UPDATE: Council OKs plan to abandon streets to finish Underground sale

UPDATED: The Atlanta City Council approved a resolution that will essentially lead to the privatization of sections of several downtown streets that Mayor Kasim Reed said Monday was needed to help pave the way for a sale of Underground Atlanta.

The council, by a 10-4 vote, approved the measure to “abandon” segments of several streets, including a two-block segment of busy Pryor Street. WRS Real Estate Investments has been negotiating a purchase of Underground Atlanta since late 2014.

That resolution would give control of the streets to the developer, something that concerned a number of downtown residents. WRS, the South Carolina developer, hopes to close on its purchase of Underground Atlanta in the coming weeks. Critics said the developer would have the power to shut off vehicular traffic, or potentially to keep pedestrians or bicyclists from using the roads.

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The Atlanta City Council is considering legislation to keep alive the pending sale of Underground Atlanta to a South Carolina developer. But the resolution could mean key streets near the tiered downtown mall would no longer be public rights-of-way and would fall under the control of a private company.

The legislation, to be considered today during the council’s final scheduled meeting of the year, is needed to keep the long-simmering redevelopment deal with WRS Real Estate Investments from falling through, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday.

“[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,” said Reed, 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.”

But it would come at a high cost, residents in the community say. Parts of Lower and Upper Alabama Street, Upper and Lower Pryor Street and Plaza Way would be “abandoned” by the city and become the property of WRS after a consummation of the Underground sale.

That would give control of the streets to the developer, something that concerns residents such as Kyle Kessler. WRS would have the power to shut off vehicular traffic, or potentially to keep pedestrians or bicyclists from using the roads, particularly a two-block segment of Pryor Street, a busy thoroughfare connecting Georgia State University to the State Capitol downtown.

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

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

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.