Sinkhole opens rift between restaurateur and Piedmont Park Conservancy

Katherine Drolett, who operates The Nook at Piedmont Park restaurant, is locked in a dispute over two restaurants she planned to open in the park’s community center. A sinkhole or void opened under one of her two restaurant spaces. Drolett says more study is needed to determine if the building is safe, something the building’s owner, the Piedmont Park Conservancy, denies. J. SCOTT TRUBEY/STRUBEY@AJC.COM.

Katherine Drolett said she was a few months from opening a pair of restaurants near the 12th Street gate to Piedmont Park when a sinkhole pulled the rug, or rather the ground, out from under her.

Last July, a 10-foot by six-foot hole developed under the Piedmont Park Community Center in a space where she planned a sandwich and salad shop, halting construction on that eatery and a second sit-down restaurant she wanted to open in the same structure. Now, a year later, construction has been stalled for months and Drolett is in a battle with the property’s owner, the powerful Piedmont Park Conservancy.

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Both sides allege the other is in default of the lease.

The single sinkhole has effectively placed two of the city's prime restaurant spaces in limbo. And it has pitted the caretakers for the city's marquee park against a well-regarded restaurateur, who says not enough has been done to determine if the building, which also houses an active summer camp for kids, is safe.

Two geotechnical or soil engineers Drolett hired warn that unless the cause of the sinkhole is found it’s impossible rule out other voids.

Drolett said her insurance company and bank won’t let her resume construction until highly specialized soil investigation determines the problem has been fixed.

“They’ve told us to either work or walk,” Drolett said of the conservancy. “Most importantly they want us to be quiet. But we’re not about to put profits over safety.”

A sinkhole or void opened up in a restaurant space under the Piedmont Park Community Center in July 2018. The city filled the hole last year, but a restaurant owner, Katherine Drolett, and the Piedmont Park Conservancy, which owns the building are at war. Drolett says more study is needed to determine if the building is safe, while the conservancy alleges she’s in violation of her lease. J. SCOTT TRUBEY/STRUBEY@AJC.COM

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But conservancy CEO Mark Banta said there’s no cause for concern. A structural engineer’s report asserts the void was properly filled by the city, and the building is structurally sound.

The dispute isn’t about safety, Banta said, but about a tenant’s inability to live up to her lease.

“The conservancy has been extraordinarily patient,” Banta said. The building’s structural engineer, who he said considered soil conditions and whose opinion Banta says outranks a geotechnical engineer, deemed the building sound last fall.

“These issues, the safety concerns, pitching (news) stories about this building being unsafe, only came on later and in spite of us issuing engineering reports certifying the safety of the building,” Banta said.

Harold Shumacher, a longtime Atlanta restaurant broker not involved in the project, said he’s never encountered a situation like the sinkhole under the community center. In new buildings, site work would have likely found any potential soil issues, but with older buildings, there’s always a risk of finding problems beneath the surface.

“This feels like one of those real conundrums,” he said. “You have a conservancy who has done a great job in the park and upgrading it. And you have an operator who’s been in the neighborhood a long time who’s a good person who’s trying to open restaurants and be successful.”

‘It’s a mess’

Drolett, a former Georgia assistant attorney general and owner of The Nook on Piedmont Park, said she coveted the two restaurant spaces for years. Thousands of joggers and walkers enter the park each day at that spot. When she won the leases, she envisioned a grab-and-go sandwich and salad shop called Soulshine and a sit-down restaurant and bar to be called Walker’s 1834, in honor of the family who bought and settled the land that would become Atlanta’s largest park.

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Drolett said she has spent two years preparing the restaurants.

The building, which dates to the 1920s though has had extensive renovations more recently, proved a challenging job site. In July last year, workers were cutting into the double-thick concrete slab under the structure when a massive chunk sunk into the ground.

The gravity of the situation was apparent from the start.

“There’s a sink hole under Soulshine,” Drolett wrote Banta in the day the void appeared. “…It’s a mess. This is a tremendous issue.”

Construction halted as Drolett and her partners and work crews and the conservancy attempted to get to the bottom of the situation.

Banta, in an August email seeking assistance from the city called the matter a “Life Safety Emergency,” and said water could be heard “rushing” under the foundation during heavy rains.

A WALK IN THE PARK-- August 18, 2014 Atlanta: Richard Hill took in the great view of the Atlanta skyline as he walked along Lake Clara Meer in Piedmont Park on Monday, Aug. 18, 2014. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

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Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Drolett said her advisers and crew warned her the hole, which had expanded about three feet in width in the preceding weeks, could make the building unsafe and put it at risk of condemnation.

By September, Drolett’s bank sent a letter stating it could not provide additional funds for construction until the detailed soil analysis was completed and the cause found and corrected. Her contractor and an engineering firm also expressed doubts about safety.

Drolett at that point told the conservancy she was halting construction.

The following month, the city’s watershed department inspected the site and found its water and sewer pipes weren’t the source. But the cause likely was manmade, as sinkholes aren’t a natural phenomenon in Atlanta, both sides of the dispute say.

The city excavated debris and filled the hole with grout to stabilize the void and surrounding soil, but a cause was not determined, a spokeswoman for the watershed department said.

The hole might have been filled, but a rift had emerged between Drolett and the conservancy.

Drolett said for months she and her partners had to pester the conservancy for basic information about the work done to fill the sinkhole. She said she even had to file open records requests with the city to find out what was going on.

A first geotechnical or soil engineering firm Drolett hired said in a letter “without knowing the source (cause) of the void, we cannot predict whether future loss of ground will occur,” and whether that might affect the building “or its safety.”

Drolett’s engineers and contractor say only a geotechnical engineering survey can pinpoint the source and correct it, not a structural engineer.

Drolett said the conservancy ignored her. Banta sees things differently.

Banta said Drolett’s stoppage of work was unnecessary. He said a November report by the engineer of record for the building asserted the company is “confident the structure is sound and well founded.” The grout repair “is adequate to prevent further soil erosion that could result in under-slab voids like the one repaired for the foreseeable future use of the building.”

But Drolett said the conservancy didn’t provide that letter until February.

In April, a second geotechnical engineering firm Drolett hired drafted a letter stating that it could not vouch for the building’s safety based on its review of the surveys done to date.

Drollett said she wants the conservancy to “do the right thing. Do the proper investigation of what’s under this building.”

Banta said he expects the case to go to mediation. He said the group will seek damages from Drolett for breach of her lease and will use those dollars to prepare the site for new restaurant operators. He said demand for the spaces is strong.

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