Moving from East Dallas to Lake Highlands shouldn’t be a big deal.
But Tyler Isbell didn’t appreciate Skillman-Mockingbird’s proximity to restaurants and retail until he left.
“We moved up here with great schools but no amenities,” he says. “Grocery stores were nonexistent. Restaurants were nonexistent.”
The timing of the Isbell family’s 2013 move wasn’t ideal. Construction continued to stall at the Lake Highlands Town Center at Skillman and Walnut Hill. Several businesses shuttered down the road at the Skillman Abrams shopping center. After Tom Thumb vacated the intersection’s northeast corner, 7-Eleven, Sigel’s Liquor, Big Lots and Liquid Zoo followed suit.
Neighbors complained about the number of service businesses and lack of recreation options, former City Councilman Jerry Allen says.
Despite the complaints, Skillman and Abrams is a gateway to Lake Highlands. At least that’s the way our neighborhood’s current City Councilman, Adam McGough, sees it.
“When you start looking strategically at the entire run of Skillman, I-635 all the way to Abrams … that becomes the backbone of our entire district,” he says.
If that’s true, are we making the best first impression? And is the newly developed Creekside the catalyst for change?
“My wife and I aren’t going to spend date night at a cash store or payday loan.”
Too few restaurants, too many loan agencies
Skillman and Abrams is a geographic anomaly. Touching Merriman Park, University Manor and Vickery Meadow, three Dallas City Council districts converge at the intersection. District 10’s McGough, District 13 Councilwoman Jennifer Gates and District 9 Councilman Mark Clayton share ownership of the area, although McGough is spearheading development initiatives.
At the northwest corner, Super Target attracts neighbors from both East Dallas and Lake Highlands. Habitat for Humanity Resale and Harbor Freight Tools populate the southeast corner, along with a laundromat and other service businesses.
Vibrant loan agency signs dot corners of the intersection. When Allen was Lake Highlands’ city councilman, he vehemently fought against payday lenders. He led the city council to pass an ordinance limiting the number and location of future lending agencies, which he says take advantage of low-income customers.
“They’re all over Dallas, but it makes you think your neighborhood’s going downhill,” he told the Advocate in 2011.
Isbell — the vice president at SRS Real Estate Partners and chair of McGough’s City Council District 10 economic development committee — agrees.
“My wife and I aren’t going to spend date night at a cash store or payday loan,” he says.
Even without the loan agencies, neighbors’ consensus was the intersection needed several upgrades, Allen says. That perception hasn’t changed much since he left office in 2015.
“The center where Habitat for Humanity is — one of the irritations is the parking lot,” Allen says. “It’s not well taken care of. That speaks volumes about the landowner. If they can’t take care of the parking lot, they can’t take care of the building.”
The only center exempt from grumbling is Creekside, a 111,254-square-foot development at the northeast corner of Skillman-Abrams that has spurred the intersection’s makeover.
“What we’re seeing is, this is what our community wants and needs,” McGough says.
“If they can’t take care of the parking lot, they can’t take care of the building.”
When Creekside came to town
The vacated Skillman Abrams shopping center was deemed an eyesore until Retail Plazas Inc. bought the property in 2016. The Dallas-based developer says its niche is making ramshackle shopping centers profitable. RPI’s properties include Lakeside Village at Walnut Hill and U.S. 75 and Belt Line Square in Addison.
Finding a high-profile anchor that wasn’t a typical big-box store was RPI’s first priority. They signed on Alamo Drafthouse, a high-end movie theater that McGough initially hoped would become part of the Lake Highlands Town Center.
Alamo Drafthouse houses Vetted Well, a bar and pizza joint with an outdoor patio overlooking White Rock Creek Trail. Its proximity to the trail is intentional, says Cory McCord, RPI’s director of leasing. He points to Katy Trail Ice House as an example of how amenities can increase a trail’s foot traffic.
“We’re creating something for people to walk to,” he says.
A new trail segment connecting Lake Highlands Trail to White Rock Creek Trail is in the works. By October 2019, neighbors should be able to walk or bike from the Lake Highlands Town Center to Creekside. The new path crosses under the Skillman bridge, where lighting will be added to increase safety.
Besides Alamo Drafthouse and Vetted Well, restaurants like Fireside Pies, Fuzzy’s Tacos and Burgerim slowly are moving into the center. RPI is actively pursuing craft coffee, breakfast, barbecue and Asian eateries, but nothing is finalized, McCord says.
In a few months, signage and landscaping will be incorporated to the Skillman median. “Lake Highlands” will be engraved in a stainless steel box on top of a low brick wall. Live oaks, lit at night, will be planted around the median.
The signage also is planned at Northwest Highway and Audelia, and Walnut Hill near Greenville, as part of the Lake Highlands Public Improvement District’s plan to make the neighborhood more inviting.
Creekside may have persuaded surrounding developers to up their game, as well. The Habitat for Humanity shopping center recently was purchased, according to Isbell and McCord.
Allen, the self-proclaimed Lake Highlands cheerleader, cautions that a total overhaul may be detrimental to some residents who need service businesses. For instance, some neighbors rely on loan agencies because banks won’t serve them, he says. He doesn’t want to discount the diversity in Lake Highlands, which is reflected in its retailers.
“What I’ve experienced is that all of the businesses, they all have a niche about them when you go in there,” Allen says. “…You have to enjoy what you have.”
Creekside II: (Maybe) coming to you soon
Constructing a shopping center in a floodplain is complicated and expensive. But that’s Retail Plazas Inc.’s next endeavor — if the developer behind Creekside can woo the City of Dallas.
RPI plans to construct a retail center on the 6.6-acre property at 6800 Abrams Road northeast of Park Lane. The development’s aesthetic and tenants would be similar to the adjacent Creekside shopping center at Abrams and Skillman. Called “Creekside on the Trail,” the center would consist of three two-tenant buildings with restaurants and perhaps a bicycle store.
“I’m seeking the type of tenant that would like Deep Ellum — urban and cool,” says Trey Hodge, vice president of acquisitions and development.
RPI has a handful of major hurdles to clear before Creekside on the Trail could come to fruition. The 6.6-acre property is zoned for single-family homes. The developer first must convince the City Plan Commission to recommend rezoning the vacant land to community retail.
If RPI wins the commission’s favor, the next step is creating engineering plans that mitigate potential flooding and requesting Dallas City Council’s approval.
One challenge is the economic viability of the center, says Cory McCord, RPI’s director of leasing. They’ll need to find tenants willing to pay rent that’ll support the cost of construction and maintenance. Because of the property’s small size, plans will be both tedious and costly. Hodge himself is skeptical of how realistic the concept is.
“We had to agree to certain standards, but if we can pull it off, it could be a one-of-a-kind destination,” Hodge says.