Lakewood Theater seat dump sets off ‘alarm bells,’ city takes action

For months, as the news spread that Lakewood Theater would go dark, historic preservationists noted their concern but weren’t ready to try to designate the theater as a historic landmark over the owners’ wishes. The owners repeatedly have said their hope is to keep the Lakewood Theater a theater, but that the highest likelihood would be to carve it up into several retail or restaurant spaces.

Yesterday, Dallas Landmark Commission chairwoman Katherine Seale decided it was time to take action as the theater seats began piling into dumpsters. She formally requested that “the city of Dallas immediately begin steps to initiate the landmark designation of the Lakewood Theater.”

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“When we see something like interior parts being demolished, alarm bells go off,” Seale says.

The preservation community has made attempts to contact the owners, she says, and “repeated phone calls and emails were unanswered.” The owners, Bill Willingham and Craig Kinney, ironed out a deal with Alamo Drafthouse but haven’t been able to secure a 15-year lease of 150 parking spots, Kinney says, so that deal is “totally on hold.” Bill DiGaetano, Alamo’s DFW COO, says the company hasn’t heard from the owners in months.

“I can’t tell you how many historic buildings are lost because of a lack of parking,” Seale says.

Considering all of these realities and pulling on her experience — Seale was the longtime executive director of Preservation Dallas — she made the call to halt any permits, whether construction or demolition, the owners might try to obtain. It takes roughly an hour to obtain a demolition permit at City Hall, she points out.

“You can’t turn back the clock once you have your demolition permit,” she says.

Seale doesn’t often attempt to landmark historic buildings over owner protest, says Councilman Philip Kingston, whose district includes the theater, “so this is a big deal. This represents some bravery on the part of the Landmark Commission. But it’s really responsive to what the neighbors want to see there. I’m really pleased to this see this.”

Seale believes it’s “a reasonable response. It’s just tapping the brakes.” It doesn’t mean the commission is designating over owner objection, she says; it means that owners and neighbors will be able to present their cases at the upcoming Tuesday, Sept. 8 commission meeting, and “before that meting, no demolition permits can be authorized, and any major permit will be red flagged and have to have landmark commission approval.”

Kinney says that the owners are talking to one other theater operator in addition to Alamo, but “if that doesn’t pan out, we’ll have plan b, which is to divide up the interior.” It’s not what they want, Kinney says, but “that’s increasingly the likely outcome.”

For Alamo’s part, “we are still very interested,” DiGaetano says.


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