Viva Dallas Burlesque at the Lakewood Theater

The iconic neighborhood theater on Abrams Parkway does not have historic designation — either local or national — which means that it can be changed or even demolished if the owner wishes. And it looks like the theater will change hands in February 2015, with no guarantee that either its use as a theater or its structure will remain the same.

Currently, the theater has five or six owners, according to property manager Meg Robinson of Willingham-Rutledge, which bought the southwest side of the shopping center in 2007. Changes since then include replacing Matt’s Rancho Martinez with Mi Cocina and Centennial Liquor with Frost Bank. The Balcony Club above the Lakewood Theater almost went under, but new management saved it.

The theater is part of a Planned Development District (PD) that addresses the Lakewood shopping center and areas around it. Its language suggests some form of protection for both the Lakewood Theater and the nearby Lakewood Library, but when we checked with preservation experts, we learned this layer of protection is extremely thin and completely optional.

“Modern zoning allows much larger/more dense development than what was needed when the building was originally constructed,” says Norman Alston, a neighborhood architect who currently serves on the preservation issues committee of Preservation Dallas. So in an attempt to persuade owners not to tear down historical buildings, the PD appears to give “incentives … in the form of transferring the rights to develop those sites at greater density (more square footage) than they currently have to other sites within the sub-district if the buildings are preserved,” explains Preservation Dallas executive director David Preziosi.

Even if those rights are transferred, however, “the buildings are still not necessarily protected from demolition,” Preziosi says. “They could still be demolished; however, what goes back in place would have to comply with the elevation drawings of the existing sites.”

Not to mention that it’s unlikely an owner would take advantage of this incentive.

“I personally have not seen this provision utilized and am not aware this has been done in Lakewood,” Alston says. “And it’s voluntary. The protections from this program only kick in if the owner chooses to use the transfer.”

“In summary, these buildings are unprotected indeed,” Alston says.

So as of now, it’s up to the property owners whether the structure of Lakewood Theater will remain the same, and whether it will continue to operate as a theater. It first opened in 1938, and recently has been the site of an Ebola town hall meeting, a wine event featuring Francis Ford Coppola and burlesque shows, among its other performances and screenings. Neighbors even chipped in thousands to help the theater with hail damage costs after the 2012 storm.

Craig Kinney of Willingham-Rutledge has been quoted as describing the neon-lit tower and theater exterior as “sacrosanct,” “iconic” and a “valuable asset to the city.” One potential tenant wants to continue to operate it as a theater, but other options involve “carving up the space.” We’ve asked Willingham-Rutledge for more information, and also are trying to reach current theater management.

Landmark designation through the city is still a possibility for the theater, Preziosi says, via a Landmark Commission process.

“It is best to have owner consent to landmark the building to make the process go much smoother and quickly,” he says. “It can be done over owner objection but that is much more difficult.”

We have calls into the city’s historic designation staff and zoning consultants, and will report more soon.

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