September 01, 2006
Pro-River Oaks Theater demonstration

(Note: I drafted this last night - after the little power glitch in my neighborhood - and woke up this morning to see a new story that obviates some of what I've written here. That will be in my next post.)

The ever well-dressed Carolyn Farb uses her powers for good to help save the River Oaks Theater.

As security officers on motorcycles redirected traffic, society powerhouse Carolyn Farb led approximately 100 black-clad people across West Gray. In front of the Landmark River Oaks Theatre, they held aloft glowing popcorn bags.

"Save Our Shrines," as Farb called the secretive, well-behaved protest, boasted two motorcycle security officers, a half-dozen photographers, and several color-coordinated dogs.

Farb's effort is the most colorful of recent attempts to focus attention on Houston's historic buildings.

Nothing wrong with a little theater, but I think this is more likely to have an effect:

On Monday afternoon, a group of architects, theater buffs, neighborhood residents and real-estate professionals christened itself Save Our Landmarks.

Organized by former River Oaks theater manager Sarah Gish, the group has scheduled a meeting with members of Houston's City Council, and plans to launch a Web site in coming weeks.

I know that some people are afraid of what a Houston City Council might do to restrict business owners under the rubric of preservationism. If the powers that be at Weingarten are among those people, they can put their heads together and come up with a plan for the River Oaks and Alabama properties that keeps the landmarks in place yet still nets them a decent profit. I don't know offhand what such a solution might be, but I have faith in their ability to think about their self-interest.
Hours before Farb's event, Weingarten issued a statement indicating that the River Oaks theater building is in no immediate danger, but affirming Weingarten's interest in the "redevelopment" of the northeast corner of Shepherd and West Gray.

The statement did not mention the Alabama Theatre.

According to the statement, the new development at River Oaks Shopping Center would be anchored by "a key retail player." (Shopping-center tenants say they've been told that Barnes & Noble would occupy the first two floors of a new three-story building.)

"If we are able to finalize the anchor deal," said the statement, "the additional retail will not be located in the River Oaks Movie Theatre block."

A representative for Weingarten could not clarify the statement late Wednesday.

The statement did not appease preservationists. "It's like sleight of hand," said David Bush, a spokesman for the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance.

"We never said that Barnes & Noble was going into the movie theater's site. But we're pleased that Weingarten is committed - at least for the time being - to the River Oaks theater."

Houstonist has more on that statement. I agree that it says nothing more than what we already know, and is in no way indicative of a desire to leave the River Oaks Theater unbulldozed.

Farb, told of Weingarten's statement a half-hour before her troops were scheduled to gather, was unfazed.

"Even if the theater is safe," she said, "this is about more than just the River Oaks. This is about saving our shrines. And there's more than one shrine."

Funnily enough, I think if Weingarten bit the bullet on this one now and committed to the long-term health of the River Oaks and the Alabama, they'd likely disable a more broad-based preservationist push like what Farb is describing. Without a rallying point, the public's attention will wander to other things, and lesser known shrines can continue to be threatened by whatever Weingarten wants to do with the land they're on. I don't know if they're capable of that kind of longer-term thinking, however. In any event, the window for such a head fake is closing.

The story has a nice set of links to resources and other reporting on the topic. That same Houstonist link also has more if you want to take action but have not yet done so.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on September 01, 2006 to Elsewhere in Houston | TrackBack