Houstonians Sign Petitions to Save Historic Shopping Center

River Oaks Theater
Houstonians by the thousands are signing on-line petitions in the hope of changing a developer's plans to demolish the historic shopping center and movie theater on the city's west side. Houston Public Radio's Jim Bell reports.

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The classic art deco style River Oaks Shopping Center and the River Oaks Theater were built in the 1930s, but the owner, Weingarten Realty Investors, is reportedly planning to demolish all or part of it and put up a high rise residential building and parking garage. This has caused a firestorm of protest, and inspired several online petition drives aimed at stopping the demolition. One was created by Lynn Edmundson of the group Historic Houston, who says she's baffled at Houston's laissez faire attitude toward preserving historic structures.

"Because in other cities, there's actually a value placed on the older buildings. I mean they're treasured and respected, and I honestly don't understand how that value has not translated in the Houston market at all."

Edmundson says Houston developers apparently tear down because they can; because there's no law or ordinance requiring them to preserve. Historic Houston's petition now has more than four thousand names, and another petition created by blogger Jim Parsons has even more.

"After we read the story in the Chronicle over the weekend, we thought the best thing to do would be to start an online petition. So we started that on Saturday, and so far the response has been really overwhelming. The last time I looked we had more than 12,000 signatures."

David Bush of the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance says he doesn't know if this outcry will save the River Oaks Shopping Center or not, but he thinks city hall will see that a lot of people want historic preservation.

"The general impression around the city, I would say, is that people here just don't care about the history of the city or historic buildings, but this is tangible evidence that that's not true, that people actually do care."

Weingarten Realty Investors Marketing Director Amy Jones says her company has made a significant investment in developing, managing and maintaining the River Oaks Shopping complex as a valuable asset to the community, but she wouldn't comment on the demolition reports.

"As a responsible public company with roots in, and a commitment to, Houston, we will continue to manage this asset with great care, taking into account its history and its future. We do not have a comment on market rumors, and we have no additional information or comments to provide at this time."

Stay tuned. Jim Bell, Houston Public Radio News.