Lakewood Theater owners, preservationists pledge to work together

Rebecca Tolentino celebrates the Dallas Landmark Commission's decision to begin historic designation process for the Lakewood Theater by posing for a photo with fellow supporter Burton Gilliam, an actor and Woodrow Wilson High School graduate.
Rebecca Tolentino celebrates the Dallas Landmark Commission’s decision to begin historic designation process for the Lakewood Theater by posing for a photo with fellow supporter Burton Gilliam, an actor and Woodrow Wilson High School graduate.

Officially, the Lakewood Theater is on its way to being designated as a historic landmark.

Informally, the two sides came to the table at today’s Landmark Commission meeting and agreed to prove themselves. The owners pledged to make good on their assertion that “we are not here to harm the Lakewood Theater; we are here to save it,” as theater co-owner Craig Kinney put it to the commission. And historic preservationists assured the owners that “this could be an advantageous process for you as well,” as Landmark Commissioner Stephen Birch responded to Kinney.

Seats in City Hall’s council chambers were almost full of people who had showed up to support making the theater a historic landmark — the largest crowd ever to attend a Landmark Commission meeting, says neighbor Norman Alston, a former commission chairman. The string of people who spoke on behalf of saving the theater’s iconic tower and exterior included not only preservationists but also the Lakewood business community.

Darlene Ellison, representing the Greater East Dallas Chamber of Commerce, told the commission that “we understand and support responsible development.” She pointed out that the Lakewood Shopping Center is known for its historic façades, even when interiors have been re-purposed.

Without a landmark designation for the theater, “I fear that irresponsible development could prevail,” Ellison said, which would be “bad for the business community and the neighborhood.”

The Save the Lakewood Theater folks even had some star power on their team, with actor and Woodrow Wilson High School graduate Burton Gilliam making a trip to his hometown to speak on behalf of the landmark designation.

The owners could read the writing on the wall, and they began deciphering the message before today’s meeting. Kinney was accompanied today by zoning consultant Santos Martinez and zoning attorney Tommy Mann. (Co-owner Bill Willingham was not present for the hearing.)

When the supporters of landmark designation finished their remarks, and commission chairwoman Katherine Seale invited the opposition to speak, Kinney approached the mic, but he told the crowd gathered that he wasn’t really opposed to landmark designation.

“We all know the truth here: The Lakewood theater is a Dallas landmark. It has been for decades,” Kinney said.

The problem, he said, is that “anybody that has been in the theater the past couple years can see that it’s in bad shape.” He rattled off a laundry list of repairs the theater needs, estimating it would cost around $1.5 million to restore it. And the problem with undergoing landmark designation, Kinney noted, is that it requires the city to sign off on everything.

“If I’ve got a broken window and it’s the middle of winter, 25 degrees out, snow blowing, I can’t wait 30 days to fix it,” Kinney said, referring to the timeline on the city’s website. He similarly didn’t understand “why would it possibly take two years to designate this beautiful building?”

The commission reassured him that those timelines were extremes, that a broken window is considered an emergency fix and can be done immediately. As far as how long designation will take, Seale committed to making sure city staff “receives the message that we do this in a very expedited way.”

“I certainly think it it’s the realm of possibility that it can happen within six months,” she said.

Kinney, who also announced that he intends to hire a historic preservation architect from a list provided by Preservation Dallas, acquiesced to this timeline.

Anyone hearing these arguments for the first time could interpret the situation as one big misunderstanding. The owners were misinformed about the process, and the preservationists didn’t understand the owners’ intentions. Perhaps there is truth in both.

There is also, however, a rendering of the Lakewood Theater carved up into restaurants and retail shops, and repeated insistence from the owners that this “plan B” is more likely than a theater tenant. And there is an abundance of city documentation underscoring the complications involved in preserving Dallas’ history, however worthy. (Today’s 653-page Landmark Commission meeting packet is just one example, with more than 600 of those pages dedicated to changes proposed for 12 structures in historic districts.)

Today’s unanimous vote by landmark commissioners doesn’t prevent changes to the theater’s façade; that decision ultimately is up to City Council. Even with Council’s approval, designation applies only to the exterior and wouldn’t protect the interior murals painted by Woodrow graduate Perry Nichols; Kinney assured everyone, however, that the owners believe the murals can be saved and will be looking to their architect for guidance.

Even if all its historic architecture and art is saved, however, the Lakewood Theater still may cease to be a theater. Just because the city designates a building as a historic landmark doesn’t mean it can dictate how it is used.

To that end, the commission proposed something a bit innovative today: In the process toward landmark designation, the Lakewood Theater owners will not only work with the designation committee on the brick and mortar aspects of historic preservation; they will also work with a task force of neighbors to provide assistance on issues such as parking — which was a hangup in the owners’ negotiations with Alamo Drafthouse — to give the building’s historical use a better chance of continuing into the future.

As it stands, both the owners and preservationists are dependent on each other to get what they want — “a community asset that is also a real estate asset,” as Mann described to the commission. Both sides have roughly six months to hold up their respective ends of the bargain, and the future of the theater hangs in the balance.


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