September 12, 2007
The Chron on Weingarten and preservation

The Chron editorializes in favor of preserving the River Oaks Theater and the Alabama Bookstop.

Since the city has no stick with which to force the owner to preserve the buildings, the mayor is offering carrots in the form of abatements on city taxes and praise for Weingarten's previous maintenance of the original configuration of the River Oaks Shopping Center. He's twice tried to persuade company Chairman Stanford Alexander that there is a commercial formula that would make preserving the theater buildings economical. "If investors are willing to put their money where their mouths are on preservation," the mayor said, "then I believe Weingarten should consider those proposals."

While the public company has an obligation to investors to earn a good return, its officials should also take into account that the original architecture of the theaters and their historical designation have commercial value that an appropriate tenant could exploit. The break on city taxes is also a part of the financial equation that justifies preserving the buildings.

Although some activists are urging a boycott of future tenants if the theaters are razed, once they are demolished protests would be quickly forgotten. Far more effective would be a concentrated effort by local builders, developers and investors to come forward while there is still time with concepts that would incorporate the structures into new developments on the sites.

Like the ongoing effort to redevelop the Astrodome into an upscale convention hotel while maintaining part of its "Eighth Wonder of the World" history, it will take intensive planning and negotiation to save the theaters. For Houstonians with the foresight, means and motivation, the opportunity is there to practice historic preservation.

As one of the "activists" who is urging such a boycott, I'm fully aware, and have been all along, that this was always little more than a symbolic gesture. While I certainly plan to stick to my pledge, and I figure most of the Facebook group members will as well, I have no way of knowing or enforcing it. You can't make anything happen with that kind of low-level organization - all you can make is an ephemeral statement. It would be nice, and no doubt loads more effective, if the local builders, developers, and investors were to come forward as the Chron urges. I have no idea if the likelihood of that taking place is any greater than the likelihood of my Facebook group registering on Weingarten's radar.

While it's true that the city currently has no stick to wield with Weingarten, it's not like no such stick exists. I've suggested one possible approach. You can of course agree or disagree with that suggestion; my point is simply that something could be done if the Mayor and the Council wanted to do it. I find it a bit curious that the Chronicle didn't address the matter of what (if anything) the Mayor could or should do to add a stick to the carrots. Inferentially, it seems they support his efforts to lobby Weingarten behind the scenes. That's all well and good, but it would be nice if they made their preferences more explicit. What's Plan B if persuasion doesn't work?

Finally, I'm not so sure that the Astrodome Redevelopment project is the best comparison to make. The situations aren't really all that similar - while the Dome is basically a white elephant that's costing the county money, the two theaters are now and have been for awhile successful businesses. The Dome will require a huge amount of money to be saved in some form, which may be an exercise in futility anyway, while all the theaters need is for Weingarten to do nothing. I appreciate the sentiment, but there's got to be a better parallel to draw.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on September 12, 2007 to Elsewhere in Houston

Your effort was an experiment on Facebook's efficacy with a cause to attach. The Chronic is entering in the middle of the last act to remind you that you're only small potatoes. Why? Because Facebook is gaining 1 million new members a week while the Chronic is still cutting down trees to paint messages for a decreasing number of advertisers and readers. Why? Because the Chronic reluctantly holds a stake in preservation so long as it aggressively promotes over-construction of stadiums. Why? Because the Chronic is looking for a lifeline to its own future.

Posted by: Charles Hixon on September 12, 2007 6:12 PM