Real estate developer and community seek common ground in the once-thriving nightlife hub.
By TYLER FINDLAY
ATLANTA — After lying dormant for years, Underground Atlanta may be poised to spring back to life as a lively gathering place for Atlantans in the historic subterrane of the city.
New details have emerged on the redevelopment of the all but abandoned tiered district by South Carolina real estate investment company WRS Inc. Bastioned by a freshly inked deal solidifying Kenny’s Alley as the Masquerade’s new home, WRS’s vision for a revitalized Underground Atlanta is beginning to take shape.
In a recent press release, the firm announced plans for two of the newly acquired four blocks of property that include student and multi-family housing, ground level retail, office space, and communal areas. Despite earlier controversy over the city’s sale of the 12-acre property, proponents of progressive urban planning are now expressing cautious optimism as the developer altered initial plans following an outpouring of community concerns.
“When we looked at redeveloping Underground Atlanta and such a significant portion of South Downtown, we knew for us to succeed we must create community,” said Scott Smith, WRS Inc. partner in the statement. “One that will sustain the neighborhood, long-term.”
The Masquerade plants its flag in Kenny’s Alley
After initially seeking a temporary stay in Underground Atlanta’s historic Kenny’s Alley, the Masquerade has signed a 10-year lease with WRS that includes two five-year extension options and will begin aggressive renovations to the existing club spaces in December. The music venue was forced to relocate from its North Avenue home of nearly 30 years in late 2016.
Ironically, the Masquerade had found itself on the wrong end of similar redevelopment in Old Fourth Ward that is transforming the area surrounding Ponce City Market. Masquerade talent buyer and Wrecking Ball music festival founder Elena de Soto’s hopes of holding a third annual festival in 2017 were dashed as the venue’s attempted relocation encountered obstacles.
“It was supposed to move over to West Midtown, but there were town homes being built right next to what was going to be our parking lot,” de Soto said. “They were not happy.”
Brock Built, the developer building the adjacent town homes, filed suit to block the Masquerade’s move. The legal battle was winnable, de Soto said, but the time spent in litigation would have forced the venue to halt operations for a lengthy period. In the midst of this hiccup, City Councilman Kwanza Hall helped the Masquerade find a home for each of its signature Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory halls at vacant spaces in Kenny’s Alley.
“They [the spaces] were just empty,” de Soto said, “We saw it as a temporary thing. We’re working out of a Jamaican restaurant. There’s a bar. There’s a kitchen. We’re sitting at restaurant tables with laptops. We didn’t think we were going to stay but we got it up to working conditions for the venues and all the feedback has been really good.”
Renovations are scheduled to be complete by February 2018 and will expand Heaven’s capacity from 1,100 to 1,500 with the installation of a balcony and mezzanine. The venue appears to have a significant role to play in the rebirth of Underground as a draw for foot traffic after business hours.
“They [WRS] wanted an entertainment component. They were like ‘You guys would be great. We want you to stay’ and offered to match any money we put into renovations to make this long term.”
Less Ponce City Market, more Krog Street
Anchored by the Masquerade, a reimagined Underground Atlanta could look more like its former self with the sights and sounds of a bustling nightlife.
The historic district was originally the hushed home to speakeasies operating illegally under a newly elevated Upper Alabama Street during the Prohibition era. Following the end of Prohibition, these illegal operations were shuttered and forgotten until being reborn in the 1970s as the lively waterholes of choice for celebrities and Atlantans alike who sought excitement after dark.
After being shuttered yet again for much of the 1980s, Underground was reinvented as a retail destination complete with the dated food court, and touristy kiosks we know today. This latest incarnation, dubbed “New Underground” by locals with fond memories of its ‘70s hey-day, has been considered a bust by many and costs the city of Atlanta $8 million per year to maintain.
Earlier masterplans proposed by WRS, which is mostly known for constructing Walmart super centers, drew heavy criticism for the proposed addition of 2000 parking spaces in an already parking-friendly downtown area as well their perceived failure to steer clear of retail mistakes of the past.
“Note that there is no parking required for anything built in downtown,” said Darin Givens, co-founder of urbanism advocacy group ThreadATL. “Any so-called ‘requirement’ for parking comes solely from developers and lenders, not from the government. Also, there are some big-box retail stores that demand dedicated parking spaces before they’ll sign a deal for a location. I’m optimistic that further engagement can result in getting the developers to focus on smaller-footprint stores that won’t make those demands.”
After holding public meetings with local residents, WRS issued a revised masterplan that eliminated the originally proposed parking structure and emphasizes student housing, nightlife and office space for local makers and doers rather than large retailers.
“I think what their goal is less Ponce City Market and more Krog Street,” said de Soto. “The second and third level are going to be tech start up offices or makers and doers like print shops and textiles.”
People over parking
In addition, the plan aims to ease the growing pains of Georgia State University by incorporating a student housing tower on its Northeastern-facing block along Wall Street. The tower will replace what is currently a parking lot and will join multi-family housing facing south over Upper Alabama Street.
“We desperately need more student housing,” said Noah Lynn, a Georgia State student who lives off-campus in Ormewood Park. “The dorms are so overpopulated. At the beginning of this semester, they had to put students up in hotel rooms because there weren’t enough rooms for everybody.”
The repurposing of the lot to accommodate students rather than cars is one welcomed by advocates of a more walkable downtown. Bumpy start aside, the return of Underground appears to be one in which residents have a say.
“Atlantans knew better than to stay silent,” Givens said. “I’m optimistic that city residents are understanding more and more that the historic center of the city belongs to all of us and it should be the most urban, pedestrian-friendly place in Atlanta.”