3 things to know about the plans for Underground Atlanta

Last week, I attended a meeting in South Downtown about the redevelopment of Underground Atlanta, the financially-ailing mall that the city put up for sale last year. A big group of people who live and work nearby, along with others who are simply interested in the project, showed up to learn and to swap ideas. 

It was an informative event and I want to share some key things I took away. 

1. The plan is preliminary and the property hasn’t sold yet. The developer, WRS, hopes to complete a purchase later this year for their bid price of $26 million. WRS was, in fact, the only company to submit a bid for the property. Renderings have been released (below), but they are very much subject to change.

See all the documents on the proposal here

2. With no mandate for neighborhood input, Atlantans will have to work
hard to make our voices heard.
Major redevelopments that happen elsewhere in the city have to present plans to neighborhood representatives. But this project is not mandated to have a public-input component. The district around Underground Atlanta has special rules that nix that requirement, which raises concerns about the potential for something at odds with the surrounding area to get built.

I asked Kyle Kessler, president of the Atlanta Downtown Neighborhood Association, for some info on how Atlantans can share their thoughts. He replied: “I have not yet gotten a clear statement from the City about how the public can engage in this redevelopment process, but it is always a good idea to contact City Council members and the Mayor.”

Additionally, I suspect that we’ll see some petitions and other outlets for unofficial input pop up as time goes on.

3. This is an important piece of history for Atlanta; no matter what
neighborhood you live in, we are all stakeholders in this.
 With a proposal that includes a grocery store, additional retail, and residential development, the South Downtown neighborhood will be the entity most directly affected by the failure or success of Underground Atlanta’s redevelopment. 

But this area also belongs to the entire city, in a big way. 

At the bottom of the rendering above is the Central Avenue viaduct, which goes over the ground level where train tracks run. Directly underneath Central Avenue at this point is the Zero Mile Post. That post marks the terminus point of two key railroads built in the 1830’s & 40s – it’s where the city began. It also marks the center point from which the city’s growth and limits were originally measured. 

The lower-level storefronts of Underground Atlanta (above, circa 1927) used to be at the main street level, before the viaducts were built over them. Once filled with thriving stores and offices – see a full collection of photos of them here – the city blocks of South Downtown were a hot spot for commerce in Atlanta for a long time.

Despite significant transformations in form over the decades, this area remained important to the city as a meeting place for public protest and celebration. Where did Atlanta celebrate the news of becoming host for the 1996 Olympics? Here in the Underground Atlanta plaza. The historic center of a city has a power that draws us in because it feels like a kind of communal home base. 

And particularly with the Five Points MARTA station beside it, this is a home base that has incredible promise for good urban use.

Underground Atlanta
Atlanta, GA

Underground Atlanta is a shopping and entertainment district opened in 1969. The 12-acre area was created in the late 1800s using the viaducts built over the city’s railroad tracks to accommodate cars. In the 1920s many of the basement levels of the shops had been used for speakeasies during Prohibition. Later, the level had been raised by one and half stories and a five block area was completely covered up, leaving the area abandoned and forgotten for 40 years.

The “city beneath the city” was rediscovered in the ‘60s and was reinvented as an entertainment district by two Georgia Tech graduates. Since Fulton was the only county that allowed mixed alcohol to be served in bars as long as men adhered to a strict coat-and-tie dress code, Underground Atlanta became a hub of nightlife.

But soon DeKalb County relaxed its alcohol restrictions and more bars started popping up elsewhere. When the dress-code restriction was dropped, fights began breaking out. The addition of a MARTA station took away parking and several blocks of clubs. Crime became uncontrollable and Underground Atlanta was shut down in 1980.

In 1982, plans began to revitalize downtown, including Underground Atlanta. By 1989, Underground Atlanta had reopened as more of a shopping mall than an entertainment district. The area fluctuated in popularity throughout the '90s. In 2004, the city allowed bars in the district in an effort to save Underground Atlanta from closing again.

In December 2014, Underground Atlanta was sold to a developer who planned to breathe new life into the district by providing more retail options and above-ground apartments. The area is in need of revitalization, but plans have stopped due to funding.

- Paige

Underground Atlanta under contract with new owner

Underground Atlanta, the at-times revered and reviled shopping mall in the heart of downtown, has a new owner, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.

Big news for Downtown Atlanta: a developer is under contract to purchase the nearly 12-acre Underground Atlanta property from the City of Atlanta for $25.75 million.

The president of WRS Inc. Real Estate says he hopes to close on a deal sometime next year and start with construction on a mixed-used development with a grocery store and apartments no later than 2016.

This is really exciting — I’ve long maintained that what Downtown needs most for real improvement is more residents, which can’t happen without more housing. Not only would this proposal provide the housing, it would bring in a much-needed grocery store to this historic center of the city.

Add in the fact that this property sits beside the Five Points MARTA station and is about three blocks from the new streetcar and you’ve got something could truly be transformative for the area, making it more livable for a new generation of Atlantans who are able to embrace transit mobility and walking as a regular part of their daily routines.

A nice quote from the AJC article:

“We’re right at ground zero of Atlanta,” [Scott Smith, President and CEO of WRS] said, rattling off the following figures: “We’re at a MARTA station which brings 70,000 people a day. Next to a university that has 32,000 students. You have 110,000 people who work downtown everyday.”

It’s about time someone put those figures together and did that math!


Underground Atlanta, before it was underground

This is a must-see collection of photos. Thanks to a collaboration between the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System and GSU, 100 images of Atlanta from 1927-1928 have been digitized from glass-plate negatives and put online:

Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System Glass Plate Negatives Digital Collection

The photos were taken as part of a project to capture the store fronts and street life on the ground level Alabama and Pryor Streets, just before they became covered up by the enormous viaducts that would create a new street level one story above, burying these stores. What an incredible look these provide at the street activity that used to exist in this part of Downtown in the pre-viaduct sunlight.

A shadow of things to come, the viaducts were built to relieve traffic congestion downtown. It was the start of a trend that would put a primary focus on car infrastructure and parking in the district, while eventually leaving storefronts, small businesses and street life itself struggling by the end of the century.

The blocks of businesses in these photos were abandoned underground for decades before being turned into the Underground Atlanta entertainment district during the late 1960s.

Owned by the city and leased to a company that runs the current retail lineup, Underground Atlanta had a couple of bright eras of success, but it’s decline in popularity has produced a financial drain on the city for many years now. Earlier this year, it was announced that it would be sold for redevelopment.

Coincidentally, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed just a few days ago announced that Underground Atlanta’s new fate will be as a mixed-use complex that includes high-end residential. More details should be announced by year’s end. And while this is interesting news that could possible translate to a Downtown renaissance in residential and commercial activity, I can’t help but worry about these beautiful store fronts. I hope they are preserved and used well in the future.

Aerial of Bleckley Plaza, Atlanta, GA, 1909

“By 1910, several iron bridges had been built to cross the railroad tracks at Union Street. At the suggestion of Atlanta architect Haralson Bleckley, the bridges were rebuilt in concrete and connected by a linear mall between them. Eventually, Bleckley envisioned public plazas between the bridges, but only one, Plaza Park (later Peachtree Fountains Plaza), was ever built. As the construction took place in the 1920s, merchants began to move their operations to the second floor of their buildings, and turned the original ground floors’ storefronts into basements for storage and service. As this occurred during Prohibition, and given the fact that these "basements” were relatively obscured from the city above, some of the basements became sites for speakeasys and juke joints, with music and illegal drinking a common occurrence. One of the first mentions of the area is in the opening lines of Bessie Smith’s “Atlanta Blues” which documents its importance as an entertainment district:

Down in Atlanta G.A. / Underneath the viaduct one day / Drinking corn and hollerin’ hoo-ray / Piano playin’ till the break of day.

By the end of the 1920s, the street level had been raised by one and a half stories, and a five-block area was completely covered up. For the next forty years, as Atlanta continued to grow at street level, the 12-acre area was effectively abandoned and forgotten.’