OPINION: Will seemingly dead Underground Atlanta ever breathe new life?

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More than 100,000 gathered to celebrate the New Year in downtown Atlanta with the Peach Drop.

Nearly 3 years into ambitious renovation project, still next to nothing

So, today The Answer Man will try to get his mitts around one of the city’s most perplexing mysteries: What’s up with Underground Atlanta’s slow-moving renovation?

Well, perplexing might not be the correct term to use. The word "expected" might work better, as in, "You expected something other than a snafu?!? It's The Underground."

Three years ago, in January 2017, I stood in the bowels of Underground Atlanta and pondered the future of the city's favorite white elephant.

At the time, an exec from a South Carolina realty company that peddles Walmart malls was explaining the firm’s high ambitions of renovation — about “unconventional clothing” shops, a grocery store and entertainment with 3,000 folks living atop the new Underground.

“We want to give people a reason to drive down from the suburbs once a month,” the exec said.

Well, you’ve got to set the bar somewhere.

At the time, former Mayor Hizzoner was undergoing a fire sale of civic properties — Fort McPherson, the Civic Center, Turner Field — and was seemingly running out of able-bodied buyers to take on Atlanta's most challenging project, Underground.

Lots of steps leading nowhere at Underground Atlanta. (Photo by Bill Torpy)
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Lots of steps leading nowhere at Underground Atlanta. (Photo by Bill Torpy)

Just getting to the closing table was an odyssey. In December 2014, the city announced that WRS Real Estate Investments was going to buy Underground. They even talked about construction starting in 2016. However, the deal didn't close until March 2017, some 27 months after the announced sale. To make the deal a little sweeter, the city tossed in a couple of public streets for the developers to own. If WRS held fast, the city might have tossed in the water plant or some firetrucks.

To be fair, you must cut WRS some slack. The 12-acre property that contains some of Atlanta’s oldest buildings has layers upon layers of encumbrances with the railroad and the Georgia Department of Transportation, so you must slice through yards of red tape and wade through the easements before you can sit at the closing table.

But now, 33 months after WRS got the keys to Underground, one wonders if the firm is in over its head. Being the quarterback of complex urban renovation projects doesn’t appear to be in the company’s DNA. Out of 29 completed and future projects on the company’s website, all but a handful are anchored by Walmarts. And most of their completed developments have a dollar store component.

(I have nothing against dollar stores. In fact, my wife recently got three ashtrays for $1.65 each as stocking stuffers for friends who smoke. But I don't think dollar store chic is part of the new urbanism. Imagine a Dollar Tree at Ponce City Market.)

Upper Alabama Street, looking west on a recent Sunday, where there is a semblance of life at Underground Atlanta. (Photo by Bill Torpy)
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Upper Alabama Street, looking west on a recent Sunday, where there is a semblance of life at Underground Atlanta. (Photo by Bill Torpy)

I’ve reached out to WRS execs — I spoke briefly with a couple — but they don’t seem to want to elucidate.

The company paid $34.6 million, quickly sold off the adjoining parking decks for some quick cash, closed the iconic downstairs Underground, then began quietly planning and doing some interior demolition.

A video of an October meeting with WRS rep Tim Norton and downtown folks appeared on the threadatl website, and he seemed to repeat a lot of the things the company has been saying.

He said a deal with Yotel for a 320-room facility (a new-age hotel with tiny "cruise ship" rooms) has been inked and could be built on the north part of the property along Wall Street by 2022. Also, 270 units of student housing near the proposed Yotel could start in 2020, according to the WRS website.

The Masquerade live music venue, which came to Underground after getting pushed off the Beltline, will stay, and 130 units of mostly “workforce” housing is coming along.

Still, there’s not much of anything that one can actually see happening. On a recent visit, I felt very lonely walking around the cobble stones of Alabama Street.

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Norton told the people at the October meeting that the most common question he hears is, “When is downstairs Underground opening up?”

The downstairs, which he said has been gutted, may be open by next Christmas. Or maybe the one after that, he added.

“I know, you guys are anxious to hear real progress, cranes in the sky, shovels in the ground,” Norton said. But there are complicated challenges such as waterproofing the downstairs, he said, plus plumbing, elevators and other infrastructure issues. Also, they will not be bridging the railroad tracks. It’s too difficult.

“Some of this is our fault, our plan,” he said at another point, then catching himself. “Some of it is city related, with holdups in planning and permitting and the various groups you have to deal with,” meaning the railroad and GDOT.

“It’s slow, like turning a battleship,” he said.

Two years ago at Underground Atlanta, where the New Year’s Eve Peach descended from its tower to ring in 2018. (Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@AJC.com)
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Two years ago at Underground Atlanta, where the New Year’s Eve Peach descended from its tower to ring in 2018. (Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@AJC.com)

City planning czar Tim Keane sighed when hearing what WRS says about the holdups. He said the developers sat down for a review with the planning team about six months ago.

“We left the meeting saying, ‘We don’t understand; we want to know where you’re going with this,’ ” Keane said.

"It is critical, I mean essential, that whatever they do first has to be exceptionally well done," he said. "If it is not, then everything else they do will be harder.

“We aren’t going to piecemeal this. We don’t want something that is worse than what we have now.”

Lower Alabama Street in Underground Atlanta on March 12, 2009. LOUIE FAVORITE / AJC file photo
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Lower Alabama Street in Underground Atlanta on March 12, 2009. LOUIE FAVORITE / AJC file photo

Keane, who said the city expects the developer to build lots of residential spaces, has not heard back from WRS.

Councilman Amir Farokhi, whose district includes part of Underground, echoed Keane: “At this point in the city’s evolution there are high expectations. It shouldn’t be a shopping mall. It needs to be part of the urban fabric, something worthy of downtown.”

Susan Roe has lived downtown for 25 years and heads the Atlanta Downtown Neighborhood Association. She said WRS has become better at “listening” to residents, but she remains frustrated by the lack of movement.

“It’s just another disappointment; nothing appears to be happening,” she said. “It’s just a couple of blocks where nothing is going on. If something ever happens, I’ll be surprised.”

But Underground has long been a surprise, wrapped in a mystery and slathered with frustration.