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River Oaks Theatre Saved?

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If you’ve been following the story of the imminent demise of the River Oaks Theatre at the hands of greedy developers, then this may come as a shocker. Property owner Weingarten Realty has no plans demolish any additional portions of the historic River Oaks Shopping Center, including the River Oaks Theatre and famed speakeasy Marfreless.

For clarification, the River Oaks Shopping Center includes all of the retail and restaurants along the north side of West Gray, from Shepherd to Woodhead, and the same on the south side of West Gray from Shepherd to Driscoll. In 2007, Weingarten demolished the original 1937 curved portion of the first phase of the River Oaks Shopping Center, where Black Eyed Pea, Three Brothers Bakery had been for years, and where the original Houston location for haberdasher Jos. A Bank and the Houston Ballet dance studio once called home. A new multi-level parking garage would soon stretch along the back side behind existing La Griglia from Shepherd to McDuffie.Weingarten stated nothing else. Their silence was deafening. All of Houston wondered, “Was this Phase One of a sinister plan to wipe the vintage 1939 River Oaks Theatre off the map? The gigantic garage hinted that more development would follow once the north side of West Gray was completed — perhaps a high rise. Almost instantly, Houstonians rallied. To date, over 26,000 have signed the famous on-line petition declaring their love for the Art Deco movie house which, aside from closing off the balcony for two additional smaller screens, has not changed much in 75 years.

Average Houstonians became preservation activists. When Weingarten Realty boasted that booksellers Barnes & Noble would be moving in to the new retail space across from the theater, the community was instantly alarmed that the existing home in the neighboring Alabama Theater at 2922 S. Shepherd Dr. (also from 1939) would be placed in the path of the wrecking ball once they moved down the street. Coincidentally, Weingarten owns the historic Alabama Theater too.

Houstonians realized that Weingarten had the fate two beloved, historic properties in their hands. Both theaters had found life outside of their original design and were money-makers. In 1986, The Alabama Theater was converted into the upscale, jumbo Bookstop. Up to that point Houston had not seen such a thing. Bookstop had big-box store prices and a cool interior. It was a perfect example of how older historic properties could be re-imagined. Since then, more alterations followed with mixed results, but the cool factor still lives for anyone who steps inside and marvels at the Art Deco features.

More clues at the River Oaks Shopping Center left Houstonians doubting its future. Facing Peden St., to the back of the south portion of the River Oaks Shopping Center, Back Door Sushi/Hunan River shuttered (or was evicted) at the end of 2008. Also, in September 2008, Hurricane Ike blew through and ripped off most of the black canvas canopies of the south building, from Starbucks to La Madeleine, exposing the white plaster, itself curving up and out to create graceful Art Deco-style cove. The black canvas had corresponding business names printed in white, but once they fell, tenants had no signage. Like many other businesses in Houston, the scars from Ike lingered.

Then, suddenly in February 2009, the repairs came. Remnants of the black canvas frames were pulled down. Above the existing white plaster cove, Weingarten installed lighted letters and a shiny new aluminum fascia. A new restaurant at the former Back Door Sushi/Hunan River put up a sign declaring they would soon be open for business. New trees were planted. And, most shocking of all, the River Oaks Theatre marquee was repaired. Current tenant Landmark Theatres could not be reached for comment on the current status of their lease.

Typically, Houston has allowed owners to decide the fate of their own properties, irrespective to the property’s place in the fabric of the city. Houston’s first preservation ordinance, adopted by the City Council in 1995, created Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission (HAHC) to review applications for demolition or alteration of historic buildings. Their only power required owners to wait 90 days before proceeding on any alteration or demolition of an historic property. Most agreed this was useless.

Since the community rallied around the potential loss of the historic River Oaks Theatre, a few changes have taken root. Houston City Council has addressed the groundswell of interest in preserving historic properties. In 2007, City Council amended the existing Historic Preservation Ordinance to strengthen its power to designate buildings, structures, or sites with architectural, cultural, or historical significance. Landmark status can be given by HACH, without consent of the owner, and protects a property for 90 days. Protected Landmark status can be applied for by the owner, and is non-transferable. Other benefits for properties granted Landmark or Protected Landmark status include financial incentives to assist in restoration and anincreased penalty for illegal demolition.

Both the River Oaks Theatre and Alabama Theater have Landmark status, which means that should Weingarten wish to tear them down, they need wait only 90 days. As of April 2009, the list of Protected Landmarks is 76. (This excludes the Protected Landmarks in Old Sixth Ward Historic District, where nothing can be touched without City permission.) Ultimately, the power to tear down remains with the property owner.