Ten years ago, if a major real estate developer had said it was going to tear down aging apartments to put up a shiny new shopping center with two Walmarts and a Penney’s, plus 60,000 square feet of smaller retailers (not quite the size of one of the three corners at Casa Linda), most of us probably would have been thrilled at the prospect.

Today, though, the world — and Lakewood and East Dallas — is a much different place than it was a decade ago. Which leads to the question: Is the Timbercreek development at Skillman and Northwest Highway 10 years too late, a 20th-century project in a 21st-century world? Is developer Trammel Crow putting this thing up just in time for it to fail?

The thing that struck me is something that one of the developers told Dallas’ Only Daily Newspaper: “East Dallas is an underserved market and has seen very little retail investment.”

Which was true 10 years ago, but has been increasingly less true since. We’ve actually seen plenty of investment, whether of the mega-store variety like the Target at City Place or of the smaller, more local variety, like the renovations at Casa Linda or Mockingbird Station.

What we haven’t seen is the over the top, Frisco-style investment, which, at its heart, is what Timbercreek is. The developer is cramming almost one-half million square feet of shopping into the intersection — which is across Central Expressway from 2 million square feet of shopping at NorthPark, 200,000 square feet or so in the Container Store center across from North Park, and one-half million more if you include the Bed Bath Beyond and Best Buy centers up Central.

I’m not sure we ever wanted that kind of development, even in the bad old days. That’s why we decided to live here and not in Frisco. And given the changes in the world since then, I’m not sure we want it or need it now. I have been told by almost every urban planner and development expert that I’ve interviewed over the past couple of years that large, shopping center-style developments are a thing of the past, and especially for in-town areas like ours. We’re supposed to be building smaller, more versatile mixed-use projects like Mockingbird Station. This has become such conventional wisdom that even the city’s updated planning code, the infamous Forward Dallas!, plays lip service to mixed use. (Which just adds to the irony, given that the city council had to approve pages of zoning changes to make Timbercreek possible.)

In addition, we’re supposed to be interested in shopping more locally, and not with large, multi-national chains. Talk to residents, and the complaints they have about retail aren’t that there isn’t a Walmart around here, but that there aren’t more Lakewood Shopping Centers.

The other disadvantage to Timbercreek? It’s going to cannibalize existing retail to fill its storefronts. Walmart has already announced that it will close its Park Lane Sam’s Club when Timbercreek opens, which will leave a gaping hole on that part of Greenville Avenue. Will Target finally abandon Medallion Center, given that its reason for being was to keep Walmart out, a reason that is gone now? And what will happen to Medallion if Target leaves? And that 60,000 square feet of smaller retail is not all going to be new; it’s going to come from chains that want to share a parking lot with two Walmarts instead of sitting in a strip center on Greenville or Mockingbird or Garland roads.

Failure, of course, is relative. The Timbercreek Walmarts, and probably Penney’s, will likely do enough business to justify their existence to their corporate bosses. But whether Trammel Crow can lease that other 60,000 square feet, even after the recession ends, and whether anyone will shop there — those are the questions. And if we end up with a monstrous shopping center and parking garage and not much else, no one wins.


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