Get ready for an overhaul of the LBJ-Skillman-Audelia ‘Bermuda Triangle’

It was the late ’90s. We had an address, a Mapsco and a destination: Picasso’s Pizza. My husband and I navigated sharp turns, doubled backward, forward and past bleak store fronts, until a combination of luck and stubbornness led us to the restaurant.

Today, Picasso’s is one of the few businesses from that era and location that still thrive — partially due to its sensible decision to relocate to Walnut Hill-Skillman, an intersection friendlier to patrons.

Ever since I first encountered our local version of the Bermuda Triangle (where LBJ meets Skillman meets Audelia), I wondered how such a snafu was possible in modern times. Recently, I was thrilled to learn that real, concrete reform may finally be coming to the area.

Lake Highlands neighbor Susan Morgan has headed a volunteer committee to improve LBJ-Skillman since before “Town Center” had a name. She told me how the intersection evolved.

In the late ’60s, Skillman and Audelia were country roads in the middle of pastureland. Inconveniently, the trajectory of the future 635 shot through the intersection of the two roads. “They designed this threaded intersection so it would cross a single bridge to get over LBJ,” Morgan says. “Then if you fast forward 10 years to the economic boom in the late ’70s, it just mushroomed into urban density. The transportation infrastructure was never built to handle the traffic we have today.”

Since Picasso’s moved, I almost never think about anything north of the shopping center at Skillman-Royal, anchored by Tom Thumb. A short (but not complete) list of restaurants that have opened and closed in the center includes: Sweet Temptations, Burger Spot, Starbucks and Boston Market. North of that center, if you look hard, you might find: Gatti’s Pizza, Family Dollar, Michelle’s Home Cooking, an African grocery store, Fedex-Kinko’s, Queen’s Beauty supply and a tattoo parlor.

“If you speak to the tenants there, it’s very cumbersome to run a business when the streets don’t provide visibility to your storefront,” Morgan says. “One of the things a new infrastructure design will do is straighten out the curves and provide better visibility to the commercial spaces. Instead of it being an intersection that people avoid, let’s make it an intersection where people want to go.”

When asked about changes the committee hopes to see at the intersection, Morgan says, “Economic vibrancy, safety and beautification.”

Cindy Causey is another longtime LH neighbor active on the committee. When she and husband Scott decided to open their business, LH Media Center, two and a half years ago, they found it surprisingly difficult to negotiate with property managers at Audelia-Walnut Hill and Ferndale-NW Highway. (In one case they did not even receive a return call.) When Causey explored leasing at Skillman-Royal, the property managers welcomed her.

“At the time, there was Sweet Temptations, an insurance company, another salon, and a burger place right next to us that was jumping,” Causey says. Despite losing their neighbors, LH Media Center is succeeding, but Causey is anxious to see improvements.

“It’s like Rube Goldberg designed this,” she says. “ ‘A curly Q here, a curve there — let’s make ’em go upside down here.’ LBJ has no access road at all, on either side, which makes it very difficult for the businesses on those corners. That leads to a chaotic placement of business.”

Causey also cites safety as one of her goals because anyone who has driven through the area understands the pitfalls of speed and confusion. She also would like to see basic logic applied to retail access points.

“I want us to attract businesses I want to go to: a gift shop, a clothing store, a deli or a bakery,” Causey says.

Morgan and Causey are only two of the volunteers who have worked on the committee. Jerry Allen has been a member since before he ran for City Council, and LH architect Tip Housewright is leading a comprehensive study of the area, which is expected to take 18 months. Compared to the 40 years LH has wrangled with the intersection, 2014 isn’t far off.

“Don’t listen to the glass-half-empty people,” Causey says. “This is a glass-half-full situation.”

For ongoing reports on the LBJ-Skillman project, including an overview of the Jan. 17 public meeting, search lakehighlands.advocatemag.com.