If it weren’t for strong neighborhood opinion that the Lakewood Theater should remain a theater, the historic 1938 structure, unprotected by any kind of landmark designation, would have been divided up into several restaurant spaces months ago. The theater has been vacant since January, and co-owner Craig Kinney says it’s time to move on.
“We’ve been spinning our wheels for months,” Kinney says. “We have to start getting the theater ready for another tenant.”
Kinney and Bill Willingham bought the theater and the rest of the southwest strip of Lakewood Shopping Center in 2007. Since that purchase, they have replaced Matt’s with Mi Cocina, and Centennial Liquor closed its store, replaced by Frost Bank. Starbucks, an international company worth billions, weathered the rent hike just fine and has even been remodeled. The longtime locals, however, couldn’t compete in the new market, and that includes the theater, which hosted its last live show in January. (Kinney says the theater management was given the option of renewing a 5-year lease with a slight rent increase but chose to leave.)
Over the years, the theater has morphed from a neighborhood movie house to a dollar show pioneer to a performance venue, but has always operated as a theater. Kinney and Willingham have been in talks with potential theater tenants for months — Alamo Drafthouse most publicly — but never because of a financial incentive. They pursued theater uses “just to please the community,” Kinney says, and “there’s a limit to that.”
“Obviously economics are important,” Kinney says. The deal with Alamo would have been “two-thirds of the rent we could get from restaurants,” he says, “We’d be short a six figure number every year.” The owners were willing to take that discount, he says, but Alamo was insistent on a long-term guarantee of extra parking as part of the deal, and Kinney says he hasn’t been able to negotiate that with any nearby property owners.
Alamo DFW COO Bill DiGaetano says Alamo would take the property as-is, no extra parking necessary, for lower rent, but Kinney says that offer is equal to maybe “25 percent of what we could lease the space out to restaurants for. It’s way too low.”
If Alamo isn’t willing pay what the owners are asking, could anyone? The other known theater group the owners have talked to is Aviation Cinemas, which operates the historic Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff. That deal would combine the theater with a restaurant, Kinney says, and wouldn’t require more parking. However, “we’re not close to having a deal at this point,” he says.
As it is, the theater’s seats are spread out among neighborhood homes or in the landfill at this point, and contractors are inside the building doing asbestos abatement. Though the Dallas Landmark Commission has put a hold on any city permits that would alter or demolish the site, “the owner has followed the appropriate process for asbestos abatement through the Texas Department of State Health Services,” says city spokeswoman Sana Syed, and “the property is not undergoing any construction that would require a building permit.”
Preservation Dallas and a cohort of neighborhood associations have pressed the owners to pursue tax credits available to historic properties. Kinney says he met with them twice and called the city, but the conversations haven’t led anywhere.
“They haven’t given us anything specific, just generalities,” Kinney says. “The tax credits for keeping it a theater only work if we have a tenant, and at this point we don’t, so it doesn’t make sense to spend the time examining all those possibilities.”
Even if the Landmark Commission could achieve historic designation over the owners’ protest, it would protect only the theater’s exterior. Kinney says “the murals and sculptures are not going to be touched at this point,” and has promised that the owners won’t remove the iconic neon theater tower. The reason the tower stays, however, is because “it’s a great asset to us,” Kinney has said.
Kinney and Willingham have never purported that they bought the theater because of its historical qualities or because they love old theaters; they bought it to turn a profit. Kinney has maintained since last November that keeping the Lakewood Theater a theater would be “a long shot” and “unlikely.” He hasn’t talked to any restaurant tenants in 2015, but there were plenty interested last fall, he says.
“We’ve spent lots and lots of time trying to get a theater as a tenant,” Kinney says, and though community pressure has impacted the owners for a few months, its expiration date seems imminent.
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