The possibility of a Trader Joe’s coming to Houston in the old West Alabama Bookstop got me thinking about Weingarten, and the saga that has been the renovation of the River Oaks Shopping Center (River Oaks) and the West Alabama Bookstop.
When Weingarten announced the demolition of an old section of River Oaks , there was an eruption of dismay from the community about the loss of one of Houston’s most beloved art deco buildings. It caused problems on two front. 1. Everyone began to fear for the future of the River Oaks Theatre, one of Houston’s most cherished movie theaters. 2. The new Barnes & Noble anchoring this new building was going to close the Bookstop currently residing in the former home of the movie theater on West Alabama and Shepherd.
This new development threatened two beloved buildings, both historic movie theaters. When they finally finished the new section, I was convinced the rest of River Oaks was destined for demolition. The rest of the shopping center simply did not match anything in the new section. However, time passed, and life moved on at the corner of Shepherd and West Gray.
It wasn’t until the beginning of this summer that changes started happening at River Oaks. But it wasn’t demolition, it was renovation. Instead of tearing down these older parts of the shopping center, Weingarten was simply giving them a facelift. This included the River Oaks Theater building, leading me to believe that River Oaks Theatre may have been spared the bulldozer!
Surely this was news, surely there were people celebrating. But, nothing. Then I read about Trader Joe’s moving into the old Bookstop, and it got me to thinking again. Why hasn’t anyone mentioned the renovations at River Oaks? After all the protests, why isn’t anyone celebrating the possibility that River Oak Theater is saved? I was then directed to two articles from Chronicle writer Lisa Gray. The overall sentiment: River Oaks Shopping Center is becoming a big, suburban strip mall.
Gray is a vocal proponent of historical preservation, and has written frequently about the situation at River Oaks Shopping Center. Instead of celebrating the possibility of a the theater save, she complains about the wrecking of the shopping center. I got irritated when she praised Highland Village as Houston’s “most distinctive, best-designed shopping strip.” While criticizing River Oaks’ renovations, she praises a shopping center that has recently demolished one building (the former Gap location) to make room for a larger building, “Hello, new Apple store!”. Highland Village is also soon to be demolishing the distinctive former site of Tootsies for more retail space and an underground parking garage.
Now, I’m not bothered by these developments at Highland Village, but I have to question why Gray would criticize a shopping center for certain practices while praising another that engages in the same practices. The irony here is that Highland Village, along with the newly opened West Ave and the currently in development BLVD Place, are the reason why River Oaks has been forced to make changes. The shopping center was languishing, and in desperate need of a face lift and influx of new energy. It needed to attract new people, and it’s finding ways to do that. The new Americas has quickly become the hot spot River Oaks has been missing since Tony Mandola”s Gulf Coast Kitchen moved to Montrose Blvd.
Which brings us back to the marvelous news of Trader Joe’s coming to Houston in the former West Alabama Bookstop location. While it’s not clear if it’s a done deal or not, I cannot imagine Weingarten will pass up this opportunity. Outside H&M, there may not be a more sought after brand among Houstonians than Trader Joe’s. To open that store in that building would generate a good deal of goodwill for a company that is widely reviled by Houston citizens.
Back during the demolition at River Oaks, the Chronicle posted an article decrying the possiblity of losing both the River Oaks and West Alabama Theatres to redevelopment. Now we see that neither appears to be likely. While I don’t think Weingarten deserves any praise, I still think it would be nice to see someone comment on this positive development without bemoaning what is a natural part of Houston ‘s way of life.
This city has always marched forward to the beat of its own drum. I wish more people stop trying to change the rhythm, and march on along with the rest of us.