Potential new owner of Underground Atlanta envisions ‘community rather than a destination’

Retail on the ground floor, residences above, and the historic facade will remain


Atlanta residents have roughly two years to get your photo taken in front of an airbrushed skyline, feed quarters to arcade games, or get your earwax sucked out by a candle at Underground Atlanta.

Mayor Kasim Reed today announced that South Carolina-based developer WRS Inc. is under contract to purchase the 12-acre property for $25.8 million, a move that he says will ease the financial burden on the city and give the historic center of the city a chance to reinvent itself.

WRS CEO T. Scott Smith says the firm plans to transform the 12-acre property “into a community rather than a destination.” Specifically: a mixed-use development that includes a grocery store on the ground floor with residential units above.

Smith wants to close on the deal in the middle of next year and start construction in mid-2016. Undergound’s historic facade and retail spaces would remain, he says. The firm is currently looking at existing vendor leases and will talk with them about next steps.

Smith says it’s too early to say how many units will be built. But he says that the large demand across the country for people to live close to downtown areas will play in the project’s favor.

“It’s the old adage in real estate,” he told reporters. “Location, location, location.”

What will set the next incarnation of Underground apart from past efforts to resuscitate the bizarre retail and entertainment space is the fact that people will be living above it, Smith says. That will bring life to a commercial area that has never really had an anchor tenant, just a mishmash of retail and services.

How the new project will actually look - and how tall it will rise to join Atlanta’s skyline - is still undecided, Smith says. The firm is a commercial developer, specializing lately in standalone shops and strip malls. He says WRS would most likely partner with a residential developer on the living units.

The project involves no subsidies or incentives from the city and therefore does not require any of the units to be affordable.

Smith says the firm will keep the Alabama Street retail area that links Peachtree and Pryor streets, a move that will help preserve Downtown’s street grid. It will also keep the subterranean connection to MARTA’s Five Points station.

Efforts by MARTA and Central Atlanta Progress to breathe new life into the station could get an extra boost as part of Underground’s redevelopment. Reed says the deal could also spark new talk of the transit agency moving its headquarters from Lindbergh to Five Points.

The Atlanta City Council and the Downtown Development Authority must still approve the deal.

More details to come.