How did an artist out of L.A. convince the owners of Houston’s West Oaks Mall to turn the vacant building of former mall anchor JCPenney into a 100,000-sq.-ft. department-store-sized arts complex? Well, it helps that the building — at the northern crotch of the West Houston mall — has been sitting vacant for 8 years and has received no major retail anchor interest in the 2 years Pacific Retail Capital Partners has owned the property. It also helps that the artist, Sharsten Plenge, is a Pacific Retail employee — and that her father is the firm’s managing principal. But Plenge tells Swamplot the company is behind her novel rehab concept, which is currently her main focus at work.
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The vision: a “multi-disciplinary, multi-use arts complex” at the intersection of Westheimer and Hwy. 6 intended to bring “some art and culture to the starving suburbs of West Houston,” Plenge says, adding that her company would like to see the unused 2-story space become “a unique resource for the city.” To make it happen, Plenge says, Pacific Retail would pay for the renovations needed for the space to become functional, and offer free rent and utilities. (Operating expenses and insurance or funding for individual art projects would be the responsibility of the tenant or other funding sources.) Use of the building would remain free for a minimum of 2 years — though Plenge says she imagines the space would be available longer in the absence of more conventional retail interest: “If the project is successful it is my hope that it evolves into a permanent space.” It’s a better option for her company, she tells Swamplot, than letting the store continue to sit empty.
(The building has a storied history, having once been the property of convicted 1031 Exchange swindler Edward H. Okun. Pacific Retail bought the entire mall out of bankruptcy in 2009 for $15 million; Only 4 years earlier, its predecessor firm had sold it to Okun’s Investment Partners of America for $102 million.)
Plenge is looking for “creative collaborators” and potential tenants for the mall-anchor rehab, including artists seeking studio and temporary exhibition space amidst the store’s abandoned cases and retail displays. “I would like to work with a variety of local artists and arts organizations” — visual, multimedia, performance, or music, she tells Swamplot. “Also a green company to potentially make an atrium or other indoor experiment . . . a local coffee house or tea salon . . . a book store or various zines to have a reading room . . . a video archive to enable screenings.” She sees the abandoned department store as “a kind of laboratory.”
As soon as she has the commitment of collaborators, renovations could be underway “immediately,” Plenge says. In the meantime, she says she wants to hear ideas from Swamplot readers about how the space could be used — or what would be needed for various groups to set up shop there.
- Sharsten Plenge (email)
- Temporary Art Complex at West Oaks Mall [Flickr]
- West Oaks Mall [Pacific Capital Retail Partners]
- Previously on Swamplot: A Change of Screenery for the West Oaks Mall, The West Oaks Mall $87 Million Backward Flip, Okun Gets 100 Years; How Many for the West Oaks Mall?, Comics Relief: Hard Times at the West Oaks Mall, JCPenney at West Oaks Mall: To the Bank, Delinquent Debt: West Oaks Mall Sale!, West Oaks Mall Bankruptcy Sale: JCPenneys on the Dollar, West Oaks Mall: Your Exchanges Are No Good Here