Cover Story: Alley of broken dreams

What can be done to save Underground Atlanta - again?

Editor’s note: For bios on our Underground pundits, click here.</
When the World of Coca-Cola opens in May in its new location next door to the Georgia Aquarium, the bottom is expected to fall out of Underground Atlanta. That’s the prediction of a recent study conducted by the city’s finance department, which crunched the numbers for Underground and forecast a dismal future unless a major turnaround takes place. With the loss of the World of Coke as a tourist draw — shifting its 800,000 annual visitors to Centennial Park — revenues at Underground are expected to nosedive by 20 percent, continuing an ongoing decline in sales.</
Atlanta taxpayers currently foot the bill for about $8 million a year in debt service on $85 million in bonds the city issued to relaunch Underground Atlanta in 1989. Right now, the only money the city earns from Underground comes from the adjoining parking decks, not from its shops, restaurants or bars.</
So how does the city avoid a costly bailout of Underground? Creative Loafing invited a councilman, an urban planner, a downtown business owner and a community activist to discuss how Underground could be transformed from a failing subterranean mall into a vibrant component of a newly energized central business district.

CL: Despite its reputation as something of a civic white elephant, Underground Atlanta is a very unique property, with a strong history of culture and nightlife. How does this city best take advantage of Underground’s uniqueness?</
Kwanza Hall: Underground has a lot of meaning to Atlanta. There are some long-standing ties to that place. And I think that we have to leverage on top of that as we look into the future. For the last seven years or so, it’s been generally a tourist-focused agenda. But we have many new residents. We have additional energy from 2,000 students that are going to be moving into the new Georgia State dorm on Piedmont and Ellis. I think we need to focus on Underground becoming a destination for neighborhoods, as opposed to just a destination for tourists.</
John Skach: I think he’s right. Underground was originally a piece of the framework of the city of Atlanta. But it really has to reintegrate itself. A task force might want to take a two-phase approach: looking at what needs to happen in the near term, just to get it solvent again. Then take a look at the long view and how it can be reintegrated into what is becoming a strong neighborhood.</
Clay Farris: I think there’s a lot to be said about Underground as a symbol. We’re here today because it doesn’t really seem to live up to any of those conceptualizations. No matter how you envision it, when you go there you are pretty much let down. As a neighbor, I can tell you what it is lacking right now, in terms of a community. It doesn’t really look in its own backyard and ask how it can serve not only the residents that live there now, but the thousands of residents that I think will be pouring in over the next 18 months or so. It completely ignores the 60,000-plus workers that are there from 9 to 5. Tourism is not there anymore. Tourism is over at a place called Centennial Park.</
Pablo Henderson: There are basically two downtowns at the moment. There’s the downtown that’s north of Marietta Street, and there’s the downtown that’s south of Marietta Street. I think there are a number of factors that create that dividing line, primarily an aesthetic one. There hasn’t been the same economic impact. There hasn’t been the same flow of business.</
CL: Underground Atlanta is located in this awkward nexus of downtown, next to Five Points station on the edge of the central business district. So how does Underground overcome this problem; how does it best fit into the fabric of downtown?</
Hall: Stepping back, if you look at the south-central business district, it’s full of parking lots and old buildings. We also have the railroad gulch to the west. When you look at that entire area, you’re talking 40 or 50 acres. That’s half of an Atlantic Station. How many residents could we bring to that area? If you really want to look forward, you’re going to look at a mixed-use redevelopment that incorporates transit. What are the needs for folks who work there, the students who pass through there everyday, as well as the residents? What about a bookstore where we could just hang out? Why not a grocery store? That’s the direction that we need to be going in.</
Henderson: I think that what you need next is something that’s going to stimulate economic growth. The stigma on Underground is there. So to risk another failure is too dangerous.</
Hall: We’ve got to let the market dictate what can happen there, as opposed to bureaucrats saying what is the best idea. With Atlantic Station, who would have ever thought you could turn a dilapidated brownfield into such a great asset for the region? That’s the same thing you’ve got to do at Underground.</
Skach: The point about Atlantic Station is good because it’s a tremendously large piece of land that probably is about the size of the entire south-central business district. Underground is part of this larger, almost public space that runs through the middle of downtown Atlanta. When we were doing Imagine Downtown, we looked at the zone between Philips Arena and the federal buildings, and that could be an incredible economic development anchor in downtown. Then Underground starts to make sense in the long term as an integrated piece of the city. But in the short term, it needs to connect to its surroundings.</
Henderson: Atlantic Station is not that great. I think that we can surely come up with some solutions that go beyond the Atlantic Station model, something that’s truly noteworthy. I mean, do we really need another set of franchises down there?</
Farris: At this point I feel like a quick fix might actually be dangerous. I also don’t want to see another Atlantic Station down there, but I think we need a diverse model. Let’s not rely on the World of Coke again or just one thing, and let’s make it serve the people that are down there.</
CL: Does everyone agree here that tourism at Underground is a lost cause?</
Skach: Conditioning the success of the place solely on tourism is the wrong strategy. Ever since it’s opened, it’s been programmed to be a tourist, single-use thing. It hasn’t worked; it probably won’t work in the future. Tourism would be a great complement to a diversity of uses.</
Hall: There’s a new movement throughout areas that used to be purely tourist-centric, like Auburn Avenue. Now, they’re turning into neighborhoods where tourists happen to come. If you invert the model, instead of a 70-30 split, with tourists being 70 percent, you do 30-70, where 70 percent are Atlanta folks. There are several places starting to come alive, like Castleberry Hill. Just envision a row of international eateries down Edgewood. You’re seeing that now at the corner of Highland Avenue and Elizabeth, near Fritti and Sotto Sotto, where the new Grape is. Folks are coming from the suburbs and trying to blend in like they’re intowners. The next thing you’ll know, they’ll be living here. It’s opposite from what we used to think.</
CL: There’s been talk in recent years that the way to save Underground is by upping the vice factor: You extend the bar hours so people can drink all night, or you bring in a casino. Does Underground need a change like this to survive?

Farris: My request is that this is not something that is done recklessly, and we explore the impact of the immediate communities in other cities before we are wined and dined and seduced by someone who has a lot of money to throw around.</
Skach: By their nature, casinos aren’t very outwardly looking places. Even though they may generate a little bit of revenue and maybe better jobs, they’re not going to do much for the street life. It seems like Underground is kind of a fragile place, and it might really negatively affect it.</
Henderson: I don’t necessarily agree. I think that if anyone’s got the money right now to cure some of those problems, it’s that industry. I think that casinos could be the ticket to saving Delta; people would choose Atlanta if they could take a 15-minute ride from the airport, hit the blackjack table for a couple of hours, and head back and catch their flight. But the impact could be so enormous you really have to do the due diligence.</
Hall: I hear both sides and I’m kind of right down the middle. This has been discussed at City Council for maybe 10 or 15 years. It’s a statewide issue. I’ve heard of some towns where casinos come in and it ruins the area if it’s not thought out carefully. But the idea that it could generate several hundreds of millions of dollars a year for the general fund would be huge. Maybe that could help pay for streetcars and real transit in Atlanta, or maybe schools or police. But it would take a lot of thought.</
Henderson: You have to keep in mind that the growth that occurred downtown was somewhat artificial. A lot of people like to sit around and talk about what it is to do business downtown, but there’s only a handful of us who have had the actual experience of opening up a store and keeping it alive for a decade. There are no gimmes. You have to fight challenges no one else has to face. So when we talk about this organic, hip growth — Portobella Road, Notting Hill, gay, über-trendy — remember, the guys who own the buildings are not giving you any deals. There are no incentives to come downtown, with the exception of Underground, where I gather they’ve cut some generous deals.</
CL: Do you think there is a perception that crime surrounding Underground Atlanta is a problem, and how is that overcome?</
Hall: We haven’t totally addressed our homeless problem. We need to clean up Broad Street Plaza. But I don’t think there is crime in the sense of heavy-duty robbing and shooting. I think the old perception of downtown being dangerous is almost over because the folks who used to say that are buying expensive condos downtown.</
Henderson: I think downtown is probably the safest place to be in the city, with regard to the number of officers I see. If you’re unfamiliar and you’re visiting downtown Atlanta, the people are of different races, the shops are selling things that you’re not familiar with seeing in the shop windows, the smells are different. And the misperception comes from people being outside of their element.</
Farris: I have to disagree. While I have no real concern over my safety, I’m unimpressed with Underground’s efforts to improve that perception. All it takes is a few bad incidents; last summer someone was shot in the parking deck that I park in, and it was all over the news.</
Hall: I hear you. I moved to City Plaza [across from City Hall] right after the Olympics in 1996, and I felt the pain that comes from being an urban pioneer. Every day we got stuff stolen off our porch. But what changes neighborhoods is people such as yourself getting involved. Neighborhoods don’t change by themselves, and bureaucratic bodies don’t change them. It’s going to take us bringing more people to the area. One of the things that actually makes streets feel safer is pedestrian traffic. If you go to New York, Chicago, San Francisco, there are homeless people and all kinds of folks on the street, but because there’s so many people walking the streets, you feel comfortable.</
Skach: The more ownership you get, the more vested interest in the neighborhoods, the better it will be. There needs to be a focus on getting it cleaned up, getting some retail uses in there, getting some folks on the street, getting some policing on the street. And that will go a long way.</
Henderson: We keep talking about retail, but there’s all sorts of retail down there right now, selling hip-hop apparel, wig shops, oils. It’s not that these stores are empty, but we have somewhat of a classist approach to the area. It’s not serving our needs, so we each want to project our own idea of downtown on that area, and I don’t know that that’s necessarily fair. Underground and that area is only appealing to a very narrow demographic right now. If we can get more buy-in from more diverse groups, we may be able to find something that is symbolic of the city that we live in. And right now, Underground is not symbolic of the city.</
CL: Kwanza mentioned mixed-use at Underground to get away from the tourist-only approach. What did you have in mind?</
Hall: Residential, for sure. We need two, three, four thousand people in that area. There are retailers who don’t want to pioneer; they want to wait until they have sure numbers before they’ll set foot there.</
Skach: When the Georgia State dormitories are finished, you’re going to see a lot of things go into Auburn Avenue. I totally agree with Pablo about cities being able to satisfy all sorts of needs and that’s their great strength, that they are these melting pots. A good student population would help down there a lot. If it could be in the south on one of those surface lots or at Underground, that would be great.</
Farris: There are more people that are going to appear out of nowhere in the next 18 months living down there. You’ve got the Mitchell Street project and the Norfolk Southern project, and they’re going to want to walk to things.</
CL: How extreme a repositioning of Underground is necessary to serve downtown and bring new people in? Where would you put the housing, for instance?</
Hall: It’s been on the table for a long time. Maybe you build on top of [the fountains], and that becomes an underground shopping area and upstairs is residential.

Skach: If the World of Coke doesn’t transition into a state history museum or something like that, that’s a great place to put high-density housing.</
Henderson: There’s another option, where nothing happens and you’re left with empty stores, or a scene that starts to decay in the evenings and your property value really will drop. We think that we’re at the bottom right now, but it really could get a lot worse. It’s like watching a stock; you know it’s going to crash, what can you do?</
CL: How do you draw a healthy nightlife to Underground, including some restaurants and live music venues, which back in the day was what Underground was all about?</
Henderson: Nightlife can’t be artificially created. You can’t say, “I really need a Bourbon Street, so I’m going to make one happen.” It has to be organic. I think the approach being taken right now is somewhat shortsighted. If everybody is brought there with just alcohol and no other reason to be there, I think that you’re going to find yourself with a very ugly, Buckhead-type scenario.</
Skach: I’m not sure it’s even something for which you can find a formula and have it be a success in the next year or so. I live in Little Five, and I’m sure that it was a long struggle before it became the destination that it is today.</
Henderson: Everywhere I go, whether it’s New York, London, Paris, Milan, nightlife is a culture, it’s not a club. And the beauty of going out to hear a band in Little Five Points is you would park your car many blocks away and walk, maybe stop in and have food somewhere, window shop, catch a band, have a couple beers. That’s nightlife.</
Farris: I do think Underground does one thing well, and that’s large events. I mean they brought 175,000 people [for Peach Drop], and that could maybe be a shot in the arm if the events are well-planned and designed with another aim in mind.</
CL: Should the city think about simply selling Underground?</
Hall: The facility may need some additional investment, so I would be open to hearing ideas. But it’s probably more important to let the market come to us instead of the bureaucrats pushing what they think is best. Then you figure out if you need to sell.</
Skach: I always get a little bit queasy when there’s talk of closing public streets and giving them away. And part of Underground is still a public street. Privatization of public space is always something that’s difficult to grapple with.</
CL: Are there any other uses for the World of Coke site? What about a downtown amphitheater or a place for gatherings and events?</
Henderson: One of the nice things about the World of Coke is that it brings foreigners to downtown. Whatever solution for Underground should include something global or international.</
Skach: It seems like the push is to consolidate all of our new museums around Centennial Park, but I think that if the state History Museum were to move to that site, there would be some benefit to that. It would be a beautiful relationship to the state Capitol building. But I personally like the idea of a cultural facility still remaining on the site.</
Farris: I think that’s a great idea. It could serve as sort of a link between things going on at the King Center and Centennial Park. You could connect all of these, and someone could visit the city and hit that group of three. I think there is a very big danger in not getting it right. Whatever it is, it needs to not be stale. It needs to be appealing on many levels.</
Hall: That residential idea jumps out at me just because it might be a place that can move quickly. But a cultural institution would be exciting.</
CL: If there’s any one thing that you would like to see at Underground, what would it be?</
Henderson: At Covent Garden in London, performers come and do all sorts of eccentric things that you would only see at Cirque du Soleil. That creates an environment that would be really impressive. That, along with a good fresh market. Organic produce is something that’s coming back, and Georgia’s always been a great farming state.</
Skach: Just off the top of my head, a really great five-star restaurant.</
Farris: I’m going to have to go with a bookstore, something that I could go in and sort of get lost in.</
Hall: I miss Café du Monde. I think it was the only one outside of New Orleans. And, just thinking about Harvard Square, a string of used bookstores, and kind of the cafe feel.</
CL: The study done by the city’s finance department suggests forming a task force to consider options for Underground. What options should the task force consider?</
Farris: One of the questions that’s left in my head is, why would a[n] [Underground management] company languish for six years? If fingers need to be pointed, where do they need to be pointed? I’m not making any accusations, but I think that’s an obvious start: If the city has outsourced this, we need to make sure we’ve gotten something for our money.</
Hall: It seems there needs to be a retooling of the business model. It’s a business. So you could reinvent yourself and be very profitable and very successful and appeal to this new market — if you choose to.</
Interns Jake Gantz and Ellis Jones assisted in transcribing this story.</
LISTEN TO OUR CONVERSATION: To hear the councilman, the architect, the club owner, and the activist go off on Underground’s faults and wax eloquent on its future, check out our podcast available for download here[mp3].