Atlanta’s historic Underground will be renovated with WRS Realty’s master plan

The Signal Archives

The Downtown Development Authority of the CIty of Atlanta (DDA) has officially approved WRS Realty’s updated master plan for the revitalization of Underground Atlanta.

WRS agreed to buy five blocks of Underground for $34.6 million. The fact sheet provided by Invest Atlanta outlined that the construction will include 345,028 square feet retail stores, 1,009 residential units and 2,189 spaces reserved for parking. The plans will retain historical facades such as 78-88, 94-96 and 66-68 Upper Alabama. The Right-of-way of Alabama and Pryor Streets will stay open for pedestrian and bicycle access.

Mary Hearn, superviser of the Convention and Visitor Bureau for Atlanta at Underground was ecstatic at the news.

“[WRS Realty] are from Charleston, so they already have an appreciation for historic preservation. You don’t have to explain to anyone that you don’t need to tear down these beautiful buildings; they’re not going to do that,” Hearn said.

Hearn explained that the revitalization will include a grocery store–possibly a Kroger or Publix–affordable housing provided for Georgia State students, and hotels. The plans will also connect to the Five Points MARTA station.

“Once and for all, this is a chance to clean up the Five Points railway station,” Hearn said.  

However, a number of Atlanta residents have found fault with the plans set forth by WRS, but Invest Atlanta and City Council had already signed off on the approvals before any information regarding the plan was released. Advocacy manager of the Center for Civic Innovation, Kyle Kessler, said that the public was left in the dark regarding the plans until the second week of March.

“The important information about the deal beyond an overall dollar figure and who the developer was, was not made publicly available. This whole time the community has been reaching out to the city and to WRS to try and have productive and meaningful conversation about what should happen on the site,” Kessler said.

Kessler added that the the plans for the redevelopment plans do not reflect the desires of the community of downtown Atlanta. Although portions of Underground’s historical facades will be preserved, places like Kenny’s Alley, which has been in Atlanta since 1870, will be replaced with retail space.

“The current plan for Underground, as presented, shows complete demolition removal of [Kenny’s Alley] and it will be replaced with parking, loading docks and receding loading access for the proposed grocery store and the residential towers,” Kessler said.

The Underground has gone through multiple ruts in it’s history. Kessler pointed out that due to the 2008 recession Underground’s occupancy fell from 80 percent to less than 60 percent. Occupancy has continued to fall despite the slight uptick back in 2014 when the WRS contract was originally signed.  

For Kessler, however, WRS’s plans are not the right solution for Underground’s ailments.

“It’s a silver bullet solution: one developer, doing one project, at one time rather than having a lot of little projects and competing ideas from different developers all able to time the market when it’s most appropriate. Much like we have seen small businesses, artists and residents incrementally move into vacant space elsewhere in South Downtown, Underground could also be seeing that kind of organic development,” Kessler said.

On March 16 Invest Atlanta had a meeting in which the plans were further discussed with Kessler in attendance. The committee members heard the public’s complaints over the lack of transparency regarding the release of the plans, but Mayor Kasim Reed, who serves as Board Chairman for Invest Atlanta, did not agree with the Atlanta community’s concerns regarding how the redevelopment would affect the downtown area.

“He stated that what the community said was verifiably false and that he had done more than enough to ensure that this is going to be a positive development for the city, which is something the community obviously does not see eye to eye with the Mayor on the facts,” said Kessler.

Before WRS’s plans were released, the Center for Civic Innovation held public engagement sessions that provided information about Underground and its redevelopment to gage what the public wanted to see in Underground’s revitalization. Over 1,200 digital and physical surveys were collected from the Atlanta community. The group has also gone to Georgia State classes for student opinion and has reached out to the WRS development team, but didn’t receive any feedback.

“We had a question about what type of stores people would like to see and 97 percent of people wanted to see locally owned small businesses and four percent wanted to see big box stores. Plans that WRS has now produced show multiple big box stores; likewise the the plans show an excessive amount of parking, but the survey that we conducted clearly shows that over two-thirds of people prefer to arrive in south downtown and at underground by train, bus, or walking,” Kessler said.

Despite this, Hearn countered by saying that the Center for Civic Innovation’s survey and the people that said they wanted smaller businesses is not representative of the Atlanta community as a whole.

“[They] are a limited group. Central Atlanta Progress has conducted surveys and the number one thing [that people have wanted] has always been a grocery store,” Hearn said.

Invest Atlanta’s board of directors voted six to one to approve the plans. Representative of the Atlanta Planning Advisory Board, Bill Bozarth, was the only one to oppose the approval.

“I voted against the approval of the master plan concept in response to numerous downtown residents and small business owners who have raised concerns about the process, the nature of the proposed project, and the amount of parking currently in plan,” Bozarth said.

According to Bozarth, Atlanta’s neighborhood associations such as the Neighborhood Planning Units-M (NPU-M) and the Downtown Neighborhood Association (DNA) stand in opposition to the plans provided by WRS.

Undergrounds redevelopment is expected to be completed in two phases with pre-construction slated to begin June of 2017. Phase one will start in October of 2018 and phase two will begin in October of 2020. Bozarth said that he encourages those who opposed the plans at the Thursday meeting to remain involved with further developments with the reconstruction.

“There will be plenty of opportunity to shape the project going forward,” Bozarth said.    

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