Iconic Asian Square restaurants losing money due to ongoing parking lot construction

The parking lot at Asian Square in Doraville has been under construction for years. (Photo by Logan Ritchie) Credit: Logan C. Ritchie

Owners of shops and restaurants at the iconic Asian Square plaza on Buford Highway estimate they’ve lost thousands of dollars caused by years of ongoing parking lot construction.

In 2021, the ownership group behind Asian Square set out to repair and upgrade the stormwater system, meet ADA standards, resurface and re-stripe the parking lot, and add planter islands and vegetation.

Constructed in 1992, the retail complex is suffering from eroding pipes. Before upgrades and repairs to the parking lot began, two lawsuits filed against Asian Square in 2019 and 2020 also claimed the complex violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. The plaintiff settled the 2019 lawsuit six months after filing. The plaintiff in the 2020 lawsuit withdrew their complaint.

Asian Square property manager Tim Lam spoke to Doraville City Council about the repairs and necessary upgrades on Sept. 21, 2021. He said they “had to get this parking lot compliant by Jan. 1 [2022]” due to a suit over the lack of ADA compliance.

It’s unclear if the agreed-upon terms of settling and dismissing the above lawsuits included bringing the parking lot into compliance.

Asian Square’s parking lot is in disarray. (Photo by Logan Ritchie) Credit: Logan C. Ritchie

Ongoing parking lot woes

The parking lot at Asian Square is in disarray. The asphalt is torn up for re-grading and Georgia red clay is held back by flimsy construction fencing. Trash, wood, metal pipes, and orange construction barrels are strewn about the property. Stacks of hay have gone to seed, sprouting grass and weeds in the islands, which are also under construction.

Ming’s BBQ, Sweet Hut Bakery, Kamayan ATL, La Mei Zi, and Quoc Huong Bánh Mi are just a few of the restaurants at Asian Square. Sapphire Karaoke and Restaurant will open soon in the middle corner of the complex. There’s a market, gifts and jewelry shops, a salon, medical offices, and other specialty businesses.

While noise and dust often disrupt businesses like BBQ Corner 2 on the Buford Highway side of Asian Square, businesses toward the back of the retail center are dealing with a much bigger problem. Customers can’t easily access the restaurants and shops close to the Shallowford Road side because of construction near that entrance and within the complex itself.  

Mia Orino, owner of Filipino restaurant Kamayan ATL, said construction on her side of the complex is finally complete. But people visiting Kamayan ATL often tell her they believed La Mei Zi Taiwanese restaurant near the Shallowford entrance had closed.

La Mei Zi, open daily since 2015, is an anchor restaurant at Asian Square.

“There’s parking on the Shallowford side that you can’t see from Buford Highway. A lot of people give up,” said Orino. “They don’t know how to get there. We want people to know [businesses are] still open, even during construction. We hate to see them suffer.”

Cars must enter from Shallowford to access La Mei Zi. Known for its three-cup chicken and pre-pandemic Saturday lunch buffet, one employee estimates the popular Taiwanese restaurant is losing $1,000 every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday because people don’t know it’s open. Construction debris, torn up asphalt, and gravel block or cover parking spaces in front of the restaurant.

La Mei Zi’s dining room is open, but takeout has recently become the most popular option with customers. Employees advise customers to pull over on Shallowford and stay in their cars to avoid getting a parking ticket. They then walk food out to people’s vehicles.

Parking is inaccessible to customers outside of La Mei Zi and nearby businesses. (Photo by Logan Ritchie)

A La Mei Zi employee told Rough Draft the Shallowford entrance and parking lot have been under construction for at least three months. Construction, in one form or another, has been underway on this portion of the parking lot at Asian Square since late last year.

The lack of access to the restaurants and shops near the Shallowford side of the complex is frustrating for customers, especially those with mobility issues. The La Mei Zi employee told one customer, “Next time you come, I hope it’s finished.”

The employee said they’ve approached the property owners about the continuing construction at Asian Square hindering business at the complex. “It looks like we are closed because of construction,” she said, asking to keep her name private because she didn’t want to upset the landlord. 

Google reviews and longtime customers are keeping La Mei Zi in business, the employee said. A Marietta couple was the only table eating lunch at the restaurant on a Tuesday afternoon in April. Former Brookhaven residents, the couple said the drive to Doraville is worth it.

A few doors down, an employee at  Phúc Lộc Thọ gift shop verified that the construction was supposed to address poor drainage. During heavy rain, the shop puts up a homemade contraption to stop water from entering the windows and doors. The employee estimates Phúc Lộc Thọ has lost 70% of its business since construction began.

(Photo by Logan Ritchie)

Entering one of two driveways from Buford Highway, it’s difficult to see a black-and-white sign that reads “Open During Construction.” At the Shallowford Road entrance to the shopping center, there’s no street signage indicating businesses are open in that part of the complex.

“On the other side, they’re really suffering,” said Orino.

Doraville makes concessions

Doraville Mayor Joseph Geierman confirmed that the city has been working with Asian Square on the parking lot renovation.

“I am not involved in this process, but understand that it has been difficult at Asian Square for the different owners to come together with a plan to get this work done because of the condominiumization of ownership there,” said Geierman.

Asian Square Condominium Association comprises 30 individually owned units overseen by a board. That’s different from the traditional ownership makeup of a commercial shopping center operated by a development company or single-entity real estate investment firm. Asian Square’s association doesn’t invite owners of the shops and restaurants to attend its board meetings.

The city of Doraville confirmed that Asian Square received permits for construction in 2021, with the site regularly inspected.

“There have been weekly inspections for erosion control measures and other inspections have been conducted on an as-needed basis,” said Doraville Spokesperson Emily Heenan.

Stacks of hay in the parking lot have gone to seed. (Photo by Logan Ritchie)

Because Asian Square is renovating 29% of the site, the city required a Land Disturbance Permit which triggered a $31,950 contribution toward the tree bank fund. Derek Wu, a member of the Asian Square board, fought it, eventually running it up the chain to city council members.

At a December 2022 city council meeting, Wu said Asian Square had already upgraded the stormwater system and paid a $29,000 Land Disturbance fee. He said the anchor tenant, an Asian grocery store, has been vacant for several years and is behind on assessments.

“We haven’t collected any of the special assessments from that unit. It’s by far the largest unit in terms of square footage,” Wu told the council members. “We’re still frankly trying to collect from multiple owners and members of the HOA, so I’m here because the board members are scrambling.”

The discovery of eroded pipes only increased the cost of the project and the low contribution from business owners put financial strain on the Asian Square association.

“My biggest fear is we don’t make a payment on time and the contractor walks and just drops his tools. I hear all the arguments for promoting environmental issues and things like that, but I also don’t think the city wants a dead shopping center,” Wu told city council members.

Doraville City Council voted unanimously to excuse Asian Square from the tree bank payment. Councilmembers Andy Yeoman and Stephe Koontz said the tree ordinance felt punitive.

Prior to this decision, the city had agreed to reduce the size of parking spaces from 9×20 to 9×18 and reduce the number of loading spaces from four to one. In addition to these concessions, the city reduced the required bicycle spaces from 35 to 17 and extended the deadline for installing four electric vehicle chargers at Asian Square. 

According to a source with knowledge of Asian Square’s history, the parking lot project could wrap up as soon as eight weeks.

Wu did not return Rough Draft’s request for further comment on the construction at Asian Square and the completion timeline.

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