“Keep in mind – there’s a long way to go in completing this project,” Councilman Bill Blaydes recently told a crowded auditorium at the Lake Highlands Freshman Center.

He was talking about the proposed Lake Highlands Town Center at the southeast corner of Skillman and Kingsley. Blaydes has been working with architects, city staff and DART representatives for months and is getting closer and closer to his vision of creating a community core.

The developer, Trademark Acquisitions and Development of Fort Worth, foresees the center as a downtown area for Lake Highlands, with a combination of shops, restaurants, offices and urban housing such as lofts, townhomes and smaller apartments called “granny flats.” The developers also plan to incorporate a new park system and DART station.

Architect firm RTKL has been successful in creating similar developments, including Addison Circle and Legacy Town Center in Plano. Says RTKL vice president and Lake Highlands resident Jeff Gunning: “We need to create a center of neighborhood.”

Gunning and his associates have come up with a master plan that will consist of more than 100,000 square feet of retail, 29,000 square feet of offices, 839 loft units, 110 townhome units and 31 granny-flat units. The townhomes will sell for between $180,000-$600,000, and the lofts will rent for $800-$1,200 a month. No retailers have been named, but Gunning envisions more locally owned shops than national chain retailers.

During the next 90 days, Blaydes and developer will take their plans to the zoning commission and the City Council. Although the three affected apartment complexes (Sutter Wood, Ashton Springs and Ashton Point) are under contract, the deals will not be finalized until the project has passed through zoning and city council.

A FEMA study must also be completed – some of the area is in the 100-year floodplain, meaning the terrain may have to be changed – and DART has to secure funding for its portion of the project. All in all, Blaydes says he hopes for a finish in spring 2007.

The project cost is projected to be near $280 million, including $16 million for streets and infrastructure and an additional $14 million DART station.

The developer hopes to employ a Tax Increment Financing District – the first time this system will be used outside of downtown Dallas. A TIF would allow the developer limited benefit in the form of property tax breaks as the value of the property grows to help pay for streets, utilities and other infrastructure improvements.

One concern is the Lake Highlands community’s ability to support this much new retail. For that, Blaydes offers a bit of a warning: “If we’re gonna bring them in, then we’ve gotta support them.”