Downtown Atlantans waiting for the city’s storied subterranean entertainment district to be reborn as a vibrant urban community have endured years of development’s equivalent to watching paint dry—only more frustrating and sad.
Revived, cautious optimism for Underground Atlanta came in spring 2017, when South Carolina-based shopping center developer WRS finally completed a purchase of the 12-acre property for about $35 million, prompting then-Mayor Kasim Reed to declare it “another milestone in the revitalization of South Downtown Atlanta.” WRS’ plans would eventually call for a grand, $450-million transformation.
Fast-forward to late 2020, with little having happened at multilevel Underground beyond preliminary construction, mass closures, Masquerade concerts, and a bevy of big talk and flashy renderings—and WRS was out, selling the site to an unproven but energetic entrepreneur in his early thirties who lives in Decatur.
What Shaneel Lalani, the CEO of Billionaires Funding Group—aka, BFG—forked over for the stalled redevelopment pit isn’t yet known.
But a positivity sign came on the first day BFG began marketing its lease options at Underground, as Lalani recently told Atlanta magazine: More than 50 inquiries about leasing possibilities flooded the company in a matter of hours.
In an effort to capitalize on the interest and tap some of the city’s top planning minds, Lalani recently teamed with Atlanta-based HGOR—the urban design, placemaking, and landscape firm that’s had a hand in colossal projects such as Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the forthcoming Westside Park, and Georgia World Congress Center’s ongoing redo—for a charrette that spanned three days.
It’s all very early in the process, and any master-planned designs are said to be pending community input, but BFG reps supplied an interesting recap of the design summit this week. Below, a few takeaways from what could be the preface to Underground Atlanta’s next chapter:
• Also in attendance at the three-day charette were some of Atlanta’s most active and experienced companies in the realms of architecture, engineering, placemaking, and urban planning. Smith Dalia Architects, Moody Nolan, tvsdesign, Kimley-Horn Associates (already hired by Lalani), and Goode Van Slyke Architecture had seats at the table. That’s probably a good thing.
• There’s no mention of “casino” in the recap.
• Lalani’s overarching vision calls for a multi-phased redevelopment, with “multifamily residential options, a renewed street-level experience, and activated outdoor greenspace.” The envisioning team emphasized the need to active the site in ways that will engage the more than 8,000 people living around downtown, creating “positive activity… in a safe way.”
• A first-draft masterplan assembled at the charette calls for: rehabed historical buildings and structures, engaging retail and entertainment within the mall around Kenny’s Alley and at street level, programmable spaces for the public indoors and out, with plenty of room left over for “vertical growth with the addition of taller buildings for a variety of potential uses.” Few surprises there.
• BFG has hired a leasing director, India Turkell, to focus on filling the 400,000-square-foot district with diverse eateries and shops. Her experience includes “working within a key retail market in Miami,” as Lalani said in a prepared statement, adding: “BFG and our partners are full steam ahead on bringing this historic district back to life, and a key piece of the process is creating the right tenant mix.”
• A.J. Robinson, Central Atlanta Progress president and one of downtown’s most vocal boosters, said he came away from the charette “inspired by the conversations and initial plans… and the team’s understanding of what’s needed to create a great place.”
• What’s next? Now that experts have chimed in, Lalani and his team plan to tap the community, sometime in the near future, for feedback before finalizing the masterplan, according to BFG reps. Lalani says his goal is to ultimately create a downtown gathering place “for Atlantans of all ages” that will “restore the sense of wonderment and excitement around Underground Atlanta.”
• Recent downtown news, discussion (Urbanize Atlanta)
• Underground Atlanta will try, try again (Atlanta magazine)