A rendering of the planned redevelopment of Underground Atlanta. Source: WRS

Council votes to abandon streets to complete Underground Atlanta deal

The Atlanta City Council approved a plan that will essentially privatize parts of several downtown streets that Mayor Kasim Reed said were vital to keep alive a deal to sell Underground Atlanta to a private developer.

The measure by the city to “abandon” the streets is controversial, with downtown residents objecting to the city ceding control of public roads, including a two-block section of busy Pryor Street, to a company that would have the power to shut down the roads to vehicles and pedestrians.

Their fear: That giving control of the streets to a developer would leave the homeless vulnerable and allow the operator to force “undesirables” to leave what had been public space.

“We now have streets in downtown Atlanta that are privately owned,” said Atlanta resident Matt Garbett, who opposed the measure. “The right to assemble in public is a fundamental right and people just lost that for a chunk of downtown.”

But Reed earlier in the day said the move was needed to keep a deal with South Carolina developer WRS Real Estate Investments from falling through.

“[The City Council has] to make a decision of whether they want to move forward with a $350 million investment for Underground or leave it as it is,” Reed said in an interview before the vote, describing Underground as an asset “dying and decaying” and a burden on the city’s finances. “In order to move forward with a private deal to close on Underground at the end of the year. We need this road abandonment to attract the capital that is going to fund the project.”

The resolution came before Council during the body’s final regularly scheduled meeting of the year, and caught some downtown residents off-guard and they complained they weren’t given notice.

The vote was 10 to 4, with council members Alex Wan, Felicia Moore, Mary Norwood and Natalyn Archibong dissenting.

The deal to give up control of the streets would come at a high cost, residents in the community say. The resolution involves parts of Lower and Upper Alabama Street, Upper and Lower Pryor Street and Plaza Way.

After a sale of Underground is finished, WRS would have the power to shut off vehicular traffic, or potentially to keep pedestrians or bicyclists from using the roads. Some residents singled out the potential problems of giving away a two-block segment of Pryor Street from Wall Street to Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, a busy thoroughfare connecting Georgia State University to the State Capitol downtown.

A message left for a WRS executive was not immediately returned.

Downtown resident Kyle Kessler said he was bothered by how the move was being rushed through the council with no outreach to the community.

Kessler said there has been no public hearing about the abandonment and he said he doesn’t understand the rush as the city has delayed finalizing the Underground deal several times.

“It’s been pushed and pushed and pushed. There’s no crisis. Let’s take our time to get it done,” Kessler told the City Council during public remarks.

Reed defended the need for WRS to control access.

“If you were investing $350 million, I think most folks at home would want to control who has the right of entry to their campus,” he said.

The deal to sell Underground has simmered since late 2014, and it isn’t the first time aspects of the deal have spawned controversy. Earlier this year, many Buckhead residents fumed when they learned Bobby Jones Golf Course was tied up in a complicated land swap needed to provide parking for the Underground project.

The city swapped the city-owned golf course with state property near Underground that Reed has said was needed for a privately-backed overhaul of the downtown mall into a live-work-play community with a grocery store. The state plans to redevelop the Bobby Jones land to include a new Georgia Golf Hall of Fame. Other planned projects include renovating the course and reducing it from 18 to nine reversible holes.

Kessler said the legislation is concerning because the public knows little about what WRS plans for Underground, other than some renderings and promises of apartments and retail.

WRS has held no public meetings to discuss their development vision with neighbors, and the property has not gone before any design review or rezoning where the public could address concerns.

“We have been flying into this blind,” Kessler said.

Separately, WRS has put a number of downtown buildings under contract near Underground to expand the project’s footprint to the west. Kessler said WRS has become competition for groups that have worked to turn the long-vacant area along Broad Street SW into burgeoning arts district.

WRS is best known as a suburban strip mall developer and Underground, a dense urban redevelopment project in one of the busiest parts of the city, would be a departure for the firm.

“I’ve got a lot of concerns if they are biting off more than they can successfully chew,” Kessler said.

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