New Arts Complex Planned for Abandoned JCPenney at West Oaks Mall

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.

This Flickr photoset provides a more extensive tour of the space; Plenge says she’s also willing to arrange live tours for interested parties. You can contact her directly here.

Photos: Sharsten Plenge, Pacific Capital Retail Partners

18 Comment

  • I wish her the best of luck, but the only reason I go there now is the Alamo Drafthouse and as soon as they demolish that in favor of the new cinemark, I can’t think of another reason to go back. As it is, the thug level hasn’t been getting better. Sad to say, but her concept might work better in a mall like the Northwest Mall, where all life seems to have vanished rather than a mall on its way down, like West Oaks.

  • This idea is NUTS. A drive down HWY 6 between Sugarland and 1960 will give you a good idea about the level of interest in the Arts that this area has. That level is somewhere between Zip and Nada.

  • Don’t you have to have an appetite in order to be “starved”?

    Just kidding suburbanites. This is really amazing stuff. Repurposing the dying indoor mall to be an arts center. Brilliant stuff. Arts groups and artists tend to converge in areas where there is affordable rental space that is not in competition with retail and restaurant chains. This means that the burbs are basically off limits. This new center will change that in a big way. This is both great for artists and great for suburbanites. My only question is: Is this really happening in Houston???

  • Would be nice for something like this to succeed.

  • Getting culture vultures to drive out to West Oaks will be difficult. Williams Tower has excellent art events in their lobby every couple of months or so, and they have a hard time getting serious crowds to show up to the openings–and that’s like only 50 yards outside the Loop.

    I think their sparse openings are mitigated by the thousands of people who come through the Williams Tower lobby on a daily basis–which is not an advantage that the abandoned J.C. Penney has. In other words, while a Williams Tower art event can count on a passive viewership, any event at the J.C. Penney will require convincing a large number of people to make a special trip out to see it. Impossible? No, but lots of marketing and PR will be required–way more than the usual listings in the Houston Press and Glasstire.

    My feeling is that events there will have to be pretty populist, and very community-oriented. You have to get people locally involved. Perhaps work through schools locally. On the other hand, if you have enough art-glamor, you can pull people from far away. (Look at Marfa.) So perhaps some combination of the two (local, community-oriented + high level of art-world glamor).

    Pacific Retail paid next to nothing for the mall when they bought it from Okun–way less than they sold it to him for–so they can afford to do something high risk like this. The chances are that it won’t be notably successful. But the right event at the right time could make a big splash, and Old School’s scenario is possible, too. It could end up being the incubator for something excellent. I hope so, and as a culture vulture myself, I’ll be eagerly checking it out.

  • Steak, potatoes, reality TV, that’s all they need, and cheap beer..

  • The air conditioning by itself is probably cost-prohibitive. I would’ve gone with something a little more appropriate to the location and demographics. Indoor paintball could probably pull a decent volume of business, adequately promoted.

  • Black velvet Elvis will do ok in this neighborhood. But, the vacant lots along Hwy 6 have cheaper rents. Beside, you can also sell Pit Bull puppies in the summer and firewood in the winter.

  • They left furniture and fixtures … but yanked every single mirror off the walls? Why???

  • I would be very interested in working on a reading room/used book store in this space. The key to make a project like this work is Willingness to Fail, perseverance and ingenuity. Free rent means a LOT, but we will have to figure out that air conditioning issue.

  • What do you mean it probably won’t work?! It’s already working- I’ll move in tomorrow!

  • In my opinion, If and when this project gets up and running it will create a new arts epicenter.Some of the most culturally saturated areas now were once formally unattractive, unobstructed commercial spaces, SoHo in the 1970′s anyone?

  • At 100,000 square feet, it is more than twice as big as all the alternative/artist-run spaces currently in existence in Houston combined. If it can actually be filled with stuff and events in a compelling, convincing way, it moves the center of gravity for Houston art to the west purely by virtue of its size.
    The more I think about it, the challenge will be figuring out ways to effectively use that space. Usually the issue for an art exhibit is a lack of space–a show at, say, Labotanica can feel uncomfortably cramped. For a curator or artist, this space presents the precise opposite problem. A good model in this regard might be Mass MOCA, the enormous museum in North Adams, MA. Filling the cavernous old factory buildings required big, bold artworks. Are there Houston artists who could step up to this challenge? I’d say yes–for example, Sharon Engelstein’s inflatables: http://blog.chron.com/artsinhouston/2009/05/sharon-engelsteins-light-as-air-pieces/

  • Careful or you’ll give all the Realtors raging hard-ons over the next four-lettered neighborhood. And then it’ll just be inevitable. Will West Oaks be rebranded as WeOa, WstO, or WOak? Oh, and think of the custom street signage; Greenspoint’s new signs may have been the talk of the town, but they ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. WeOa FTW!

  • Agree with Robert Boyd – Mass MoCA is a good comparison (and also took a LOT of work and had it share of naysayers throughout the process). Finding art that will take advantage of, not get lost in, a space that big is the challenge – but what a good challenge to have!

  • Finally some progressive thinking from a Houston property owner. Houston is filled with vacant junk space left over from failed retail projects priced at ridiculous, speculative prices. The kind of development necessary to pay the outrageous rent asked by property managers and owners for dillapadated spaces just isn’t supported by the market here. There are only so many Applebees etc. that can be crammed into a given area.

    I’ve never figured out why keeping a space vacant is better than reducing the rent and making it accessable to artists,creatives, and small business owners. If things go well for them the neighborhood becomes more viable and lively, crime goes down, rent goes up and it’s on to the next neighborhood. It’s a win for everyone.

  • Well, to be fair, there probably aren’t that many small businesses looking to rent 100,00 sq ft of retail space at any price.

  • FREE RENT FOR 2 YEARS????
    Count me in!! Lol