By Jody Steinberg

The first formal “grand opening” celebration staged at the Town Brookhaven project was scheduled by an apartment complex.

Residents and guests of the Alexan apartments couldn’t plan to celebrate their opening by dining on fare from the restaurants and gourmet shops that are supposed to line the streets of their “live-work-play” community off Peachtree Road. Instead, they were to be treated to fare from restaurants located elsewhere.

But Alexan Community Manager Joanna Oswald says empty storefronts haven’t stopped tenants from moving to Town Brookhaven.

“It’s had a vague impact on our residents’ choice, but they are all aware that it’s in the future,” Oswald said. “They’re also getting great rates because of the construction, but the location in and of itself is a big appeal. We are so near Buckhead and Perimeter without being in the thick of it and without all the traffic.”

Still, Town Brookhaven was designed to draw residents and neighbors away from other shopping and entertainment centers and give them convenient choices for spending their dollars in DeKalb County. That was why the county easily approved the developer’s plans in 2007 and gave them a $20 million tax abatement in 2008.

So, what is the status of life beyond the apartments at Town Brookhaven? There is movement. Sembler has remained quiet since publicly announcing four anchors last fall. The company wouldn’t comment for this article, except to say that more new tenants will be announced soon.

But activity at Town Brookhaven hints at renewed progress. A Costco warehouse is under construction in the northwest quadrant, which, according to Roger Campbell, Costco senior vice president, is scheduled to open this fall. A retail space near the Alexan is being built out for a casual sports bar/sandwich shop. An architect’s rendering on the website, updated in April, indicates Publix, LA Fitness and Marshall’s.

And CinéBistro, an upscale movie and full-service dining concept, anticipates opening a seven-screen, 31,000 square-foot luxury theater-restaurant in 12 to 15 months.

For over a decade, The Sembler Co. has developed “mixed-use” communities across metro Atlanta that blend housing (rental and owner-occupied), office space, shopping, entertainment and greenspace into urban villages.

Sembler built more than a dozen such developments in Georgia, redeveloping aging centers like the Prado and Lindberg Plaza, and creating new centers such as Perimeter Place and the Edgewood Retail District.

When Sembler announced plans for Town Brookhaven in fall 2007, few saw that the real estate boom was about to become a bust. Although neighbors cautioned about the environmental impact of the massive project that consumed four parcels, including a sprawling apartment complex, acres of woods and a creek, county authorities and business leaders heralded the arrival of an urban village north of Buckhead.

But as the economy collapsed, Sembler shelved plans for newer, larger developments at Briarcliff and North Druid Hills Road and a bid for the General Motors plant in Doraville.

Instead of rushing towards the original spring 2009 opening, construction slowed to a crawl at Town Brookhaven last year, while Sembler sought additional tax abatements from DeKalb County to jump-start the development. When public outcry against the second round of controversial tax breaks stopped them, Sembler quietly retrenched. Cranes and construction crews disappeared and the promising mixed-use community wintered quietly as the GoodWynn and Alexan valiantly continued leasing, the lone occupants of two city blocks of vacant stores and offices.

The rows of vacant, street-level retail space didn’t faze Jason Brown, who said he was the second resident to move into The GoodWynn last summer, where he relished the privacy of the near-empty development.

A self-appointed ambassador, he is quick to give a tour of the complex, showing off the rooftop deck where he enjoys barbequing with friends and socializing with neighbors. What he likes about his home, he said, is the modern design, the sense of community and the location – the frequent traveler often takes the nearby MARTA train to the airport.

“It’ll be nice when the stores and restaurants are open,” says Brown. “But that’s not what I moved here for.”

While economic woes have slowed progress, Jeremy Welman of CinéBistro is upbeat about their decision to open their first location in Atlanta at Town Brookhaven.

“We’ve been in this deal for a long time – nothing is moving is quickly as anyone would like,” said Welman, COO of CinéBistro parent company Cobb Theatres. “You can’t fault Sembler, the economy took a nosedive just as this was about to get started.”

Welman says he recently saw an exciting lineup of future Town Brookhaven retail tenants and that the project will be worth the wait. He credits Sembler with sticking with a plan for a quality development.

“Sembler doesn’t just build concrete and steel,” says Welman. “They take pride in building green space, too. Not a lot of developers do that.”