Underground Atlanta under contract with new owner

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

Staff writer J. Scott Trubey contributed to this report.

Underground Atlanta, the at-times revered and reviled shopping mall in the heart of downtown, has a new owner, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed is expected to announce Wednesday that a developer from South Carolina is under contract to purchase the nearly 12-acre property for $25.75 million, and plans to convert the multi-tiered subterranean shopping complex into mixed-use development with a grocery store and above-ground apartments.

T. Scott Smith, President and CEO of Mount Pleasant-based WRS Inc., has confirmed to The AJC that he expects to close on the deal in mid-2015 with hopes to begin construction by 2016 at the latest.

Reed’s office also confirmed that the mayor will speak about the deal on Wednesday.

Smith, whose work in the Southeast has largely consisted of suburban commercial development, said he was attracted to Underground because of its proximity to MARTA, Georgia State University, new development and government offices filled with potential tenants.

“We’re right at ground zero of Atlanta,” he said, rattling off the following figures: “We’re at a MARTA station which brings 70,000 people a day. Next to a university that has 32,000 students. You have 110,000 people who work downtown everyday.”

And that, he hopes, will give new retailers and residents reason to give Atlanta’s urban core a second look. “I just don’t think there’s a better location in Atlanta right now (for people) to get where they want to go.”

Smith said he’s still in talks with a residential development partner, and estimates a total investment of $150 million to $200 million in the revamped property.

The news comes after months of speculation of what would become of Underground after Reed announced in March plans to sell Atlanta’s most notorious shopping mall.

Selling the land is key to Reed’s plans to ask voters to approve an infrastructure bond worth up to $250 million in March. The mayor plans to apply the savings from the sale towards paying the debt on the bonds, pending voter approval.

Underground has gone through multiple reincarnations, but at its heyday, was best known as a hub for Atlanta nightlife in the late 1960s. But it’s also earned a reputation for petty crime and panhandling.

Smith said he’s well aware of the stigma. Still, he believes that overhauling Underground with a facelift, new apartments and fresh retailers will attract people eager seeking an urban environment.

“We think that we can change a part of downtown Atlanta that badly needs to be changed, and we’re putting a lot of pressure on ourselves to be successful,” he said. “We think it’s a win-win-win absolutely for everybody after we get this done.”

Bids on the embattled property were due mid-July, just months after the Atlanta City Council approved legislation in March to buy out the $8.8 million rights of CV Underground, the real estate company that manages the site.

This is a developing story. For updates, return to AJC.com.