When Scott Ruzycki, the area manager of the LA Fitness at Town Brookhaven looks around at the neighborhood, he likes what he sees: hundreds of potential customers living right next door.

“I think this is one of the smartest developments that LA Fitness has located in,” said Ruzycki. “We pull about a thousand more people than a regular LA Fitness.”

Locally, Town Brookhaven was one of the first smaller-scale versions of mixed-use mega-projects. (Photo John Ruch)

Many don’t have far to go. The gym Ruzycki manages sits in the middle of a massive “mixed-use” development on Peachtree Road in Brookhaven.

When it comes to new development, “mixed use” has become master of the moment. From The Shops Buckhead Atlanta to Sandy Springs’ City Springs project, mixed-use redevelopments are supposedly blending shops, homes and offices to create downtown-style centers from Perimeter suburbs.

The mix of retail and housing in “live-work-play” developments has been popularized by such high-profile projects as Atlantic Station and Alpharetta’s Avalon.

Town Brookhaven was among the first smaller-scale versions of those mixed-use, mega-projects to launch in the Perimeter area. It opened for business five years ago. That makes it a project that commercial developers keep in mind when they think about the mixed-use developments rising around the area.

“I love mixed-used developments,” said Steve Tart, who sits on the Sandy Springs Planning Commission and is a managing director at Genesis Real Estate Advisers, a commercial property firm.

But in Sandy Springs, which has made mixed-use redevelopment of its Roswell Road “downtown” a priority, notes of caution already are sounding about mixed-use zoning.

Sandy Springs City Council recently passed new guidelines out of concern that large apartment projects were being approved under the trendy mixed-use label and not providing enough of the walkable, street-front-retail environment the city wants. And some Sandy Springs Planning Commission members are wary of over-promoting mixed-use development in places it might not work.

“Not every place is made to be retail … you just can’t have it everywhere,” Tart said. “Not every community can have that live-work-play environment. It’s just not feasible unless government underwrites part of it.” He’s a supporter of City Springs, the public-private, $220 million mixed-use redevelopment underway in Sandy Springs that will include a new City Hall. City Springs has already helped inspired two other mixed-use redevelopment plans for a nearby shopping center and office complex.

Town Brookhaven is just the sort of location that raises concerns, Tart said. “I hear from [Town Brookhaven] retailers that they hadn’t performed as well as they anticipated,” he said. “It’s a little bit between everything. It’s not connected to anything…It sits so far off the road.”

The Sembler Company, which developed Town Brookhaven and leases its commercial property, did not respond to questions.

Tart said that connecting mixed-use developments to surrounding neighborhoods is key. “I think [Town Brookhaven] will be ultimately, long-term, very successful because the Buckhead community will grow to it [and] the Brookhaven community will grow around it,”
he said.

Richard Munger, vice president of development at North American Properties, which created Avalon in Alpharetta, said the retail part of a mixed-use complex cannot be sustained by the complex’s residents alone. The big concern for a developer, Munger said, is “making sure the location has strong surrounding fundamentals to support the commercial uses, which include visibility, employment base, neighborhood demographics, access and demand.”

That calculation can be seen at Town Brookhaven, which combines 950 apartments, office space and 460,000 square feet of retail on a 48-acre site. It includes street-front retail beneath apartments, like many mixed-use projects, but also has some car-oriented big-box anchors, such as Costco.

Ruzycki at the LA Fitness looks both inside and outside the complex for customers. He said the club has about 7,500 members, of whom about 2,300 to 2,400 come in on the busiest days. “Many do walk here,” presumably from the nearby apartments, he said, but the company doesn’t keep track of where they are coming from. Meanwhile, he’s looking forward to having more customers from an apartment complex being built outside Town Brookhaven, but just across the street.

Munger and Tart said that mixed-use developers have higher planning and construction costs because of the complexities of blending residential and commercial uses. That’s another reason mixed-use could prove infeasible or unsuccessful on particular sites.

But some of the underlying goals of mixed-use developments—walkability, street-front retail, interconnected retail and residential areas—can be met in better-designed single-use complexes as well, Tart said.

One trend is reconfiguring old strip-mall style shopping centers into street-facing, pedestrian-friendly centers. Tart said his company is working on such a project in Florida now.

“We don’t need a lot of new shopping centers,” Tart said. “What we need to do is take the old ones and fix them.”

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.