By John Schaffner

When the merchants moved into their new shops at CityWalk about 18 months ago, they felt they were moving into the retail center of Sandy Springs, where they could expect lots of foot traffic to their stores and maybe make their fortunes.

Within the past few weeks, two of those merchants—Doc Chey’s Asian Kitchen and Bumble Bee’s Whimsical Décor—have abandoned their leases and closed their doors. And, the word on the street is they are just the beginning with more to come.

“Everywhere I mention CityWalk in the city people respond: ‘Oh, CityWalk, Steve Maxwell’s disaster’,” said Patricia Pennington, owner of Belles Choses and the person who formed a merchants association in January of last year to try and deal with some of the problems at the shopping center.

“When you don’t have a management that will promote you in the way only they can, it makes it very difficult for the small businesses,” she added. “There is potential here. We all had great hopes when we opened up here. We feel this is the center of the shopping area of Sandy Springs. But, it is missing the potential.”

Maxwell Properties also is the planned developer for another major piece of Sandy Springs real estate adjacent to CityWalk at the corner of Roswell Road and Hammond Drive.

Pennington, along with a number of merchants interviewed by the Sandy Springs Reporter all talk about the poor design of the center, inadequate and bad signage, construction problems, even the addresses assigned to their stores. But mainly, they blame Sandy Springs-based Maxwell Properties, which built the center, and has since sold it, but still manages it.

“I think because they were looking to sell they didn’t do a lot of advertising and promotion,” said Grace Choung, owner of Kai The Medical Spa. “There hasn’t been enough publicity.”

The merchants along the southern strip of shops on the upper level—where Kai spa is located—came up with the concept to promote themselves as “Boutique Row”. Melissa Murdock, the owner of Sandpiper, had Boutique Row painted on the sidewalk . Steven Maxwell, CEO of Maxwell Properties, approved the Boutique Row concept, Choung said, “but then there was no signage. We were advertising Boutique Row at CityWalk, but there was nothing for people to even know where Boutique Row was. That is why she did that on the sidewalk.” She said the sidewalk painting has been there for at least a year. The sign on the building went up much later.

Choung said the pricing is fair, but all five retailers on Boutique Row came in at the same time and did a joint negotiation. She said everybody knew each other before leasing their stores at CityWalk. They do a lot of marketing together.

“The center is a very poor design,” said Pennington, who has had a store on Huff Road in Atlanta and another in Vinings for years.

“The landlord chose to black-out all of our windows so you can’t do any window shopping,” Pennington explained. “Sandy Springs will not allow us to put up the signage we need. Maxwell said they would not allow store names on the main entrance signs to the shopping center. I can’t believe anyone would want to prevent shopping centers from having the names of their stores displayed on their signs. We don’t know if Sandy Springs didn’t want it or whether Maxwell didn’t want to do it.”

Pennington said the merchants “have asked for directional signs in the shopping center, we have asked for speed breaks in the shopping center, all of which Maxwell has denied.

“This center is not walkable,” she added. “If you walk from here to that building over there, you are putting you life at risk.”

Pennington said they were required to put up “very expensive, very difficult to read signage. If you stand across the shopping center, you can’t see what some of the signage says.”

Signage is just one of the issues Baskins Robbins store owner Shaheen Haque has with the CityWalk management. She was told there would be a traffic light in front of her store. There is none. “People turn right into the shopping center, but can’t turn right to my store,” which is on the lower level along Hammond Drive.

She said she is sick that she moved from Roswell Road to the new store with a 10-year lease. She cites as major problems the black windows, which don’t let people see inside, and she is not allowed to have a lighted sign in the window. She doesn’t understand how Maxwell could design retail space where merchants can’t market their products. She summed up her feelings stating, “CityWalk sucks.”

The Sandy Springs Reporter was unsuccessful in its attempts to reach the new owners of CityWalk, Maxwell Properties and some city officials for their comments. City Director of Community Development Nancy Leathers, said, “None of the tenants have talked to me. We settled all of our issues with the previous owner and I have not spoken to the new owner.”

Choung thinks the mix of tenants and the location are good. What bothers her most is the lack of signage. She said there are two entrances each off of Sandy Springs Circle and Hammond Drive and one off of Sandy Springs Place. “The worst part is that our address is Sandy Springs Place,” she said. “When people want to find us it is a nightmare. We were not on MapQuest or anything.”

Choung explained that there are signage pylons at every entrance “and they still don’t have any stores on them.” She said Maxwell told them there are not enough spots for every store. “The way I look at it, they haven’t even leased all the spots. It could be first come first served. Or it could be done by the square footage. But when you leave a spot empty, people think we are not open. We had been here for over six months and people still didn’t know we were here,” she added.

Choung also referred to some critical construction problems at her spa—thin walls that allow the sound from one room to permeate into other rooms and heating and cooling problems from the front of the store to the back.

Lisa Burns at Fab’rik on Boutique Row, said, “Like with any new shopping center, you have to give it a couple of years before people know you are here. I think we maybe do better than the other people on the strip. But, we advertise. We are happy with our sales over the past year.

But Elizabeth Nicholson, manager at Ten Thousand Villages in the same strip of stores as Belles Choses, said, “Support from the management has been an issue.” She said the store is doing “sort of an informal survey now to find out how people find out about us. A lot of it is word of mouth. A good number of them are regular customers. Some responses are that they were walking by.

“The traffic that Kroger has is phenomenal,” Nicholson added. “If we could just get some of those people to try us out, but that doesn’t seem to be.”

Right next door is Alex’s Jewelers. Owner Alex Mamedov moved to CityWalk from another nearby plaza, hoping business would be better. “But no,” he said.

He spent $70,000 on interior furnishings for the store and said the only foot traffic in the store is to get batteries for watches. He does all his business on the Internet and “I could do that from home.”

His daughter, Tamilla Mamedov, said, “Management is really bad here. They just seem to ignore the merchants and what they feel are their needs. I personally feel there was misrepresentation because when we were signing off on the lease they showed us a lot of pictures of people walking and where you enter the center it had beautiful letters saying CityWalk. That signage still doesn’t exist. And, there are no people walking.”

She said management doesn’t do anything to promote the shopping center and there is not even a web site for the shopping center.

Another door down the strip of stores, David Bellevue, owner of Southern Embroidery Works, echoed the sentiments of no foot traffic and virtually no promotion “except what we do for ourselves. I am willing to take responsibility for my own business. I am not relying entirely on the shopping center.”

Bellevue said, “It was sold to us that there was going to be lots of foot traffic. People don’t come here and walk around. And, they have not promoted it as a place where people can come and walk around. If it wasn’t for our wholesale business, we wouldn’t be here at all,” he added.

“Most people in the center are struggling,” Bellevue explained. “It is not in our best interest for the shopping center to be empty and it is not in their best interest for it to be empty.”

“People are leaving, not because they want to, I think,” said Pennington. “We had a record December here. But she said several people are talking about low sales. A couple of people are telling me they are not making their rent.”

She claims the merchants did not get the expected support from the previous owner, Maxwell Properties, which is still managing the property for CK City Walk Owner, LLC of Tucker, which bought the center for $47.8 million, or $280 per square foot, in February. The CEO of the new owner is Ming Chu.

Sandy Springs Business Association Executive Director Donna Gathers said no one knows the new owner. He is not active in the community and doesn’t even live here. None of the merchants said they had met the new owner.

Pennington says she and others feel there was some misuse of the CAM (common area maintenance) funds for the center by the previous owner. She is having her accountants do an audit of the way the CAM money is being spent. “Capital improvements are not supposed to be paid out of CAM money,” she said. “That is what I am suspicious of.”

She also cited two instances where she believes the money was misused. One involved $10,000 given to the Sandy Springs Festival in the name of CityWalk and the second involved $3,000 given to Holy Innocence Fun Run. She said Maxwell’s child goes to Holy Innocence.

She said the only real promotion since the shopping center opening in 2005 “was a promotion for Halloween, to which he invited about 500 people, all real estate agents from all over metro Atlanta—not within the 4-5 mile radius we are all looking for. He paid $20,000 for a publicist to handle that event for him.”

“We were told we needed to stay open to 9 p.m., to buy decorations, to buy candy, to buy goody bags to give out to all these people,” she explained. “In the beginning we were all excited thinking we were going to have all these people in our stores. I spent $1,000 on decorations and candy and got not one single customer,” she added. “What he was promoting, basically, was himself, not the shops.”

Pennington said merchants “got very disillusioned after we saw that Maxwell was not going to put any money into CAM. We had to beg him to put up $5,000 for a flyer that went out.”

Pennington summed it up saying, “What we are looking for is fairness, honesty, some honest energy put into the promotion of this center, not somebody who wants to throw it up and sell it and then leave.”