This story has been updated.
WRS Real Estate Investments, the new owner of Underground Atlanta, is promising project that will transform four city blocks from an eye sore to a premiere mixed use development.
The details of that development are still being worked out, with one notable exception.
“We’re not putting a Walmart in Underground Atlanta,” Chief Operating Officer Steve Howe told an audience gathered at the company’s first public meeting on Thursday, July 13.
The meeting came about after pressure from residents, most notably the Atlanta Downtown Neighborhood Association which had threatened to sue to stop the sale of the property. Representatives of the group said their goal wasn’t to scuttle the development completely, but to get the developer to communicate with the community about its plans.
Of particular concern was the city’s decision to abandon portions of lower and upper Alabama Street, Upper and Lower Pryor Street and Plaza Way to accommodate the developer. The neighborhood association opted to sign an agreement saying it would not sue the city if the developer does a better job of engaging with the public, Creative Loafing reported.
There’s already another meeting planned for Nov. 2 at 6 p.m., with a location to be determined. Thursday’s meeting was held at the Underground Atlanta Visitor Center theater.
Kipling “Kip” Dunlap, President of the Atlanta Downtown Neighborhood Association, said the meeting made him “cautiously optimistic.”
“They certainly learned the language,” Dunlap said. “They kenow what we want to hear. I am definitely used to developers saying, ‘Oh lenders, we can’t, we don’t know,’ and that’s not entirely wrong, but it’s not the answer we’re looking for. I guess they’re as far along in the process now as we should expect them to be. I’m certainly happy to start having real public engagement since there’s been almost none up to now. I like the direction things are going.”
Underground Atlanta is a run-down retail strip with loads of potential. The Five Points MARTA station below it is an amenity developers crave. That’s also a sticking point with downtown residents, who want the developer to find ways to reduce parking and make better use of the station. Earlier estimates published by Creative Loafing anticipated 2,000 new spaces there.
But WRS would not commit to a maximum number of spaces, saying it is challenging its design team to have as few spaces as possible. Twenty percent of the estimated 600 to 1000 apartment units will have to be affordable housing.
It’s likely one of the tenants will be a grocer. Kristi Rooks with Revel – the company in charges of the development’s merchandising, brand oversight and leasing – said there’s a need for a grocery store downtown. WRS is advertising 35,000 to 85,000 square feet as a “grocery opportunity. There will be about 270,000 square feet of retail space. Rooks also said that “it probably doesn’t need to be as much retail as before,” saying there will be more office space in the new Underground. Developers also said the public would be able to access the streets the city had abandoned to enable the project. There will also be an effort to preserve some of the structures on the site.
Reactions to the meeting were positive but guarded.
George Chidi, a local politician and journalist who is following the project, said people will likely know more of the details when the developer’s partners ramp up their involvement.
“It absolutely has to be redeveloped,” Chidi said. “I mean, whatever else is going on, Underground cannot remain as it is. In its current condition, it’s a magnet for crime. It’s anti-retail. It’s not just bad retail right now. It drives away other good retail. I don’t see it being fixed without a massive redevelopment, which is what we got, so I’m happy about that. I have some concerns about timing. I don’t know where we are in the market cycle. I want them to move aggressively.”
He said he was concerned the developers might wind up in a situation like Atlantic Station, which was setback when the economy crashed.
David Brown said he, “liked the meeting a lot.” He said he lived in the area from 2007 to 2010.
“It was terrible. It was scary,” he said. “It was not the best place to be a student, at Georgia State. But don’t get me wrong. I love it. I absolutely love it and now it’s so much more beautiful. Georgia State has done a lot of work and now Underground people are actually caring about it.”
Sojourner Grimmett, who works for an affordable senior housing developer said, she was “excited that they had a community forum, allowing residents or citizens to voice their opinions. … I hope to hear more about their plans for affordable housing at Underground Atlanta.”
Her friend, Monica Ponder, said she wanted more information than WRS provided.
“They did not provide enough statistics or information to allay the fears or concerns of residents, the artist community, students, people who have been invested in this community for years,” Ponder said. “Rhetoric is one thing, but the deal is done, it’s now time to put plans down.”
Here is a live video of Thursday’s presentation shot by Lauren Welsh.