By John Schaffner

The merchants at Sandy Springs’ CityWalk, faced with many vacant shops in a tough economic climate, are again appealing to the center’s owner/management company, as well as the mayor, for help in improving conditions.

A letter sent two weeks ago to the manager of CityWalk and Sandy Springs Mayor Eva Galambos carries the signatures of 13 shop owners, outlines issues they want addressed and asks for a meeting to work on long-term solutions at the shopping center.

To date, they have received no response from the manager of the center, Dan Koh of Tucker. The Sandy Springs Reporter also received no response to an e-mail sent to Koh. E-mail is the primary way merchants communicate with the center manager.

Most of the concerns in the letter dated Oct. 13 are similar to those voiced by some of the same merchants in an article titled “CityWalk: Missing Potential?” in the April 6-19, 2007, edition of the Reporter.

At that time, the merchants mentioned what they considered to be the poor design of the center, inadequate signage, construction problems and even the addresses assigned to their stores. Belles Choses owner Patricia Pennington, who formed a merchants association, said the shops did not get the expected support from the owners, including marketing and promotions. She recently said all but three or four tenants in her building have either moved out or will be soon.

The problems have been exacerbated, the merchants say, by the general state of the economy, additional problems at the center and increasing store vacancies.

“The tenants of CityWalk agree that the following issues need to be addressed by the landlord, property owners and property management of CityWalk,” the Oct. 13 letter states. “The issues are serious as they are interfering in the normal operation of the businesses in the shopping center.”

The letter goes on to say: “CityWalk is already full of vacant shops and some tenants are in the process of leaving. The ones who are left behind cannot be the victims of the declining revenue of CityWalk and cost-cutting measures adopted by the management.”

The tenants say they “would like to collectively work with the property owners and management to proactively and strategically define long-term solutions to the ongoing situation we are facing.”

The letter cites the following problems:

• CAM (common area maintenance) charges are out of control. Occupancy is at 50 percent, forcing the remaining tenants to bear a larger share of maintenance expenses.

• Rent per square foot is high, and the lack of interest by the landlord to negotiate tenants’ renewal contracts is forcing businesses to move or shut down.

• Outside maintenance is an issue. Large cockroaches are common outside stores, and gnats and rodents are infesting areas.

• At night, the outside lights are turned off to save money. As a result, employees have had their vehicles vandalized, and shoppers are avoiding the area.

• There is a sewer backup, and repugnant sewage smells are turning away customers

• Parking has produced several issues. The shopkeepers want designated employee parking so that customers have plenty of spaces close to stores, and they seek better control of parking during events at Heritage Green.

• The pylon signs at the entrances, which say Kroger on the top, should list the other stores as well.

• The center is not visible from Roswell Road. The merchants want a billboard at the intersection of Hammond Drive and Roswell Road to list all the shops in CityWalk and feature a bold directional arrow.

Carla Civita, who owns Imagym Play and Fitness Club, worked with fellow tenants to draft the letter and get merchants to sign it.

Along with Civita and Pennington, the letter was signed by James Roberts of the UPS Store, Kaitlin Bevis of Naked Clay Studio, Julie Routenberg of Potpourri, Grace Choung of Kai Spa, Angelo Laios of Mambo Italiano restaurant, Shaheen Haque of Baskin-Robbins, Gary Gay of Decorations, Jennifer Fox of Young Chefs Academy, J.K. Klein of Jody’s 5th Avenue, Chris Segal of Mehan’s pub and Neila of Hair Artists.

Civita said she is one of the few merchants in the center who was able to sign just a three-year lease, which is up for renewal in mid-March. She has 4,000 square feet and is paying an annual rate of $27.50 per square foot plus CAM fees and taxes.

She said she is struggling to keep her business going in this economy. “I am trying to negotiate a price reduction on the space,” she said, after finding other spaces available in Sandy Springs are cheaper.

“I was told the renewal rate would be whatever was in the original lease,” she said. “I cannot survive if the rent is the same or higher.”

But she also said she cannot move to a new space and spend $60,000 to build it out the way she needs it. “What if I have to go out of business because I cannot afford to move and open in another space somewhere else?”

The Oct. 13 letter urges management to be sensitive to the business climate and difficulties tenants are facing. “When leases are up for negotiation, management should try to be sensitive to the economic issues we are all facing.”

Civita suggested Nov. 1, 5 and 8 as possible meeting dates “to initiate an open line of communication.” On Oct. 27 she said, “There has been no response to the letter.”