Park Service added the Astrodome to its National Register of Historic Places in January.

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Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter at https://twitter.com/juanlozano70

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