When City Councilman Bill Blaydes learned about developers buying older houses in Lake Highlands and tearing them down to build new ones, he had one reaction:

“Yeah!” Blaydes exclaims. “It shows that values that are there are going to sustain and rise. That’s the biggest investment you can make.”

Along the L Streets between Walnut Hill and Northwest Highway, builders have begun to move in. Like they’ve done in other Dallas neighborhoods, they’re purchasing vacant lots or buying houses and tearing them down to build new ones.

“You’re starting to see some teardowns in there,” Blaydes says. “Young families are moving in and fixing up older homes. You have a real mix of housing.”

This alone might not be exciting news. But taken with several other factors – increasing residential real estate prices, re-development of multi-family complexes and updates of existing commercial properties – the face of Lake Highlands’ real estate is changing. And it’s about time, Blaydes says.

“My area of town is no longer suburbia,” he says. “It’s an urban environment.”

CHANGES AFOOT

When Lake Highlands was developed in the 1960s and 1970s, it was a Dallas suburb. And even though it was located in a big city, it was a tight community, centered on the schools.

“It was kind of a little pocket unto itself,” says Blaydes, who also describes Lake Highlands as “Beaver Cleaver land.”

Though all that is still true, other Dallas neighborhoods have experienced a real estate boom in the past 10 years, while Lake Highlands hasn’t. Blaydes attributes this to the shadow of multi-family units and the crime they brought, which he emphasizes was often contained in the apartment complexes.

“I would call (Lake Highlands) a kept secret,” Blaydes says. “I think it has stayed that way because of the multi-family housing. That’s all you hear about.”

Today, those complexes are making news, but for different reasons. Many of them are slated to be re-developed. (See sidebar, page 43, for a more detailed update on development.) In addition to the news of these possible re-developments, many existing commercial properties are updating, such as Kingsley Square at Skillman and Walnut Hill, which houses the Mi Cocina and Picasso’s restaurants, along with a new CVS Pharmacy and LA Fitness. Also, the shopping center at Jupiter and Northwest recently got a facelift.

Which all means that the “kept secret” to which Blaydes refers could be getting out.

HOMEBUILDERS MOVING IN

Case in point? It’s starting to look like builders are seeing dollar signs in Lake Highlands.

Though our neighborhood is still behind the curve when it comes to teardowns – due in large part to the neighborhood’s housing stock, which is still fairly new with many homes built in the 1960s and ‘70s – that seems to be changing.

Take Urban Reserve, a subdivision of modern homes off White Rock Creek Road between Greenville and Central Expressway. The development has 50 lots for modern homes being designed by some of Dallas’ cutting edge architects.

And Elizabeth Newman Custom Homes, a company that’s been building homes in nearby Lakewood for many years, is starting to make an investment here. The company’s owner and namesake recently moved to Lake Highlands, says vice president of operations Shery Harrison, who herself has lived in our neighborhood for more than eight years, She says she and Newman agree that a combination of community involvement, a solid school district and proximity to area attractions such as White Rock Lake make Lake Highlands a desirable area for many.

Others cite our neighborhood’s proximity to downtown and other urban employers as another attractive factor.

“[Suburban homeowners are] starting to come back,” Blaydes says. “They had to drive too far. It’s too expensive to do that. If you work inside that circle (LBJ Freeway), you want to be inside that circle.”

Whatever the reasons, they’re resulting in increased momentum. Harrison, for instance, confirms that Elizabeth Newman Homes had, as of mid-November, closed seven homes in Lake Highlands, had three under construction, two lots in inventory, and says the company is “working on acquiring several more lots.”

“We are currently branching out into other areas of the Lake Highlands community and are confident that we will meet the same success in those markets,” Harrison says. “I feel that we are meeting a demand that will continue to grow.”

David McGee, a real estate appraiser familiar with the market, cautiously agrees.

“The frontier is a risky place,” he says. “That’s the concern over there, [but] the smart builders will make money.”

And Blaydes stresses that for now, at least, he knows of no plans to fight builders like some other neighborhoods have done.

Instead, these new homes add value to Lake Highlands, he believes.

FUTURE LOOKS BRIGHT

So where is all of this information and activity leading? Well, for starters, real estate prices in our neighborhood have already started climbing.

McGee recently researched numbers on prices per square foot for Lake Highlands, focusing on houses in the $400,000 range. From July 2005 to July 2006, the price per square foot was $128.98, compared to $119.94 the previous year. That 7 percent jump is significant and higher than in other neighborhoods, McGee says.

Lake Highlands is in transition, says Sherryl Wesson, manager of the Ebby Halliday Realtors Lake Highlands office. Right now, a high-end home in our neighborhood is about $600,000. And if the commercial improvements keep happening, prices should continue to climb, she says.

Between Jan. 1 and Oct. 25, 13 Lake Highlands homes sold at prices between $500,000 and $1 million, says Gavin Cain, an Ellen Terry Realtor. That’s a 40 percent jump from the same period in 2005 when eight houses sold in that price range.

“It shows you something,” Cain says.

Chuck Dannis, a neighborhood resident who teaches real estate courses at Southern Methodist University Cox School of Business, says Lake Highlands is in a good position to benefit from the changes in the market.

“You’re going to see an increase in appreciation,” Dannis says. “It’s the location, location, location thing.”

Lake Highlands is probably still a long way from becoming a neighborhood like Lakewood, where $1 million homes are being sold with increasingly regularity, or Preston Hollow or Park Cities, where they’re common, Cain says.

But that’s one reason why our neighborhood is so appealing. Cain says he often has clients who want a bigger house, good public schools, close proximity to downtown and White Rock Lake, but they can’t afford the prices in Lakewood and Preston Hollow.

“When you take them through the Lake Highlands area, there’s no reason why someone wouldn’t want to buy there,” he says.