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Planned, lakeside living in Lakewood 

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I've spent most of my adult life as a vagabond of sorts, living in such diverse areas as New York and Paragould, Ark., and everywhere in between. I recently settled into a two bedroom, two-bath apartment on McCain Boulevard in Lakewood, and I'd be hard-pressed to name a more ideal location in terms of convenience in Central Arkansas.

If I felt inclined to take my life in my own hands and dodge the traffic on McCain, I could easily walk to Kroger, Lakewood Village and even McCain Mall. Walmart, Target, Home Depot and Lowe's — along with a selection of restaurants that run the gamut from fast food to upscale steakhouses — are just a couple of traffic lights away.  

As an added bonus, it takes me 15 minutes to get to my job in downtown Little Rock during peak rush hour, and I'm minutes away from Interstates 30 and 40 and Highway 67/167. A short drive to John F. Kennedy Boulevard can take me either to Argenta or Indian Hills and Sherwood, depending on which way I decide to turn.

When my toddler reaches school age, I can walk her to Lakewood Elementary, just down Fairway from the apartment complex, although by then, I'm hoping to own a house there.

The houses in Lakewood come in a variety of styles, from modest ranch-style homes to large brick-and-glass structures that overlook one of the neighborhood's six lakes. The lots are fairly large for the most part, and one of the original selling points was the hilly, rocky terrain and mature trees in the area.

"A considerable number of homeowners may be expected to follow the trend away from the formality of sodded lawns and tailored shrubbery," according to a sales flyer from the 1950s, a copy of which can be found in the North Little Rock History Commission's archives.

According to Cary Bradburn's book, "On the Opposite Shore: The Making of North Little Rock," real estate developer Justin Matthews — who's also credited with helping develop Park Hill and Sylvan Hills — started developing the 2,000 wooded acres now known as Lakewood, building six lakes and dams, in 1932.

The Old Mill, placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, was built in 1933. Designed by concrete sculpture craftsman Dionicio Rodriguez to replicate a water-powered grist mill from the 1880s, it was featured in the opening sequence of "Gone with the Wind." Rodriguez's work was renovated in 1991 by Carlos Cortes, one of Rodriguez's grandsons.

The Matthews Co. transferred ownership of the Old Mill to the city of North Little Rock in 1976, and it is maintained by the Pulaski County Master Gardeners and the North Little Rock Parks and Recreation Department.

Lakewood's first residential lot was sold in 1947, and the first 40 homes were built near Lake No. 1, according to news reports at the time. The average home price was $6,000.

Matthews' son, John P. Matthews, took over Lakewood's development, creating "rolling wooded homesites amidst 200 acres of private lakes and parks," according to marketing materials.

Lakewood was a planned community, locating office and commercial buildings on main thoroughfares like McCain and designing residential streets in a way that discourages through traffic.

"It is exceptional that so large an area is being laid out as a unit, making it possible to incorporate every worth-while feature of contemporary community planning," according to the 1950s-era sales flyer.

The city of North Little Rock annexed Lakewood in 1951. At the time, the neighborhood had 4,000 residents.

In the late 1960s, development began on Heritage Park, which was John Matthews' answer to Little Rock's exclusive Edgehill neighborhood, according to a 2004 Arkansas Business article by George Waldon. This 41-home development is described as a "tree-enshrouded enclave with estate-sized lots" with massive homes.

Among Lakewood's amenities are McGee Park, which has a baseball/softball complex and swimming pool; two pavilions; a tennis center, a basketball court and an activity center that can be rented for events. Lake No. 1 is known as the skiing lake, Lake No. 2 is used mostly for fishing and Lake No. 3 is the swimming lake. The other three lakes range from two to six acres. There are also parks and walking trails along each of the lakes.

A membership fee is required to get full access to all of Lakewood's facilities. Residents can choose between a full-access family membership, a boating/fishing membership or a tennis-only membership, all of which vary in price. Non-residents are limited to an associate membership that grants access to all facilities for $275 a year.

The Lakewood Property Owners Association also hosts youth sports leagues for soccer, baseball, softball, basketball, tennis and swimming.

There's a strong sense of community among Lakewood residents, with the property owners association sponsoring numerous community events throughout the year, including picnics, a winter polar bear plunge in one of the lakes and a visit from Santa during the holidays.

In addition to the single-family homes, Lakewood House, a high-rise apartment building, was built in 1969. There's also Lakewood Hills, a more traditional apartment complex, built in 1984.

McCain Mall, built in 1973, is the second largest enclosed shopping mall in Central Arkansas, with JCPenney, Sears and Dillard's as its anchors. In 2011, it underwent a facelift that includes upgrading the exterior and more prominent signage.

Just down from the mall is Lakewood Village, an open-air center that could be considered a prototype of the "lifestyle" centers that are currently popular. Built in 1986 by Matthews and General Properties, the center floundered for several years before developer J.D. Ashley (who built the Indian Hills Shopping Center) and his sons, J.D. Jr. and Rick, purchased the struggling property. The Ashleys made Lakewood Village, a success and the center now houses a variety of restaurants and specialty shops, along with a movie theater and one of the highest-grossing restaurants in the state.

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