If the city put a halt on any construction permits for the Lakewood Theater, and code compliance staff sent workers scattering on Friday, then why are there mounds of scaffolding outside the theater this morning?
The short answer is that theater owners Bill Willingham and Craig Kinney hired contractors to do asbestos abatement. “There’s asbestos in the ceiling, and seats had to be pulled out to put in the scaffolding,” Kinney explained in a voicemail last week, citing the reason theater seats were being thrown into dumpsters Wednesday and Thursday.
Still, the answer begets more questions. Are the owners allowed to continue with interior demolition despite the landmark designation hold on permits? Does the “ceiling” include any of the historic mural artwork on the interior walls?
When we contacted the city’s public information office asking about code complaints filed and how the city assesses complaints and handles punishments, we were told we had to file an open records request. We did, but the city legally has 10 days to respond. Councilman Philip Kingston, whose district includes the theater, says he likewise can’t get a straight answer from city staff. He’s been told the owners have a state permit for asbestos abatement, so may not need a city construction permit. He says he needs an answer one way or another for the neighbors calling him threatening to take legal action.
Despite whether or not asbestos abatement is legal, “for an ownership group to just proceed like this, it just speaks to bad faith on their part,” Kingston says.
We have a call into Kinney trying to find out more. Another question that emerges is, if the owners are in talks with potential theater tenants — including Alamo Drafthouse, which has offered to renovate the theater on its own dime — then why commence any kind of construction?
Kinney told us last week that the lease deal with Alamo is “totally on hold” because the owners haven’t been able to secure a 15-year lease for the additional 150 parking spaces that Alamo wants. He believes, as he said in the beginning, that the most likely scenario will be to carve up the theater into smaller retail spaces.
When we reached Alamo DFW COO Bill DiGaetano, however, he reversed course a bit and told us that Alamo would be willing to “take a risk” without the guaranteed extra parking.
“If the owner wants the rent he is asking for, we would need 150 parking spots,” DiGaetano says. “If he’s willing to accept what we offered him — which I have under good authority is twice as much as the last tenant paid — then we wouldn’t need the 150 parks and could take the space as-is.”
Alamo would still seek more parking for the Lakewood Theater. If they don’t find more, the same people extolling them now “will be cursing our names one month later because of the parking,” DiGaetano says. But parking essentially translates to sales, so Alamo would expect 150 parking spaces guaranteed over the 15-year lease in order to pay the rent the owner wants, he says.
Alamo is “still very interested,” DiGaetano tells us, but hasn’t heard from the owners in months. Neither have neighbors or preservationists working to save the Lakewood Theater. Kingston’s stance all along has been that the holdup in the theater deal is not parking; it’s money, which is why he hasn’t inserted himself or the city in the process.
The Landmark Commission’s actions last week, with which Kingston says he is “really pleased,” mean the city now has some say in what happens to the theater, at least for the next couple of weeks. It also means the owners and neighbors will have to defend their respective sides face to face at the Sept. 8 meeting.
What exactly will remain of the theater interior by then, no one seems to know.
Update: Robert Wilonsky at the DMN talked with owner Craig Kinney, who says work is taking place in the main auditorium and ““the murals and sculptures are not going to be touched at this point.” Also, Aviation Cinemas, operators of the Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff, are the other interested theater group.
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