Chasing Down Weingarten’s Mysterious “Alternatives” to Demolishing the Alabama Theater

Last night, a spokesperson under contract to Weingarten Realty writing on behalf of the company reported to Swamplot and its readers that the shopping-center owner “can’t verify the authenticity of the drawings” we reported on yesterday.

The drawings referred to are bid documents that Heights Venture Architects prepared for Weingarten detailing an extensive interior demolition of the 70-year-old Art Deco Alabama Theater at South Shepherd and West Alabama — more commonly known until its closing last September as the Alabama Bookstop bookstore.

Well, gee. Today, “an official” of Weingarten’s architecture firm isn’t having such a hard time with the verification process:

An official at Heights Venture Architects told CultureMap this morning that the company did submit plans detailing a near total interior demolition of the Alabama at the specific request of Weingarten (the company that owns the vacant building).

The official at Heights asked not to be named and said he had no speaking authority, but confirmed that the company had been asked to submit the plans, which Swamplot first published.

What a fun game! Now that this round is over, let’s jump to the next one: Okay, so maybe Weingarten did ask its architects to prepare demolition drawings. Maybe Weingarten is exploring all its options! Just pricing a complete demo for . . . say, comparison.

Here’s the same Weingarten spokesperson feeding this ruse:


. . . it is not unusual for WRI or a prospective tenant to have space concepts and measurements drawn for visual or budget purposes during discussion or negotiation process. The space formerly occupied by BookStop is, of course, available for lease, and, as a matter of common practice, prospective retailers go through the process of planning adjustments or upgrades to suit their unique needs before making an offer or decision.

There’s even a little support for the same notion from Caroline Gallay at CultureMap:

The Heights [Venture] official told CultureMap he does not know how many plans were prepared by the company, or whether they submitted any alternatives to permanently leveling the floor and substantially altering other defining characteristics of the 1939 art deco theater.

But let’s call this one before it goes too far: Swamplot will be more than happy to report on any plans — drawn, doodled, or tattooed — that indicate Weingarten is making any kind of serious effort to find a tenant who would preserve any substantial portion of the building’s interior. (That’s the strategy the same company took back in 1983, when Mike Treadway Architects designed Bookstop to fit into the space, and that’s why most features of the theater are still intact today.) Please send them our way!

But don’t hold your breath waiting for evidence that Weingarten is interested in a similar strategy today. It’s exceedingly unlikely that Weingarten is actively pursuing any strategies for the property other than the demolition plans it had drawn up.

What’s our evidence for saying that?

Next, we’ll have another update with more details on Weingarten’s plans for the building.

Photo: Chris Adams. Bid documents: Heights Venture Architects

13 Comment

  • Thanks, Swamplot, for holding Weingarten’s feet to the fire.

  • I’ll throw this out there: Wouldn’t the place make for pretty good internet cafe?

    I’m not in the restaurant/cafe biz, but either concept could maintain much of the interior and potentially be a money maker. I don’t know if it’ll be enough for $13,000/month though.

  • I know that Weingarten, as the owner, can do basically whatever it wants with the property. But because the family/company has been a fixture in Houston for decades, wouldn’t it be nice if they did something for Houston instead of just for themselves? I always think of Mr. Potter from “It’s a Wonderful Life” when I think of Weingarten. I’d really like to have another image. Is there a George Bailey to come to the rescue?

  • It would be nice, again, if Weingarten took note of the fact that Houston has been good to Weingarten and finally be good to Houston by taking the initiative to turn this into some sort of arts venue, possibly through the use of a consortim organization to manage the facility, raise the funds to pay the rent if nothing else, and finally enjoy some good public relations which so far it has not. And lying about the plans for the Alabama hasn’t helped any.

    Maybe it’s time for Houston to stop being good to Weingarten and just not patronize those who lease from Weingarten?

  • Matt Mystery:

    Some of us are ahead you on this one. Many of my friends have pledged to never, really never, spend a dime in the new Barnes & Noble at River Oaks Center. I went to go check it out, but will never go back. We all have substantial libraries and buy many expensive art, architecture, and design books. B & N may not care, but we do. Similarly, many of us pledged several years ago to never shop at CVS after the atrocities they built in Midtown and on Main Street @ Elgin ignoring the practical begging of local civic groups to build urban not suburban buildings.
    Again, we know that the loss of our few thousands of dollars per year does not have these companies shaking in their boots, but in this country your vote and your pocketbook are two of the greatest tools you have to voice your opinion. It works for us.

  • Dear Weingarten, Please read _Cinema Houston_ by David Welling. Take note of the significant theatres that have been lost. If you want I can loan you my copy. I got it at Bookstop…oops, never mind. Please drive down Westheimer and look at the pathetic shell of the Tower Theatre. If you can find an old-timer, ask them about the great concerts that were presented there. Then drive down University and ponder the incongruity of the Village Theatre marquee sans Village Theatre. Think about all the money you spent to preserve the interior of the Alabama back in ’83. The old girl had never looked so good back in the Rocky Horror days. That was something really special in Houston. People drove for hours to come to Bookstop (and Cactus Music.) Please don’t think that if you leave the facade untouched and turn it into just another national retailer that you have done the community any favors. (cf. Tower Theatre, above.) Most people can tell the difference between gentlemen’s evening wear and a tuxedo T-shirt. Finally, I know that retrofitting a commercial kitchen to the Alabama is probably a deal-breaker, but the restaurant space occupied by Zake has had, shall we say, a high turnover. Perhaps that could factor into the plans. Maybe offer Zake a different location or something. Just a few ideas for your consideration. Please don’t fall into the trap of narrow thinking. Remember, the Interstate chain thought they could make money with a place like this selling tickets for a nickel.

    Sincerely yours,

  • well kjb434, an Internet cafe covering $13k/month rent? Umm, no. Let’s talk more like $2K/month.

    High end restaurant may be able to do a $13k/month rent.

    But, let’s talk subsidizing a tenant. Do any of the historic preservation movements here have a budget? They need to put their money where there mouth is, and either buy it outright, or rent it and sublet at a substantial discount to a worthy tenant.

    I for one, and I could count 100s of others, would definitely frequent an Alamo Drafthouse type of moviehouse. Even playing current stuff (artsy stuff – go River Oaks), as long as I can chase it all down with a burger and a beer. Would it require subsidizing a tenant, with private money, to make this happen? Then, let’s go for it.

  • Kez, I would frequent an Alamo Drafthouse-type business as well, as would most of my friends and coworkers.
    Someone said earlier that parking was always bad at the Bookstop, but I don’t recall ever having a problem except during the Christmas season. That back parking lot is fairly large.

  • Obviously the Alabama is history. Despite all the coy non-denials of Weingarten. Or should that be coy lies of Weingarten?

  • I wholeheartedly agree that an Alamo Drafthouse would just be incredible at the site. Count me in as someone who will pitch in to make that a reality.

  • Weingarten is a publicly traded REIT on the New York Stock Exchange. Whatever sense of civics they had toward this city — that patronized them back when they were a grocery chain — is long gone. Face it, they just don’t care.

    If you want to hurt Weingarten, stop patronizing their lessees that occupy gutted space. Tell Michael Cordua you won’t eat at the new Americas, don’t patronize any tenant in the new R.O. space. Make the North Side Starbucks pay by going to the South Side Starbucks. I realize their spot never changed, but Lewis Black and I agree it’s acceptable collateral damage.

    I’m afraid, however, that there are too many other people who, like Weingarten, just don’t give a crap. Bexar-meets-Bordeaux architecture is popular for a reason: lots of people aparently like Limestone Rapunzel Towers. And Affliction shirts too. Think of Weingarten as you friendly neighborhood douchebag.

    Weingarten isn’t a bunch of architects, designers,or creative people. They’re bankers that care only about the bottom line. It’s no surprise they’ll walk over their own mother to bend you over for a buck. So take a deep breath and get ready Houston, their coming for you.

  • Weingarten lacks the vision, imagination, or basic market intelligence to pursue an anchor tenant that make sense for the neighborhood. It all comes down to expediency, driven entirely by intellectual laziness. They’ve apparently decided that “What’s good for Sugar Land/Katy/Pearland must be good for Montrose/Heights/Midtown”, and as as a result, have essentially declared all out war on Houston years ago.

    It’s really a shame, and I hope they re-evaluate their ham-fisted approach to doing business while some parts of the city still have some character left.

  • Thanks for the update. Well researched and thorough!