The BeltLine sign and the greens at Bobby Jones Golf Course sit side by side. Credit: Jill Vejnoska
Photo: HANDOUT/Jill Vejnoska
Photo: HANDOUT/Jill Vejnoska

Is Bobby Jones Golf Course key to Underground Atlanta sale?

A deal to sell Underground Atlanta to a developer has been held in limbo by a complicated land swap between the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia. And a group dedicated to preserving Bobby Jones Golf Course, miles away in Buckhead, is afraid the public course along Peachtree Battle Creek could be part of the high-stakes trade.

Residents and others around the golf course want to know whether the facility is involved in negotiations, but city and state officials aren’t talking.

Tony Smith, president of Friends of Bobby Jones Golf Course, said he pieced together details about the potential land swap in recent weeks, and said it appears to involve state-owned parking facilities near Underground Atlanta ultimately going to Underground’s developer in exchange for the city-owned golf course.

A parking deck and nearby lot are critical to the redevelopment of the troubled downtown multi-tiered mall, people familiar with the matter have previously told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The former World of Coca-Cola building downtown is also said to somehow be part of the talks.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and the city brokered a deal in late 2014 to sell the downtown mall to South Carolina developer WRS Inc., which plans to build a live-work-play community with apartments and a grocery store.

The move would take a money-losing property off the city’s books and free up some cash. The sale has not yet closed, however, because of a hang up over parking.

Last September, Reed acknowledged that parking was a hurdle in the deal, noting that the city had yet to reach a solution “for a parking lot that the state of Georgia owns that Underground needs.” He gave few additional details.

State officials, said to have been talking with city leaders for some time, declined comment this week. Attempts to reach representatives of WRS were not successful.

In a brief interview on Thursday, Reed said he couldn’t discuss specifics of the sale talks, but did say he expects a deal to be reached soon. He declined to confirm whether a land swap was at the center of the talks, or if the Bobby Jones course was involved.

“We are really getting the transaction cleaned up and we have some issues to address around parking [at Underground],” he said. “I think we’re close and my sense is we’ll be able to close the Underground transaction in the first quarter.”

Asked about residents being concerned about changes to the golf course, Reed again declined to discuss any potential aspects to a deal.

“But the only thing I would point to is that every time we’ve been involved in a transaction involving communities in Atlanta, the communities have embraced the project and it has turned out to be a win-win situation,” he said, citing a recent deal to move the Cyclorama to Atlanta History Center, which will preserve the painting and allow Zoo Atlanta to expand.

Smith isn’t so confident that Buckhead residents will welcome the news.

His group fears that should the Bobby Jones course come under state control, it could lead to substantial changes at the facility named for the famed golfer and founder of Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters golf tournament.

One version of a proposed master plan that has not been implemented at the Buckhead course previously called for the course to be reduced to nine holes from 18, with part of the historic course converted into parking and a driving range.

Smith said he also fears that under state control that master plan could become reality, and that the property could become part of a previously discussed state golf trail. But if the course is diminished to nine holes it would drastically alter the historic property and could sap its financial viability, he said.

“I think that is a revenue loser,” Smith said. “Nine holes has been proven by golf experts not to work.”

The property, though much of it is within a flood plain, could be valuable to developers for its location along the Atlanta Beltline in Buckhead.

Lake Brown, a resident of Ansley Park who once shot a hole-in-one at Bobby Jones, has also heard chatter that the golf course could be swapped.

“I think there are going to be folks that think this might be a good idea. There are going to be a lot of folks that will think this is a very bad idea,” he said. His take? “It’s a horrible idea.”

How the tree-lined golf course in south Buckhead got to be involved isn’t immediately clear.

“I’m concerned that Underground will fail again,” Smith said.

Atlanta City Councilwoman Yolanda Adrean, who represents the area, said little about the talks.

“There’s still ongoing conversation,” Adrean said.

When asked if there are any worries about the process she said she was aware of the concerns from residents about the course’s future.

Councilwoman Mary Norwood said she was not aware of talks involving the golf course in a property swap with the state.

She said she’s been contacted by both sides of the debate over the golf course – one that wants to keep the course at 18 holes and the other that wants to turn it into a 9-hole course. She said she hasn’t taken a stance, but wants to make sure the city drafts a plan for discharge and flooding.

“It’s imperative that whatever we do with the golf course we have a long-term plan,” she said.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.