With a deal to sell Underground Atlanta hanging in the balance, Mayor Kasim Reed on Tuesday tried to press the urgency of an agreement to a neighborhood group that could scuttle it.
“I think the markets are getting ready to cool around major developments of this kind,” Reed told members of the Atlanta Downtown Neighborhood Association. “I think if we push this off … we could have an Underground that is hemorrhaging cash and that is bad for the city.”
But several of the group’s members seemed skeptical. They said the city had not adequately explained why aspects of the project — such as plans to add 2,000 parking spaces and the need for tax allocation district funding — were necessary. They also complained that information about the project has been hard to come by since Reed announced plans to sell the property in late 2014.
“Now two years later, I think we are still lacking transparency,” said downtown resident Kyle Kessler.
Reed is hoping to sell Underground to WRS Real Estate Investments of Mount Pleasant, S.C., for $34.6 million. The proposal will go before Invest Atlanta, which will convey the property as the city’s economic development arm, as early as Thursday.
But a demand letter the ADNA sent the city in January questioning the legality of the deal — a prelude to possible legal action — has put the brakes on an agreement. Reed has been in negotiations with the group since then to settle its concerns and has said that the city’s ability to get critical title insurance for a deal has been hampered by concerns over a potential lawsuit.
The sale of the 12-acre site has been delayed several times and even Reed backed off an ultimatum he made in January for WRS to agree to a deal or end the talks.
Once one of Atlanta’s most visited attractions, Underground has fallen on hard times over the last decade as it struggled with its retail mix and a perception that it is crime ridden. In the last few years, its tenant base has dropped as businesses — including Waffle House — have closed because of its uncertain future.
Association members said Tuesday they are concerned that WRS, which historically has developed suburban shopping centers, does not have the experience to handle an urban redevelopment such as Underground.
They also worried about the size of a proposed grocery store in the proposal and the impact adding 2,000 parking place close to MARTA’s downtown hub will have on encouraging Atlanta to become more pedestrian friendly.
Reed shot back that his rollout of a citywide bike sharing program and his backing of last November’s referendum to raise billions for expansion of MARTA demonstrate his support of mass transit and pedestrian urban design. But to lure a grocer to downtown meant including parking, he said.
“When you try to recruit somebody, they make demands too,” he said.