September 01, 2006
Weingarten speaks

Well, I asked for Weingarten to think about ways to deal with the River Oaks and Alabama properties that don't involve a wrecking ball, so I'm glad to see that they are doing so, if only in a preliminary manner.

The fate of the buildings "is very much in flux," Drew Alexander said in his first public comment on the matter.

"We've talked to community leaders, and we're looking for those who express interest in doing something in an organized way. If there's a solution that makes sense, we're all for it."

But he acknowledged that Weingarten might raze the buildings. In the long term, the company is considering high-rise development of the two theater sites, he said.

Step One is recognizing that there is a problem. They've done that. Talking to the people who want to do something about it is another good step. If they can move from thinking that the theater and the BookStop might still get bulldozed to thinking that they should be saved, we'll be most of the way to a happy ending.

The River Oaks Theatre's current occupant, Landmark Theatres, has time left on its lease, Alexander said. He speculated that the art-movie chain would not be able to pay market rates for the location when the lease comes up for renewal. He did not estimate what the rate would be. A residential or office tower on the site, Alexander said, "would do a lot of cool things both for the shopping center and for city life. It would be more of a 24-hour destination. You could have sidewalk dining."

A high-rise could incorporate either the theater's facade or its entire auditorium. But those options would be expensive and problematic, he said, because the high-rise would have to include a parking garage.

I can appreciate the notion that the land on which the River Oaks Theater is underutilized for its value. But please, spare me the sales pitch about how much more I might like whatever would be built on its ashes. That's not the point.

Weingarten would consider keeping the theater building intact, Alexander said. "If people want to raise money and continue operating it as an upscale dinner theater, with cocktails, then great," he said. "If people love to go to the Landmark River Oaks and it does well - great. Or if the building can be converted to doing something that performs well, that's great, too."

Whatever the new use, he said, it would have to bolster the shopping center's viability as a high-end destination. With several new luxury shopping centers under development, the market is extremely competitive, he said.

Why don't we start by seeing if they think they can afford whatever new rent you plan on charging them? Maybe you underestimate their ability to stay in business more or less as is.

The renovated Alabama Theatre is the home of Bookstop, which is operated by Barnes & Noble.

Though Weingarten also is considering a high-rise for that site, the Alabama might be more easily preserved than the River Oaks because there's space behind the bookstore to build a parking garage, Alexander said.

"I have a friend who told me, 'I hope you don't undo the Bookstop,' " he said. "I said, 'Bring me a tenant who can afford the space.' "

Weingarten would also consider selling both theater sites, Alexander said. In deciding the properties' fates, Weingarten - the owner of about 300 shopping centers across the nation - is investigating tax credits for historic preservation.

And here's where it would be in Weingarten's best interests to join in the conversation that preservationists plan to have with City Council. Mayor White has already suggested that tax incentives will be considered as a means of fostering preservation. Why not give a little guidance on this matter?

"We try to be good corporate citizens," he said. "We're a public company. And that means we have fiduciary responsibilities to our shareholders."

I'm glad that you care about being good corporate citizens, and that you've decided to tell us what you're thinking. There's lots more to talk about, so please don't go silent again. This can work for everyone, but only if everyone who cares about the outcome is involved.

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

Well, I asked for Weingarten to think about ways to deal with the River Oaks and Alabama properties that don't involve a wrecking ball

This blog gets results!

Posted by: Kevin Whited on September 1, 2006 10:17 AM

Are the Alamo draft house folks interested in a location that's not in BFE?

Posted by: Michael on September 1, 2006 11:44 AM

I'm glad that you care about being good corporate citizens,...

Wait a minute here - we need good people citizens, not good corporate citizens. Corporate citizens finance the political process and you are asking corporate citizens to offer up some candidates for the next election. Corporate picks implicitly promise to follow corporate objectives, you're just asking to be offered a choice of corporate picks (that is if Mayor White's values cannot be compromised).

Perry must be green with envy when he has to advertise that the State of Texas is "open for business" (read that as: open for bribes (corruption)) - yet Houston has corporations tripping over each other applying for "corporate citizenship" at the tiniest hint of public approval.

Weingartens, Randalls, Kroger and many other grocers have a corporate habit of constructing and abondoning concrete wastelands without penalty-concrete wastelands that penalize people citizens in terms of neighborhood appearance, functionality, and flooding. Wastelands that ultimately go back to use with less than optimal functions.

I'd like to see less corporate citizenship and more corporate responsibility. Responsibility that doesn't start with promises, but with deeds.

Posted by: Charles Hixon on September 1, 2006 12:39 PM