River Oaks redevelopment made official

A month ago, we heard about the impending redevelopment of part of the River Oaks Shopping Center. It’s now official.

The owner of the historic River Oaks Shopping Center announced plans Friday to demolish a portion of the center and replace it with a multilevel retail development including a two-story Barnes & Noble bookstore.

Houston-based Weingarten Realty Investors, which has owned the center since 1972, said the design of the new $15 million project will echo the architecturally significant structure that will be torn down.

Patty Bender, senior vice president and director of leasing for Weingarten, said the aging center needs major changes.

“With improved access, increased retail space and design enhancements reflective of the center’s art deco and moderne character, we will be creating the future of the center within the context of the past,” Bender said in the announcement.

The decision was a blow to local preservationists who have opposed the anticipated redevelopment of the shopping center that runs along both sides of West Gray just east of Shepherd. “Preserving the character of the center by tearing it down is a little ironic,” said David Bush, director of programs and information for the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance.

The alliance recently sent a petition with more than 25,000 signatures to the chairman and CEO of Barnes & Noble, urging the book seller to reconsider leasing space in the project.

The preservation group also worries that this phase of redevelopment will lead to changes to the rest of the River Oaks center, which includes what Bush said is the last historic movie theater still operating in Houston.

Bender said the new plan will not affect the theater, and the company hasn’t made any decisions regarding its future. The theater’s lease expires in 2010, at which time it has options to extend, she said.

Does it really have that option, or will the terms of renewal be completely unpalatable in order to drive them out? Let’s just say that Weingarten doesn’t have a whole lot of goodwill here.

As we know, whatever happens at the River Oaks will have an effect on another landmark:

Preservationists are also concerned about how the opening of a new Barnes & Noble store could affect the the old Alabama Theater down the street. Located in a Weingarten-owned strip center at the corner of West Alabama and Shepherd, the former theater houses the Bookstop, a Barnes & Noble store, which the retailer said will likely close by the end of its lease term in about two years.

I suppose all that can be done is to keep going to the Bookstop regardless. Just because there’s a different option doesn’t mean you have to use it. If you like the Bookstop and you want to see it live on, keep shopping there. There may be other things that can be done in defense of the Bookstop, but ensuring that it remains a viable business has got to be #1 on the list.

The redevelopment plan also includes construction of a four-story parking garage behind the center that will connect to it.

Some residents of the adjacent neighborhood are concerned the garage will hurt their property values, increase crime and encroach on their views.

“I understand that they need some parking, but I don’t understand why they have to destroy a residential neighborhood to do it,” said Cindy Rice, a resident of the Live Oak subdivision behind the Black-eyed Pea.

That concern has come up before. I still think the main effect will be to make that traffic around Shepherd and Gray even more snarled that it currently is. I don’t know what you can do about that. I just know I’m not looking forward to it.

UPDATE: HouStoned has a closer look at the plans for the new shopping center.

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