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July 22nd, 2006:

RIP, River Oaks Theater?

To put it bluntly, this would suck.

Three Houston landmarks, including the Landmark River Oaks Theatre and the Bookstop in the former Alabama Theater, have been declared endangered by the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance.

The alliance has learned, spokesman David Bush said Friday, that two buildings in the River Oaks Shopping Center could face demolition within two years.


The GHPA has repeatedly tried to discuss the buildings with Weingarten Realty but has been rebuffed, Bush said.

But a half-dozen tenants of the River Oaks Shopping Center told the Houston Chronicle that a Weingarten’s leasing agent informed them of plans to raze parts of the historic shopping center.

The first domino to fall, they said, would be the River Oaks Shopping Center building at the northeast corner of Shepherd and West Gray. Erected in 1937, the curved art deco building is “of national significance,” architecture historian Stephen Fox said.


Opened in 1939, the River Oaks is Houston’s oldest functioning movie theater.

Bill Banowsky, CEO of Landmark Theatres, wrote in an e-mail that Landmark is “100 percent committed to the River Oaks Theatre,” and that Landmark recently signed a lease extension. Landmark spokeswoman Melissa Raddatz would not say how long that lease lasts.

Celeste Williams, a lecturer at the University of Houston’s Gerald D. Hines School of Architecture, has studied Houston’s earliest movie theaters extensively, and notes that in many cities the historic buildings still function either as movie theaters or auditoriums.

“There aren’t many buildings I’d lie down in front of bulldozers to save,” she said. “The River Oaks theater is one of them.”

I’d be willing to lie down next to her. One needs to be able to take Houston’s hands-off management of historic buildings with a certain air of resignation, but one also needs to draw the line somewhere. Especially if this is the second half of this one-two punch:

In addition to the two segments of the River Oaks center, the preservation alliance placed the art deco Alabama Shepherd Shopping Center on its endangered list because of fears that Barnes & Noble would close the Bookstop if it built in River Oaks. Weingarten also controls The Alabama Center.

Responding to questions via e-mail, Barnes & Noble Inc. spokeswoman Carol Brown wrote that the company had “made no announcement of plans to build in the River Oaks Shopping Center.” Brown wouldn’t say whether such plans existed.

She also said the chain had no “immediate” plans to move from the Bookstop location.

In 1989, Bookstop won national attention for its creative preservation of the Alabama movie theater, built in 1939. Nine years later, Barnes & Noble bought the Bookstop chain.

As the story notes, a mega B&N is supposedly planned for the River Oaks center across the street from the theater, where the Black Eyed Pea now stands. If that were to be built, it would be hard to see how the Bookstop would continue to be viable, as it’s about a mile away from there.

I have very fond memories of both places, and that Bookstop has gotten a lot of business from me over the years. I’ve been a bit worried about the overall health of the Alabama Center since Cactus Records closed. Its location is a bit of a problem, since the front entrance is on Shepherd, and shoppers approaching it on the northbound side have to make a nasty unprotected left turn to get in, which often snarls traffic on Shepherd. I’ve seen quite a few other businesses on Shepherd in that general vicinity come and go, and I’ve always been convinced that the pain-in-the-butt factor of making lefts from that street into their parking lots contributed to many a demise. I guess I figured that if the Alabama Bookstop had made it this long, it was immune to that. Looks like there may be other forces at work against them here.

Houston’s historic preservation laws are among the weakest in the country, and the vast majority of the city’s historic buildings can be destroyed without even a waiting period for public comment.

Preservationists have responded by mounting intelligence operations to ferret out plans to raze historic buildings.

Those “cloak-and-dagger operations,” Bush said, “are sad, but it’s what we’ve got to do if we’re going to draw public attention before the bulldozers arrive.”

I hope in these cases their paranoia is unfounded. Please think of the bigger picture here, Weingarten Realty.

UPDATE: Houstonist has more. Given all that I’ve said on the subject of petitions, online and otherwise, it’s with a certain amount of gingerness that I note they’re sponsoring an online petition to let Weingarten Realty know what kind of opposition exists to this plan. Take whatever action you deem appropriate, bearing in mind that the Houstonist post has contact info for Weingarten if you prefer a more direct approach.

UPDATE: More here.

UPDATE: Bayou City History, a great resource for what Houston used to be like, joins in with a couple of cool old pictures.

Comments on redistricting maps filed

Friday was the deadline for parties in the redistricting lawsuit to files their comments on everyone else’s plans, and the state-drawn Eviscerate Lloyd Doggett plan was heavily criticized by expected and unexpected sources.

“The state plan changes two or three districts by partisan makeup. It’s a partisan get-even plan,” said lawyer Rolando Rios, who represents the League of United Latin American Citizens.

“State Republican leaders chose to put a partisan agenda ahead of the interests of Hispanic voters, whose voting rights have been violated,” said Ed Martin, a Democrat consultant and redistricting expert.

GOP Attorney General Greg Abbott and his assistants submitted the state map.

Abbott declined to respond beyond his solicitor general’s prepared statement that defended the state’s map as one that maintains partisan balance and reunites Webb County.

“It leaves 28 congressional districts completely untouched, and alters only District 23 and three adjoining districts,” Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz said.

However, a prominent Texas Republican consultant also blasted the state’s proposal.

“I’m disappointed that the Republicans are using this as a cocktail party joke opportunity rather than to submit real evidence before real judges who are going to determine the future of our state,” GOP consultant Royal Masset said. “The Republican plan makes no sense. It’s not responsive to anything. It’s like a political statement.”


Trying to remove Doggett from Austin undermines the Republican argument for drawing fair districts, Masset said.

“All we did is draw a goofy map laughing at Lloyd Doggett,” the Republican consultant said. “I don’t know what they are accomplishing by this idiocy. There’s no way in God’s creation that the judges are going to approve a Republican map that doesn’t have any Democratic congressmen in Travis County.”

I’ve said this in a different context, but I’ll repeat it here: No one can say for sure what the judges will do. I appreciate Masset’s sentiments, and Lord knows I hope he’s right, but I’ve been following this saga for too damn long to hang my hopes on anything as ephemeral as that.

One more point:

In addition to rejecting the state plan, LULAC also dismissed Bonilla’s proposal as an “incumbent protection plan.”

“Incumbency is something that should not even be considered by the court in fashioning a remedy,” said Rios, LULAC’s lawyer.

In an ideal world, perhaps that’s how it should be, but if there’s one thing the courts have consistently accepted as a valid purpose of redistricting, it’s incumbent protection. That in and of itself is as good a reason as any to hope that the panel will reject the state’s map. With all due respect to Attorney Rios, that argument isn’t going to fly.

For more on this, BOR has the Lone Star Project response, which includes the briefs filed by the Jackson plaintiffs, and over at Kuff’s World, I’ve got some comments by A.J. Pate, one of the private citizens who has filed a new map for the court to consider. The court will meet on August 3, and AG Greg Abbott has asked for a ruling by the 7th, which would be almost exactly identical to the lead time of the 1996 Vela v. Bush ruling. Stay tuned.

Trautman and Nelson-Turnier

For those of you up in the northern part of Harris County who are looking for some Democratic campaign activity in their area, Stace has a couple of announcements for you. You can attend some town hall meetings with Dot Nelson-Turnier, and you can go blockwalking with Diane Trautman. I like what Diane is saying here:

“I have been overwhelmed by the positive reception I have received in each neighborhood. One man told me no one has personally campaigned in his neighborhood since he lived in Houston ten years ago. Most don’t even know the name of my opponent. I think it is so important for a legislator to address the needs and concerns of citizens at the community level – face to face, which Rep. Crabb has failed to do.”

If Democrats are ever going to make inroads into previously written off deep red territories, this is how it’ll be done. If you want to help make that happen, that’s one fine way to do it.

On the border with the Guard

Just wanted to note this Chron story from yesterday about the so-far-successful deployment of National Guard troops to the US/Mexico border, where they are supplementing Border Patrol personnel.

Guard and patrol officials said the month-old deployment of troops to the border is working as planned, enabling at least three dozen patrol agents to return to law enforcement duties. More than 100 soldiers have arrived and by the end of August there could be 300, said Lt. Col. Rick Noriega of Houston, commander of guard troops in the patrol’s Laredo sector.

Unlike other border states, Texas has been able to meet Pentagon staffing goals with in-state volunteers for a mission expected to last two years. Although it has taken several weeks to muster and train the first wave of troops, they’ve been well received by the patrol and this border community, Noriega said.

“This has been a task that they (patrol) have done with the utmost professionalism. We’re just pleased to have made this relationship work in a very meaningful way,” he said.

Patrol acting sector Chief Reynaldo Garza described the collaboration as “very successful” because it quickly allowed the patrol to achieve one of the objectives established by President Bush when he ordered the deployment on May 15.

“We’ve been able to reach one of our objectives … to return Border Patrol agents to the border to do the work that agents should be doing as opposed to clerical or camera operations-type surveillance duties,” Garza said.

For the first time here, officials showed the news media the kinds of tasks the Guard has assumed alongside patrol agents.

“We have to dispel a lot of what was perceived was going to happen when they announced that the Guard was going to be deployed,” Noriega said.

So far, so good. There’s two items of note here. First, regarding the “invasion” of the borders:

So far, no significant change in arrest data has been noted, Garza said, but in the past two weeks the Guard members assisted in seizing 2,200 pounds of marijuana and 138 pounds of cocaine.

Maybe we should be deploying troops to the northern border instead. Maybe that’s where all the real action is.

And item two:

The Guard will have a further impact on smuggling when engineering specialists arrive to build barriers and fences in high-traffic areas, Garza said.

“To say a ‘wall’ is a misnomer,” he said. “You will see some work, but it won’t be miles and miles, and it definitely will not be the entire 2,000 miles. It’s impossible.”

Next time someone suggests building a wall along the border, tell him or her to talk to Chief Garza.