Despite New Landmark Status, Houston May Lose 1937 Shopping Center

Medium-sized image unavailable for this photo.
The 1939 River Oaks Theater's lease expires in three years.
Since Houston's preservation ordinance merely delays
demolition for 90 days, its demolition is still possible.

Credit: Jim Parsons

In an unprecedented move, Houston's city council landmarked two theaters that are part of a new development in the 1937 River Oaks Community Shopping Center. But the council's 11-3 vote on Aug. 8 decision does little to protect the art deco shopping center and two nearby theaters.

"Houston City Council has never done anything like this before without the owner's approval," says David Bush, director of programs and information at the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance. "It was the public's influence that definitely swayed city council, and [Houston Mayor Bill White] has been very supportive from the start."

But later this year, owner Weingarten Realty, which has owns the art deco shopping center since 1972, plans to demolish its northern half later to make way for a Barnes & Noble bookstore. Longtime tenants, including a bakery, were forced to vacate the buildings this spring.

Houston's preservation ordinance doesn't protect the landmarks from demolition, however; it only establishes a 90-day delay.

"It's not all bleak," Bush says. "The developer can't just take down the theaters now. They have to notify the city of any changes that could affect those properties. Before, they could just go down."

The 1939 Alabama Theater, located nearby, may be a de facto victim of the new $15 million development. Barnes & Noble, which occupies the theater now, will leave the theater vacant.

"We will be closing the Bookstop in the Alabama Theater, but no date has been announced at this time," says David Deason, vice president of real estate for Barnes & Noble.

Meanwhile, the shopping center's days are numbered.

"The city could issue the demolition permit at any time, and it would be gone in days because [Weingarten] has already waited the 90-day waiting period," Bush says.

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