Judge asked to close building near Piedmont Park amid sinkhole lawsuit

The building is home to Willy’s, Shake Shack and the planned box office for Music Midtown
These are three photos taken between July and September 2018 of a deep void that was found underneath the building at 1071 Piedmont Ave NE.

Credit: Be Our Guest Investments, LLC

Credit: Be Our Guest Investments, LLC

These are three photos taken between July and September 2018 of a deep void that was found underneath the building at 1071 Piedmont Ave NE.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with comment from the Piedmont Park Conservancy.

As tens of thousands prepare to flock to Piedmont Park for Music Midtown this weekend, a local restaurant group alleges a sinkhole that formed under a park building five years ago was never properly fixed, putting festival-goers and diners in potential danger.

The owners of The Nook on Piedmont Park planned to open two new restaurants at 1071 Piedmont Ave. NE before a large void emerged below the building in 2018. The sinkhole derailed their plans and sparked a lengthy legal battle with the building’s owner, the powerful Piedmont Park Conservancy, which said in a statement concerns about the building “are simply unfounded and untrue.”

The structure currently houses popular fast casual chains and the Piedmont Park Community Center, which will act as Music Midtown’s box office.

On Tuesday, the Nook owners filed an emergency petition asking a judge to shutter the building until the conservancy hires an expert to inspect the structure and deem it safe.

Simon Bloom, an attorney representing the Nook’s owner, Be Our Guest Investments, said the conservancy ignored proper remediation efforts to resolve the 10-foot by six-foot hole, which was filled with grout by the city before its cause was determined. He said emergency measures must be taken by the court to force the conservancy to ensure the building is structurally sound.

“The public has no way of knowing with any level of certainty that that building is safe,” Bloom said. He added that a crack was spotted in the floor of one of the building’s current tenants Monday — feet away from where the sinkhole emerged.

This photo from Sept. 11, 2023, shows a crack in the floor of the Willy's Mexicana Grill & Howlin' Willy's at 1071 Piedmont Ave NE.

Credit: Be Our Guest Investments, LLC

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Credit: Be Our Guest Investments, LLC

Mark Banta, the conservancy’s CEO, did not respond to requests for comment. The building’s tenants, Shake Shack and Willy’s Mexicana Grill & Howlin’ Willy’s, did not respond immediately to requests for comment.

After publication of this story, the conservancy provided a statement saying the emergency petition “is clearly opportunistic in its effect to resurface concerns around a routine repair that took place nearly five years ago.”

“Piedmont Park Conservancy would like to assure all Music Midtown attendees that these claims and concerns are inaccurate,” the statement continued.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee will get to decide whether the building and its restaurants should be closed pending the review of a geotechnical engineer. If granted, it’s unclear if the injunction would affect operations of Music Midtown, which typically attracts about 50,000 attendees, or its box office.

The sinkhole emerged beneath the building in July 2018 as Nook co-owners Katherine Drolett and David Duley were making preparations for a planned sandwich and salad shop called Soulshine. The void halted work on that eatery alongside a sit-down restaurant and bar called Walker’s 1834, which was poised to open within the same building.

Bloom said the void opened beneath a double-slabbed floor, which is an uncommonly thick amount of concrete for a building of this type.

“One might easily conclude that it was a double slab because somebody knew when they were putting that slab in that there (were) problems underneath. It’s not standard,” he said, adding that double slabs are more expensive.

The restaurateurs accused the conservancy of mismanaging the incident and refusing to hire the proper inspectors to determine the cause of the sinkhole to insure a permanent fix. The conservancy hired a structural engineer to deem the building was safe above ground. But Drolett and Duley argue a geotechnical engineer, who specializes in soil, rock and underground structures, is needed to evaluate underground foundations and stability.

Exterior of Shake Shack Piedmont Park, Wednesday, July 12, 2023, in Atlanta. The story is about a lawsuit involving The Nook on Piedmont Park’s co-owner Katherine Drolett over 1071 Piedmont Ave NE, Atlanta, GA 30309, which she was leasing in 2018 to open a pair of restaurants. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)


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Two months after the sinkhole was discovered, Be Our Guest received a letter from its bank stating it would not provide additional funds for construction until a detailed soil analysis was completed and the void’s cause was found and corrected.

Atlanta Watershed employees determined the city’s sewers did not cause the sinkhole and filled the hole with grout in October 2018. The conservancy declined to greenlight further inspection of the property, ultimately terminating Be Our Guest’s lease.

“Our worst fears were that this is truly a cover up,” Druly said. “It was covered up without being diagnosed.”

Banta told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2019 that the conservancy was “extraordinarily patient” throughout the situation, saying this amounts to a tenant dispute. The conservancy’s statement on Tuesday added that the repair “was successfully completed.”

“Two national restaurant brands with full knowledge of the situation have successfully and safely operated within the building,” the conservancy said.

In March 2020, Be Our Guest filed a lawsuit against the conservancy, arguing that its lease was improperly terminated. Trial is currently scheduled for Oct. 2. The conservancy said it’s confident it “will prevail in this landlord-tenant dispute.”

The emergency petition is a separate matter, Bloom said, aiming to ensure that the property is safe enough to house concert-goers and park enjoyers grabbing a quick bite to eat.

“If they go out there and get an objective geotechnical engineer with a reputable crew (to perform) this testing, and they come back and say to the court, ‘Judge, everything’s fine,’ we’ll all breathe a sigh of relief,” Bloom said. “But until that happens, it’s in my opinion, irresponsible to allow it to continue.”