Atlanta’s aging assets: Underground, Civic Center, Cyclorama

Inside a darkened amphitheater in Grant Park, the 127-year-old Atlanta Cyclorama — a panoramic painting weighing nine tons and stretching nearly 360 feet around — is starting to wrinkle. The    painting of the 1864 Battle of Atlanta needs more than $8 million in restoration, according to one estimate.

Across Atlanta, a number of city-owned assets have been battered by economic troubles and must soon grapple with years of deferred maintenance and needed improvements potentially totalling millions of dollars. The main threat is that the costs could outweigh the benefits Atlanta receives from the properties.

Three miles north of the Cyclorama, the Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center needs paint, updated bathrooms and handicapped-accessible railings. It will lose $400,000 annually over the next five years, according to one estimate.

Between those two sites, Underground Atlanta hasn’t come close to recapturing the groovy vibe of the 1970s, which raised hopes that it could help make Atlanta a 24-hour city. The city now subsidizes the three-level shopping and dining complex to the tune of $8 million a year.

With the budget under pressure from falling property tax collections, Atlanta leaders have commissioned task forces, paid tens of thousands of dollars for consultants’ studies and sounded out deep-pocketed private groups. Some question is whether the city is moving aggressively enough.

“I would like to see more urgency,” said Catherine Ross, who studies urban planning at Georgia Tech’s National Center for Transportation Productivity and Management. “I would like to see (the city) running as fast as we can.”

Atlanta has other pressing concerns, including an infrastructure backlog estimated at more than $920 million for streets, signs, bridges, city-owned vehicles and sidewalks.

City officials say they are taking a thoughtful, methodical approach and mulling a variety of options. The goal is to turn the properties into catalysts for economic development while minimizing the cost to taxpayers, said Duriya Farooqui, the city’s chief operating officer.

“We don’t believe that just making do is the right answer,” Farooqui said in an interview. “We are doing our due diligence on each of these assets, seeing what value they could potentially hold.”

Atlanta can boast some successes. In 2010, it struck a deal to sell the massive City Hall East complex on Ponce de Leon Avenue to developers including Jamestown Properties for $13.5 million upfront. That deal could net the city double that amount, depending on the success of the redevelopment.

The next year, the city sold 11 acres in Midtown to apartment company Post Properties for $6.7 million. It also saved about $2 million per year in rent and other costs when it consolidated most of its Department of Watershed in one downtown building.

Some ideas for dealing with the remaining assets are getting less attention than others. Although Mayor Kasim Reed’s staff says the city is exploring “all options” for the Civic Center this year, lackluster property values in a down economy could argue against selling the 18-acre site. And city leaders do not seem interested in selling the Cyclorama, an artwork Atlanta has owned since 1898.

The hope is that creative arrangements, such as teaming up with deep-pocketed private entities, could give key facilities the financial support they need while taking taxpayers off the hook for expensive upgrades and maintenance.

The Civic Center, for example, is seeking a new lease on life as a production and filming area for movies and television.

City-owned properties tend to become drained of resources over time, in Atlanta and elsewhere, said Harvey Newman, a Georgia State University professor of public management and policy. “With most infrastructure, it’s much easier to build than to maintain,” he said.

The downtown civic group Central Atlanta Progress and the Buckhead-based Atlanta History Center are eyeing the Cyclorama, which could eventually be moved. Relocating the painting and exhibit would probably cost more than $29 million, according to an advisory group’s report. A decision on what to do with the Cyclorama is not likely before late this year. A relocation would probably happen sometime after 2014, if it happens at all.

Given “how sad a state the painting and the building are in … time is not on the Cyclorama’s side,” one resident wrote on an online bulletin board for the Ormewood Park neighborhood. “It needs help, now.”

Meanwhile, city leaders are looking for retailers who could give a fresher look and vitality to Underground Atlanta. The property is operated by an outside company under a lease that expires in 2086. Reed, who told the newspaper early last year that he was in talks with two retailers that could serve as anchor tenants, has not announced a success on that front.

Underground’s operators say talks last year with an operator of nightlife businesses did not pan out.

Reed’s 10-year vision is for the area to be dominated by arts, culture and young people. The arrival of food trucks for Wednesday lunches brought some foot traffic. But it’s unclear if that energy will carry over into the rest of the week.

“I was down there on a weekday, and there just wasn’t much going on,” said Ruth Stanford, who teaches sculpture at Georgia State University and participated in Elevate/Art Above Underground, a public art exhibit on the site.

“There were lots of empty storefronts,” Stanford said. “It was a space designed for people to hang out in. Why is that all gone?”

Not all of Atlanta’s civic assets are troubled. A public-private partnership between Atlanta and American Golf Corp. of Santa Monica, Calif., yields about $450,000 a year for the city. The company runs five of the city’s golf courses. As of last summer, the company had spent more than $660,000 on capital improvements.

Similarly, a joint venture between the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Live Nation operates the Chastain Park Amphitheater.

But even the golf courses could use more attention. A city-commissioned study last year by Colorado-based consulting firm Golf Convergence Inc. documented potential improvements totaling more than $3.8 million over the next three years, including course renovations, clubhouse upgrades and flood protection. The city focused instead on cheaper upgrades such as new signs, mowers and wells for irrigation.

Meanwhile at the Civic Center, the needs seem more urgent. Although the impact of the economic downturn was cushioned somewhat by a surge in demand for television filming locations, the civic center as a whole is on pace to lose about $400,000 annually over the next five years, according to a study by outside consultants.

Aging amenities at its theater and competition from the Fox Theatre and the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre have cut into the bottom line. Many shows have moved away from the Civic Center to fresher digs. In 2007, for example, the Atlanta Opera moved outside the city, setting up shop at Cobb Energy.

Immediate action should be taken to prevent the Civic Center from becoming a drag on the city’s finances, according to a report last year from experts hired by the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District. A second sound stage could capture more of Atlanta’s burgeoning film and television industry and help shore up the Civic Center’s finances. But it is unclear if the city can or will ante up the money for that.

“When you’re dealing with fiscal challenges and declining revenues, there is no magic answer,” Farooqui said of Atlanta’s portfolio of properties. “It takes financial discipline, and it takes hard work, and it takes creativity.”

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