“I wish you could’ve seen it when it was booming,” said Areness Freeman, looking out at the empty parking lot at Kingsley Square.

In her four years working as the photography supervisor at Eckerd’s, Freeman has seen many businesses come and go at the retail center at Skillman and Kingsley. But after Whole Foods closed in 2002, she saw the bulk of those businesses close up shop, leaving the 139,000-square-foot shopping center mostly vacant.

But Freeman, along with the few remaining tenants, is now anxiously awaiting the center’s revival, set in motion by Charter Holdings, which purchased the property in June with plans to revitalize the 20-year-old shopping area.

“I’m hoping they do something spectacular,” said Freeman. “Lord knows we need it.”

She’s not the only one with that hope. Terri Woods, president of Lake Highlands Area Improvement Association, has been pushing for the re-animation of that center for years, especially with businesses that are geared toward the needs and wants of our neighborhood.

“We’re hoping that the strip will have two to three nice restaurants and a couple of boutique-type stores,” she says. “We really have a need for more upscale retailers. And I’m hoping there won’t be any discount or dollar stores put in.”

City Councilman Bill Blaydes says Kingsley Square’s changes are a starting point for several upcoming developments in Lake Highlands that should positively impact retail in the area. Blaydes says he is working on a proposal for a Lake Highlands town center across the street from Kingsley Square, which could center on a new DART light-rail station.

Although DART has had a Lake Highlands station in mind since the entity began planning the northeast line back in the ’90s, lack of community support has kept any project from moving forward.

“It has been on the backburner, but now developers have re-ignited interest, and we want to actively participate in all the planning,” says DART’s Mike Miles, explaining that several members of DART staff have been included in meetings with the developers. Nothing has been decided at this point, says Miles, a neighborhood resident.

“Negotiations are still underway,” Blaydes says, “but it’s going to be a great asset to that northwest corner. And it’s another re-use of land that will benefit the entire neighborhood.”

So far, details of Kingsley Square’s future retail makeup also remain unclear. Charter Holdings hasn’t signed any new leases, although vice president Phil Schevle says the company is looking for a good mix of tenants to complement Mi Cocina, which has done well despite the center’s circumstances.

“Mi Cocina is definitely the anchor,” Schevle says. “Whatever we do, Mi Cocina will be the anchor for the rest of the center.”

Although no plans have been finalized, Schevle says his company hopes to locate a second restaurant in the center that is locally owned and family-oriented. The center owners also would like to see some type of coffee shop, along with higher-end retail, he says.

According to preliminary plans, a portion of the center’s northwest corner (the part that makes the L-shape) will be torn down to open the space up and grant easier access to a rear parking lot that hasn’t been used before.

Schevle also says Mi Cocina might move to the northeast corner in the old bank building, which would allow the restaurant to have an outdoor dining area as well as additional space. He wouldn’t confirm what would move into Mi Cocina’s old space, but did say he is working with CVS Pharmacy (a national chain that recently bought Eckerd’s).

Architect Jeff Good has been working on the site plans for the center. He says tearing down the inside corner will allow that space to be better utilized, and it will keep that portion of the center from being hidden from the street. He also hopes to put in additional storefronts.

“The site plan is pretty set as far as demolition, but the owners are still actively leasing, so that may lead to some changes,” he says, adding that better lighting would be installed in the parking lot and in the buildings. Other plans call for increasing the height and changing the color of the tenant signs, and adding taller, tower-like elements to the corners of the center. Work on the structure will start once the architectural plans are finalized, which the owners expect will happen in the next couple of months.

“If this goes through as proposed, it will provide a huge economic boost to the area, not to mention a great re-use of old property,” Blaydes says.

“Anytime you see a re-use of property that has seen better days with something new and clean – new store fronts – the community appreciates the efforts being made.”