Bayou City

White Oak Music Hall, Opponents Square Off Over Looming Trial

Cris Feldman (third from right), lead attorney for the group of neighbors suing White Oak Music Hall, called on Houston mayor Sylvester Turner to announce the results of the city's investigation of its agreement with the venue next week.
Cris Feldman (third from right), lead attorney for the group of neighbors suing White Oak Music Hall, called on Houston mayor Sylvester Turner to announce the results of the city's investigation of its agreement with the venue next week. Chris Gray
Cris Feldman, the lead plaintiff’s attorney in the lawsuit filed by several nearby residents against White Oak Music Hall, said Thursday morning his clients were “very happy” with Harris County district judge Kristen Hawkins’ ruling the previous day, which granted a temporary injunction prohibiting more than two events using amplified sound on the venue’s outdoor stage, the main point of contention in the dispute, before the trial’s scheduled start date of May 15.

In a sidewalk news conference in front of the venue, surrounded by several of the plaintiffs in the case, members of their families, and other nearby residents, Feldman called the ruling a positive step toward reining in “rogue developers” from building whatever they want whenever they want in the zoning-free city. He also called upon White Oak’s owners to disclose a full list of their investors, claiming the public deserves to know “the real money” behind the project.

“We’re going to hold White Oak Music Hall and its investors liable for this activity that they’ve done – the nuisance, the invasion of privacy they’ve caused to every single person in these neighborhoods, and we’re going to hold them liable for $1 million in damages,” Feldman said. “And it’s not just White Oak Music Hall; we’re going to hold their investors responsible for this as well.”

Feldman added that last week’s court hearings also proved the city’s current noise ordinance is “unenforceable,” and that White Oak’s owners had misrepresented the plans for the facility, specifically regarding the capacity of the outdoor stage area, when entering into their partnership with the city. Known as a 380 agreement, the contract allows the city to reimburse White Oak a portion of the taxes it would otherwise incur in exchange for making certain improvements on the property, including the installation of landscaping, lighting, sidewalks and a sewer line, among other things.

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No events are scheduled on White Oak's outdoor stage, known as the Lawn, until April 15.
Chris Gray
He called for Houston mayor Sylvester Turner to place the “deep dive” into the agreement’s origins, which the mayor promised at a recent City Council meeting, on the agenda of next week’s meeting.

“It is time for City Council to act,” Feldman said in a statement released late Thursday afternoon. “We want Mayor Turner to detail what his investigation has shown, and what the City plans to do to protect Houstonians from noise polluters. Taxpayers deserve transparency and full disclosure next week.”

Ultimately, Feldman said, the plaintiffs are seeking a permanent injunction on the outdoor stage, known as the Lawn, but have no designs on White Oak’s two indoor stages. “They need to keep it inside,” he said at the news conference. “They’re giving live music a bad name by having mosh-pit parties in the middle of the neighborhood.”

As for the part of the ruling that allowed outdoor music at Raven Tower to continue as long as the sound levels stay within the limits prescribed by the court, Feldman said, “that’s fine.”

“If they’re abiding by the court order, we’re not going to complain about it,” he added. “We’re watching ‘em.”

Although several shows are listed on Raven Tower's website, the owners say they are currently upgrading the Pavilion and those shows may be moved to White Oak or other venues. Tonight's show featuring Consider the Source and Thank You Scientist, for example, has been moved to The Secret Group. Shows booked for the patio, however, may take place under the court-stipulated monitoring, they said. Only one such gig is on the books, the Bayou Saints on February 11.

Back at the press conference, the lead plaintiff in the case, Theresa Cavin, said she was “really happy” with the judge’s decision: “It’s going to make a real difference…I deserve a place to raise my kids in peace and quiet.” Standing with her son, Cavin added that she was “delighted” that the ruling had allowed only two concerts on the Lawn until the trial starts, and that she hoped the sound monitoring at Raven Tower — the results of which Judge Hawkins required be reported weekly to both the court and the plaintiff’s attorneys — worked.

Addressing the question that the residents bringing the suit could represent a minority of public opinion within the community about the venue, another plaintiff, Heidi Landen-Greene, claimed numerous neighbors in the area have reached out with words of encouragement: “Hundreds of families [have been] affected by amplified sound by this venue,” she said.

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One of White Oak's owners, Will Garwood, shown in front of several White Oak employees, said most of his neighbors "want to see [the venue] preserved."
Chris Gray
After Feldman and his clients left the cluster of microphones, one of White Oak’s owners, Will Garwood, took his turn. Saying he and his partners were “hopeful for a resolution everyone can live with,” he called the outdoor stage a “great asset to Houston and the neighborhood.”

“We’ve heard that from the neighborhood,” he added. “It’s something they want to see preserved.”

Later, in a phone conversation, Garwood likened White Oak’s situation to that of other open-air venues like Stubb’s in Austin or the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in The Woodlands, places he said “are on notice that any nearby resident can file notice and shut them down at any time.”

A lawsuit that could hobble the upper tier of their booking calendar has been difficult to work through, he admitted, meaning lots of “extra work, extra cost, extra time.” Besides the Pixies on April 30, White Oak is planning to announce another show on April 15 soon, so Garwood says he’s hopeful the venue can reach an arrangement with the judge about the Randy Rogers Band date on May 20, which could potentially fall in the middle of the trial. Or the trial could be over by then, but at the moment no further shows are booked on the Lawn.

“At least we can rely on a product history that has been extremely high quality, so at least the agents know what we’re working through,” Garwood says. “They understand that we’re gonna get there, and they have the feedback from production managers and tour managers that the shows have been executed really well with world-class sound.”

Furthermore, Garwood says the other side has been blowing the amount of music on the Lawn way out of proportion, making it sound as if there are many more shows than there actually are.

“Of course their plan is to try to paint a fictitious story where the music lasts all night, all year,” he says. “But we had nine events, nine shows, in 2016. If you look at any outdoor/lawn music venue, those types [of] talent don’t come through every day. Whether it’s Stubb’s, whether it’s Cynthia Woods, whether it’s Miller Outdoor Theatre, you’d be doing well to program the thing 40 nights a year.”

For the time being, Garwood says the indoor stages at White Oak average about 30 shows a month between the two, among them by Archie Bell with the Allen Oldies Band next Wednesday and Glitchmob next Thursday. Numerous birthday parties and other private events also keep the staff “super-busy,” he adds, but those few hours of outdoor music every month remain fundamental to the venue’s identity.

“The ability to activate in that open-air environment is very much a part of the vision that we’ve always had,” Garwood says.

Note: this article has been updated after publication to clarify the situation regarding shows at Raven Tower.
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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray