September 10, 2007
Behind the scenes with the River Oaks preservation efforts

This story about the behind-the-scenes efforts to delay or deter the demolition of the River Oaks Shopping Center is interesting, but not particularly instructive. To me, the whole crux of the matter is at the very end:

In the end, Weingarten executives seemed rigidly focused on the company's bottom line and unswayed by appeals to sentiment or nostalgia, preservation leaders said.

Weingarten CEO Drew Alexander told the Chronicle a year ago that the company was considering demolishing the two theater buildings but was open to any alternatives that would make sense financially. Weingarten executives consistently have cited their responsibility to generate the highest possible returns for shareholders. White believes Weingarten could capitalize on the theaters' distinctive architectural features to increase the properties' value.

The mayor said he twice had discussed the theaters' future with Weingarten's chairman, Stanford Alexander.

Obviously, Weingarten, like any company, is going to focus on their bottom line. In doing so, they've made certain assumptions about the costs of demolishing icons like the River Oaks Theater and the Alabama Bookstop, and have (apparently) decided that the financial benefits outweigh those costs. At the very least, even if the future of those two structures can still be considered to be up for grabs, they made that calculation about the River Oaks Shopping Center.

What that means is that the only way to steer them off the path we all dread they're heading down is to force them to change their assumptions in a way that alters the financial outcome for them. I see two possible ways of doing that. One is the public pressure route, which is basically what's been done and is still being done. This is tricky, because you can't really apply pressure to Weingarten directly. They don't sell to the public, so the public can't threaten to stop buying what they offer; boycotting their tenants may eventually cause them some problems, but at an unacceptably high cost to those tenants, who are innocent bystanders to this dispute. The best you can do is make it known to those who may choose to do business with Weingarten that the public will stay away in droves from them. That's the point of my little Facebook group, though obviously it's nowhere near enough on its own. Weingarten expects that the new developments it puts up will attract high-end (and high-rent-paying) tenants. If they have a hard time finding such tenants, or if those tenants have reason to believe they won't do as well as they'd thought, then that equation doesn't work out for Weingarten.

The problem with such actions is that it's difficult to maintain focus, and it's hard to quantify how much such a thing might theoretically cost a business that hasn't even opened its doors yet. You can hope to inflict a few cases of cold feet, but that's pretty nebulous, and the sort of thing an entity like Weingarten can easily choose to ignore. So the second approach is one that makes such increases in cost more concrete. Basically, take the carrot that we've already got in place - tax abatements for sites designated as historic - and turn it on its head by imposing a significant tax penalty for the demolition of a historic site. You can build some exceptions in there if the site is structurally unsound and incapable of being restored, but for the most part if you want to tear down something with historic value, it's gonna cost you. If that's the language Weingarten is talking, then perhaps it's time to respond in kind.

I don't know how successful such a proposal would be with the Mayor and the Council. Unlike the tax abatement ordinance, this is more direct involvement by the city government in the affairs of businesses like Weingarten. There are a lot of people who will have a problem with that, and they have clout. I think this is a perfectly valid approach, and is consistent with the carrot, in that they both recognize the inherent value that historic structures have. This way just takes the next logical step and says that if you destroy that which has value to the public, the public should get compensated for it. We'll see if anyone proposes an ordinance like this.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on September 10, 2007 to Elsewhere in Houston

I'm really disappointed with the way this is going to end. I really did think that the theaters were going to be saved. I'm sure most of that belief was tied to my personal feelings about them; but, naively I thought that if Houstonians, council members, etc showed that they cared with sufficient voice and actions (and I believe they have) that some compromise would have been reached.
On another note, one part of the Chron's story towards the end that says "My feeling is when you start doing that kind of thing, you get written off as hippie liberals who whine and rant," said Sarah Gish, founder of an organization called Save Our Landmarks" irked me a little. Ms. Gish if you're reading this, I can assure you that I'm about as far as a hippie liberal as you can get and that I and alot of my non-hippie liberal friends stand with the preservation groups on this one.

Posted by: Evan B. on September 10, 2007 11:10 AM

Do you think that the Weingarten folks went about their business with a sort of benign neglect or tacit agreement as to the River Oaks Center because of the neighborhood involved, and then, when said neighborhood turned their back on the Fastow's, especially Lea Fastow (nee Weingarten), the company decided to turn it into Harwin-on-the-Bayou???

Posted by: cacafuego on September 10, 2007 11:51 AM