OPINION: A mystery man’s enigmatic venture, Underground Atlanta

A sign of the time at Underground Atlanta. (Photo by Bill Torpy)
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A sign of the time at Underground Atlanta. (Photo by Bill Torpy)

In the back of an old and once-struggling mall on Jimmy Carter Boulevard in Gwinnett County, across the hall from a passport and visa shop, is the office of Shaneel Lalani, who is the new owner of another mall that famously has seen plenty of troubles: Underground Atlanta.

In Lalani’s waiting room is a flashing sign that advertises his two companies, Billionaires Funding Group and Lucky Fortune. It is clear he will need both luck and a fortune to turn around the Underground when others have tried and failed.

Lalani is a mystery man unknown to those in Atlanta politics and development circles. I reached out to the mayor’s office, Invest Atlanta, the zoning czar and three veteran developers. I only got shrugs.

Lalani burst onto the scene last week when, on the day before Thanksgiving, he announced in a press release that he had purchased the moribund downtown Atlanta attraction.

“I caught everybody off guard,” said the 31-year-old who immigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was 10.

Lalani runs two main businesses — a coin-operated gaming company that he said includes a contract with the Georgia Lottery, and a company that owns and leases real estate, mainly gas stations and convenience stores throughout the state.

He’s certainly ambitious. In the past few years he has been involved with at least 23 companies, according to the secretary of state’s office. In the last month, he registered three companies that he is starting with another man to build a hotel in Duluth, a senior housing project in Duluth, and a residential project in Augusta.

So one might wonder if he’s spread a bit thin in wanting to run Underground Atlanta, whose sale price is still not public, and which he declined to disclose other than to say it was fair.

Shaneel Lalani announced Thanksgiving week that he had purchased Underground Atlanta from a South Carolina company. Photo contributed
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Shaneel Lalani announced Thanksgiving week that he had purchased Underground Atlanta from a South Carolina company. Photo contributed

Credit: Photo contributed

Credit: Photo contributed

The fledgling real estate mogul, who says he is the sole owner, insists he’s not over his head. “My company is well capitalized and well positioned to execute the redevelopment,” he said in an email answering some questions. We talked by phone and through email. “Since we announced the acquisition, I’ve heard from dozens of people who are excited to have a local owner focused on the project and I’m energized by their support.”

Lalani said he came across the previous owners, WRS Inc., a South Carolina real estate firm that bought the Underground almost four years ago, when they hit him up for a loan.

“WRS reached out to us for financing,” he said. “Rather than acting as a lender and assuming significant risk, I saw an opportunity to take over the project and execute the vision in a way that would add value both for the community and the investment.”

Lalani said he believes the Underground is poised for good things because a German firm named Newport has purchased and is renovating about 50 buildings in south downtown, and because of the potential growth in the Gulch area near CNN Center. The city bent over backward to offer up to $2 billion (with a B!) in tax incentives for development there.

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WRS execs did not respond for comment. Perhaps looting that occurred at Underground Atlanta in June or the manager getting beat up while inspecting broken windows pushed along the sale. And then, of course, there is COVID-19, which has made all types of development uncertain.

T. Scott Smith, chief executive officer of WRS, told the Saporta Report: “We were having some problems with lenders refinancing in this environment and Shaneel already had financing set up and was looking for a large project.”

WRS, which was brought to the Underground gig by former Mayor Kasim Reed, was always an odd fit for the job. It’s a company that specializes in building suburban-style strip malls anchored by Walmarts. And the Underground ain’t that.

The 12-acre property was for years the city’s prime gathering point for New Year’s Eve and other big events. Back in 1990, the newly refurbished attraction was the place that excited residents packed to hear the announcement that Atlanta was going to become an Olympic city.

But two decades later, it was a sad shadow of its former self and the city was still paying the note for the bonds it took out to fix it up in the late ’80s.

WRS was named as the winning bidder for the Underground in December 2014. Later, it was revealed that the out-of-state firm was the only bidder. It seems local developers knew to stay away.

The money-losing mall at Underground Atlanta would get its moment in the spotlight each year during New Year’s Eve. But in 2017, that Dec. 31 celebration was moved to Woodruff Park. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Caption
The money-losing mall at Underground Atlanta would get its moment in the spotlight each year during New Year’s Eve. But in 2017, that Dec. 31 celebration was moved to Woodruff Park. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

But WRS didn’t get control of the property until early 2017 because of some red tape and issues with other entities, including the railroad and the Georgia Department of Transportation. They had big $200 million plans: a hotel, apartments, restaurants, music. The city even tossed in a couple of streets to sweeten the WRS deal.

The company paid almost $35 million for Underground Atlanta and quickly turned around and sold the parking garages there to beat down the cost.

When I expressed some skepticism about the deal at the time, Mayor Reed fired back at yours truly, saying I was a nattering negativist, before adding, “If WRS winds up not following through, the City has now heard from several other parties interested in making it happen.”

I’m not sure if Hizzoner had the young Lalani in mind at the time.

Lalani said rather than controlling a bunch of random properties, he’d like to focus on one big one. And the Underground would certainly fit that bill.

“I was concerned like everyone, three years and I haven’t seen anything done,” he said. “I read your article in January and I have the same concerns you did.”

Lalani was referring to a column I wrote 11 months ago headlined, “Will seemingly dead Underground Atlanta ever breathe new life? Nearly 3 years into ambitious renovation project, still next to nothing.”

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A.J. Robinson, who heads up Central Atlanta Progress and is paid to be an optimist, admits that Lalani is an “unusual buyer.” But, he added, “He says he wants to do the right thing and do what others have tried, unlock the secret possibilities of Underground.”

Robinson said Lalani is coming to visit “so we can give him historical and present-day thoughts about what Underground can be.”

Kyle Kessler, an architect, downtown resident and preservationist, was vocal about the sale to WRS — he was not happy — and isn’t as optimistic as Robinson about Lalani.

“The writing has been on the wall that WRS would not be able to pull this off,” Kessler said. “The type of developer most of us had hoped would come forward is very different than what has transpired. The type of information released since Wednesday (Nov. 25) does not bring confidence for those of us hoping for something different than we’ve seen in the past.”

Lalani said he’s ”meeting with top talent in urban mixed-use development and building a strong team that has the ability to execute.”

“My immediate priority,” he said, “is funding a feasibility study for the district to better define the mix of uses we will bring here.”

I asked: So, you think you can pull this off?

“If you ask me that question a year from now I might have a better answer,” he said.