OPINION: Underground Atlanta’s ‘Mystery Man’ slowly tries to revive the attraction

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

Shaneel Lalani, the 33-year-old owner of Underground Atlanta, was bemused when I referred to him as a “mystery man” two years ago when he bought the iconic and long-troubled property.

That was simply shorthand for, “Nobody in Atlanta’s established brick-and-mortar community has any earthly idea of who this guy is.”

Two years later, Lalani, who excelled at gas stations and video gaming, is still somewhat of an enigma. He is, however, getting positive appraisals around town from those who know him and see what he is doing — or, at least, what he’s trying to do.

Lalani, a reserved fellow, is unknown even on his own property. Last month, when we tried to enter a heavy-metal festival in the Masquerade music venue there, a barrel-chested bouncer stopped us until Lalani quietly said, “It’s OK, I’m the owner.” The big dude shrugged and let us pass. It was a scene repeated as we toured the site.

Lalani bought Underground for $31.6 million in November 2020 from WRS Inc., a South Carolina firm expert in building Walmart-anchored strip malls. That WRS bailed after four years surprised no one. In 2020, COVID had largely shuttered life and WRS, in need of a cash infusion, somehow came upon Lalani. The gaming operator quickly decided that being an owner was a better bet than being a lender.

He’s betting big on downtown Atlanta. A month after we spoke in late 2020, he bought a nearby 30-story office tower at 34 Peachtree Street, a 1960s building that was once the tallest in town but now needs lots of TLC.

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“It gives me goosebumps,” he said as we walked Underground. “I have a big responsibility and want to do something good here. We want to maximize our opportunity. This is once-in-a-lifetime. This is where the city of Atlanta started. You just don’t get an opportunity like this.”

His plans call for building housing, retail and entertainment, just like pretty much every other developer in Atlanta.

Architectural drawings are great, but anyone with an Etch A Sketch can create one. The real test is determining if there’s a need for your offering and then getting those with deep pockets to jump in. Lalani says he will release the master plan early next year, one that includes housing along Peachtree Street. He said he has hired Impact Development Management, which worked with the Falcons when building Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

So far, he’s brought some buzz to the moribund 12 acres. Last year, he brought in an exhibit of the works of Banksy, the famous anonymous graffiti artist, which drew thousands of people back to the labyrinth.

There are some new bars, a comedy theater, a handful of restaurants and pop-up vendors and artists. The storefronts along Upper Alabama Street are largely occupied and Atlanta Brewing Company will move into an 8,600-square-foot space on Upper Alabama in the old Atlanta Visitors Center.

And this year, Underground is again set to host New Year Eve’s Peach Drop after a three-year absence.

When it comes to developers, Lalani is a different kind of cat. The married father of a young daughter rides a scooter from his Decatur-area home to the east MARTA line and then into work, exiting at the adjacent Five Points Station, which is undergoing a major redo. He has renovated a top floor of his office tower for his company’s office. He was working from an old four-story building at Alabama and Pryor streets but then rented it to the Fulton County District Attorney’s office.

Credit: Kent D. Johnson / AJC

Credit: Kent D. Johnson / AJC

His family emigrated from Mumbai when he was 9 and came to Underground looking for jobs because they heard it was the place to go in Atlanta. Instead, they bought gas stations and then he jumped into the business and expanded to gaming.

“It’s hard, you have to be there,” he said of that business. “I learned early, you have to be close to your assets.”

City Councilman Jason Dozier, who represents south downtown, called the area “the next frontier.”

City officials and urban enthusiasts have said that for decades, but A.J. Robinson, the head of Central Atlanta Progress, downtown’s official booster, said it might be different this go round.

“The good news this time in Underground real estate history is a lot of things are happening around it that no one would have predicted 10 years ago,” Robinson said.

A collection of German investors called Newport has bought up about 50 old buildings to the west of Underground and is renovating Historic Hotel Row near the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, aiming to create 650 apartments in that area.

Also CIM Group, which got the mother of all tax breaks to build upon “The Gulch,” has been busily humming along with its project. The thought is the three projects will play off each other and draw more residents downtown. With more feet on the street you can create a sense of place and make the often vacant streets less foreboding at night.

Underground had a good run in the 1970s and early 1980s as a nightlife district and then became a lame city-sponsored mall for a couple of decades starting in 1989.

“Third time’s a charm,” said Lalani.

Hope in the development game springs eternal.