By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Mighty and Young No More
Five years ago, the Casa Linda Theatre's marquee became a tombstone, memorializing the movies that made one last stand before the theater closed in January 1999. Those films--A Bug's Life, Prince of Egypt, You've Got Mail and Mighty Joe Young--were forgettable then and notable now for that reason alone. They're the answer to a local trivia question and, to local residents, a lingering reminder that the theater sits empty. Well, except for the rats.
"It's pretty rough inside," says Barry Waranch, who went to the theater as a kid and took his own kids there before it closed. "It's sad. It was a cool place. It wasn't as neat as Inwood, but it had a little bit of that kind of feel. You'd walk in and instantly know you were a little bit back in time."
Too bad going back in time isn't an option anymore. Most of Casa Linda Plaza, the shopping center that houses the theater, is empty as well. Though it was once a model of postwar urban planning, time and money have chipped away at Casa Linda Plaza's usefulness. Now owned by Florida-based Regency Centers, only about half the space is leased out, and most of that isn't anything special. Put it this way: The jewel of the plaza is a Starbucks.
Casa Linda residents, and their neighbors in Forest Hills, Little Forest Hills and Lake Highlands, would love to add "for now" to the previous sentence, almost as much as they would enjoy seeing A Bug's Life and its brood end their five-year exclusive engagement at the theater. But they've had their dreams dashed too often to believe again. There have been too many rumors and false starts. They can't see the potential, only the decaying husk of a once-great shopping center and the rat-infested shell of an old-school movie palace.
But others can. It's the kind of trick you have to play on yourself when you're a real estate developer, the kind of imagination you must possess when you're the president of the area's neighborhood association. Potential is all you have when you're selling something that doesn't exist.
Soon enough, it might, and it all begins with the Casa Linda Theater. Theatre Brothers Ltd., a local group of investors that includes Waranch, bought the theater six months ago. In another month, Waranch says, they'll have a new tenant, and the neighborhood will have something to rally around. They're just not sure what that something is.
"We're talking to all sorts of different groups," Waranch says. "We've had at least 12, 15 theater groups. Just a real big variety. We're trying to find that user that can take it to the next level. It might be theater, it might be--it'll be something in the media world. Something good will be there soon. Sooner than later."
For Waranch, memory was almost as important as money when it came to making the deal. He and his partners, all self-described "Dallas kids," knew the place from their youth, knew what it meant to the community and knew it could happen again. "We like the history of it," Waranch says.
Cindy Bourne, president of the Casa Linda Estates Neighborhood Association, likes the future of it. The theater, the plaza, all of it. That's why she recently formed what she calls "a support group" for the plaza, a committee formed from the dozen or so neighborhoods surrounding the shopping center.
"We sort of feel like Regency needs some help," Bourne says. "We're going to try to give Regency, the management company, our positive support in getting the shopping center leased out and getting quality tenants in there, the kind that would be able to support a theater again. We did a survey for our neighborhood with all of our residents about what they want in a shopping center, and a theater was one of the number-one options. People are open to a regular movie theater, a mixed-media [venue]--just something to keep that place alive and kind of bring the feel back."
Even with the presence of Waranch's and Bourne's groups, however, it's best not to get too excited yet. The Texas Department of Transportation and the city are set to begin construction soon on a project that will open up the clogged arteries the intersection of Garland and Buckner roads has become, adding double left-turn lanes and dedicated right-turn lanes. The construction will further hurt the already stagnant flow of traffic into the plaza.
Not to mention the fact that getting new tenants into the plaza is easier said than done, given the rental rates Regency charges. (The company did not return numerous calls.) Then again, maybe it will take only one new tenant--whatever eventually moves into the Casa Linda Theater space--to transform the plaza. Maybe that's all that is needed to force Regency's hand.
"The theater is sort of like the cornerstone, really," Bourne says. "I mean, I know it hasn't been active for quite a while. But quite honestly, everybody looks to that theater when they look at the shopping center."
Waranch is confident they'll have something to look at soon, and not just in Casa Linda Plaza.