Trader Joe’s at the Alabama Theater: New Sign in Front, Cheese in Back

Yes, Trader Joe’s wants to open what would likely be its first-ever Houston store at the long-vacant Alabama Theater at 2922 S. Shepherd Dr. — the vacant retail space last used as the home of the Alabama Bookstop. Nancy Sarnoff digs up the proposal for exterior alterations to the designated city landmark sent to the archeological and historical commission by shopping-center owner Weingarten Realty; the changes have already been approved by city staff. Included in the plans: Two big store signs on top of the marquee facing Shepherd . . . and a brand-new turret at the back entrance.


Weingarten, which has been busy recently adding stick-on turrets to its other major Art Deco property in Houston, is proposing a new sign tower in back, which would stand in front of a new row of fake second-story windows. The tower would float over a parapet at the store’s parking-lot entrance, with no obvious support underneath — possibly encouraging any shoppers who notice the situation to scurry in or out of the building a bit more quickly. Facing Shepherd, a new storefront well in front of the current one would cover up the theater’s front vestibule.

The commission hearing, scheduled for Thursday, only covers changes proposed to the building’s exterior. Whether Weingarten and Trader Joe’s plan to preserve any portion of the remaining theater interior is unclear. Last year, Weingarten put out to bid plans to demolish the theater interior, pouring a new concrete slab inside the building and getting rid of the more flexible system of raised-platform wood floors that had been installed during its earlier transformation into a bookstore.

Images: Weingarten Realty, via HAHC

39 Comment

  • Swamplot, normally you leave the bitching to the commenters. Sad to see you’ve joined in.

    Weingarten and Trader Joe’s should clearly understand that the location has never been a grocery store before, and they shouldn’t alter the exterior in anyway to clue the public in on that fact.

    Cue the whining from the commenters.

  • Traffic NIGHTMARE.

  • Serious effing traffic nightmare. Trader Joes is nice but definitely not worth the lack of parking and the congested traffic that already exists in the area. yet another example of how messed up houston is.

  • Traffic can’t be any worse than when Whole Foods was in the strip. And there have been two grocery stores in that center before, albeit not in that particular slot. A&P was on the south end in the early 70’s. It will be nice to see the Alabama re-purposed (again). Great piece of architecture. Hope they save some interior.

  • Commission meets on Sept. 22 at 3:00 pm to vote on this sign alteration…if you wish to speak you have to notify them ahead of time. It is the first item on the agenda…

  • @Sparky: Lack of parking? Perhaps in front, but the huge empty lot behind the Alabama Theater hasn’t been “full” for years.

  • The modifications show pretty magnificent restraint for Weingarten. I am as rabid a preservationist as the next guy and I kinda like the modifications to the rear of the building. I am sure the drawing room floor has lots of designs where Weingarten planned to shave off the theater facade and go all Tuscan on it. I will be thankful that the front facade is saved and save my energy for the inevitable battle to save the River Oaks theater.

  • Very cool. I don’t remember it being a traffic nightmare when it was Bookstop and Whole Foods in that center, but that was back when Whole Foods attracted more of a bicycling crowd than the Range Rover crowd.

    I guess the way to avoid this impending traffic nightmare is to lease it to a retail tenant that doesn’t attract customers. That would be a great use for the space.

  • If you don’t want traffic, don’t organize a city around cars. If you have a car oriented city, expect the busy parts of it to be full of them.

  • Lack of parking will not be a problem. It’s a feature not a glitch! Lack of parking is actually a Trader Joe’s staple. It’s part of the experience. It will not bother management at all.

  • Plus, a lot of the residents from the Gables down the block walk to Whole Foods already, so I don’t doubt they’ll also walk to Trader Joe’s. (Note to the constant flamers: no, I’m not saying everyone in Houston will walk to the grocery. Just that people in a nearby apartment complex, where I lived until recently, who *already* walk to an equally distant store, will likely continue to walk.)

  • What Caribou said. Maybe folks just aren’t aware of the HUGE lot behind the strip mall? It’s easily as big as the lots I’ve seen at Trader Joe’s in Las Vegas and Atlanta, maybe bigger. Remember, TJs isn’t the size of a regular grocery store, so that amount of parking should be just fine.

  • The lot in the back is by no means huge. Remember, the employees need a place to park too. Plus the neighboring employees and their customers too. The parking is still not the biggest issue though. The traffic right there will be unbearable. Trader Joe’s generates a large volume of traffic, and add to that the people going up and down the parking aisles looking for a place to park. Trader Joe’s generates *much* more traffic than Whole Foods does…at least at any of the locations that I have been to in numerous states, so the fact that Whole Foods used to be there is not a good argument IMO. I feel sorry for PetSmart and the other tenants. I hope for their sake that their lease term is almost expired, because I think it will have a huge negative impact on their business. I’d love to have a Trader Joe’s, I just think it needs to be in a place that has better access.

  • Looks nice.

    Okay folks…we live in a city. Traffic issues? Time for you to move to the suburbs. We just moved here and is amazing we see no one walking in this great neighborhood. But then again seeing people on here worshiping the great automobile, praying for an interstate from their driveway to what ever destination they want to travel to, over density.

    Hard to believe these folks would support urban blight over a useful community creating retail center. Again…Woodlands folks…move…there.

    Building looks great and seems mighty respectful of the buildings great outside design!

  • They should build a feeder road running parallel to Shepherd.

  • Wilshire Village HEB is opening right down the street and you people are worried about traffic?

  • @realtor: Whole Foods stores are generally @30-40,000 sq ft. Trader Joes is 8-12,000 sq ft. There is simply no comparison between the two (although the comparison with the orignal hippy-dippy, back-in-the-day Whole Foods is a good comparison).

    The traffic issue isn’t about volume, it is about access. There is no good option for a left turn for those driving northbound on Shep. People stop to turn left at the front entrance and gridlock traffic back to the Shep/W Alabama entrance (or they try to turn left on W Alabama and get a chorus of car horns all the way back down to 59). If that intersection could be redisgned with a left turn lane on Shep, it wouldn’t be that bad.

  • I intend to use the little known secret driving maneuver called “going around the block” to get in. Circle and make a right turn. I realize that this is beyond the grasp of Houston drivers, who are still trying to figure out what those lines painted on the road mean, but it really does work well.

  • Far cry from the screening of Reds with an intermission or The Players at the Rocky Horror Picture Show midnight screenings. The time enjoying the stacks of the incredible renovation achieved by Bookstop. Or the fear that the always controversial Weingarten family would destroy the structure in the name of progress. Long live its latest incarnation.

  • @Old school:

    That is a problem for anything on Shepherd. Look at the Randall’s a block away.

  • If this were a Walmart going up, then everybody would be up in arms not in our neighborhood …. but since it’s Trader Joe’s it’s okay cuz its hip.

  • I can hardly wait till they trash the inside, especially the georgeous period deco muruals to make room for a stylish IKEA-esque PRODUCE sign. Said murals flanked the movie screen and were expensivly restored from when it was a beutiful movie house. (That was Bookstop’s thoughtful contribution — not their bloated sucessor, Barnes & Noble, BTW) Yes, what we need in that space is more urban hip; more “today.” More faux retro. More commercial “cool.” This is Houston. Preserve the past for posterity? Sooo yesterday. Respect artistic integrity? Ha!

  • I’m not worried about the parking. I will go at 10:00am. The yuppies and River Oaks crowd aren’t out of bed yet.

  • @Hung Fu:

    Actually, we’ve been at our jobs since 7:00am. That’s why you don’t see us. What time do you work?

  • Whole Foods was next door for years. Never a parking problem.

  • mark,
    You are absolutely correct. If WalMart was moving into this space, and spending millions on renovationg the theatre to its original design, and the only way you’d know it was a WalMart would be the small 2×6 inch sign on the front door, people would wear matching t-shirts and storm city hall.

    How many of the people who are all aflutter over this store have even shopped at a Trader Joe’s before?

  • I’m amazed there are people against this. Bring the jobs, dollars and traffic, oh, and the five-buck Chuck. I think Montrose has hit its quota on art galleries. A little surprised Trader Joe didn’t aim for Washington Ave, Oak Forest or Rice Village.

  • @ricemilitaryboy

    I’ve shopped at Trader Joe’s (before I moved to Houston) and I’m sure many others have while traveling, living elsewhere, and so on.

    Yes, Wal-Mart is like a Pavlovian bell for some people. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some real differences in business practices, impact on a community (both hyperlocal things like traffic and streetscape and larger issues, like Wal-Mart’s tendency to rely on gov’t subsidies to keep its employees out of poverty) that aren’t valid concerns to raise.

  • Well, no one really needs to get from Hwy 59 to Westheimer in that part of town anyway.

    Look for a “friendly” off-duty cop 1/4 mi. away from the *next* off-duty cop in the street…and so on.

    I’ve lived a half-mile west of here, and a half-mile east of here (+5 years each) and this trend is EXACTLY why I moved away (not, BTW to any suburbs…).

    Shepherd, a crucial N-S access artery, is almost there….gridlock.

  • It is silly to compare the impact of a 152k sq ft Walmart with that of a 12k sq ft Trader Joe’s. People get pissed off about a 152k sq ft Walmart because it has 10x the traffic, a huge parking lot full of crime and a work force that needs public assistance to keep a roof over their heads. Trader Joe’s 8-12k sq ft stores are the right size for grocers inside the loop in Houston and should be going up everywhere instead of 80k sq ft krogers and HEBs and 152 sq ft Walmarts. The only problem with the Shep location is the lack of left turn access to an already very busy street. But the City should do something to get that worked out. There are a zillion places inside the loop where you could put a Trader Joe’s or similarly sized grocer with no traffic issues at all. Can’t say the same for Walmart.

  • I live in the neighborhood. I drive that stretch of Shepherd daily. I don’t see a traffic problem being caused by Trader Joe’s. There are plenty of cars on Shepherd, but the VAST majority of time the traffic flows smoothly. Plenty of cars come to a dead stop waiting to turn left. How hard is it to change lanes and go around them??? Or just wait 30 seconds or so and catch up with all the cars that just passed you at the next light 300 yards down the road.

    I think some people just like to complain.

  • Do all you traffic whiners work for Trader Joe’s? You’re all so VERY optimistic about how many customers this store will attract. Yes, at the outset, the novelty will be a huge draw (remember the parking debacle that was the first few weeks of the Whole Foods on Waugh?). After that, I doubt Shepherd & Alabama will see a sustained spike of gridlock; at least not anything worse than what already happens every day at rush hour.

    I, too, have fond memories of the days when this strip was fully occupied with Whole Foods, Bookstop, Cactus Records, and that deli on the corner — and yet, I never had a problem finding a place to park – except on Saturday afternoons. As a card-carrying member of the Houston foodie community, I heartily welcome TJ, wherever they decide to park themselves.

  • Love Trader Joe’s. Glad to have you in my new hood! What is taking us so long to have a hip urban city to walk, bike and enjoy our inner city neighborhoods?

  • we all have a choice about where we live & how we live. so if you don’t like traffic, then don’t contribute to it. it’s that easy. no one has commanded you to live in the ‘burbs or drive an SUV. ride a bike. take a walk. use our transit. No, really – you can do it!

    welcome, trader joe’s! i’ve missed you. will be glad to see this theater come to life in some form again.

  • Butera’s Deli. Great spot back in the day. In reading Claire’s comment above, I was struck by the irony of past tenants. Whole Foods, Whole Earth, Cactus, Bookstop + coffeehouse and a quality deli would seem like the perfect mix of tenants RIGHT NOW. Its a shame that the didn’t all last. Oh well. I’m glad to have a TJ’s to bring some more life to a historic building.

  • @ J.

    I will tell you that I only go to the Galleria at 10am. The parking lot is entirely mine except for the employees’ cars.

  • “I can hardly wait till they trash the inside, especially the georgeous period deco muruals to make room for a stylish IKEA-esque PRODUCE sign.”

  • Yes, that secret is called Greenbriar street. Take it from Richmond instead of trying to turn West off of Alabama. There is a light at Alabama intersection, turn onto Kipling and you arrive at the back of the parking lot.

    I take it all the time when leaving Petsmart and go back East on Alabama.