Like other aspiring destination districts across metro Atlanta, Underground Atlanta is welcoming a slate of entrepreneurs and artists into a low-risk business scenario in hopes of generating buzz and laying the foundation for the storied downtown property’s comeback.

Underground’s ownership announced plans today to feature a rotating selection of 70 start-up businesses over the next several months in dusted-off storefronts, studios, and galleries along Lower Alabama Street. None of them will be required to pay rent.

A call for interested entrepreneurs and artisans in August brought more than 300 applications, officials said. The rent-free program, which begins today, is called Underground Roots.

“We were blown away by the number of up-and-coming business owners and creatives looking to test their concepts [here],” said Kris Pilcher, Underground's creative director, in today’s announcement. “The selected concepts align with the new vision of Underground, and our goal of bringing new energy and excitement to Lower Alabama Street while bigger redevelopment plans are in the works.”

Work was underway at Underground's storefronts and food hall during an August tour. Josh Green/Urbanize Atlanta

Decatur is opening a similar pop-up initiative—on a much smaller scale—in vacant retail space along a main traffic corridor this week. Carter’s Summerhill project employed a pop-up tactic in the same vein last year.

At Underground, pop-up participants have started opening to the public in old storefronts and mobile carts.

Eclectic vendors operating now range from 8-year-old Kroy Richardson’s Kroy Korn Gourmet Popcorn—a “quarantine side hustle” turned into a business concept—to artist Mike Stasny’s otherworldly, Stranger Things-eque gallery.  

“This is the coolest, weirdest studio walk you’ll find in the Southeast right now,” said Stasny of Underground Roots.

The initial wave also includes gallery/speakeasy Itch Studios, the Carl Janes gallery, Boomers BBQ, clothing retailer Genius Pilot Academy, The Bougie Grazer, Shorty’z Sweet Treats, Dolo’s Pizza Co. , the Diamond Rule Coffee barista cart, and nonprofit Onward Theatre.

An example of old storefronts beneath Underground's famed viaducts. Josh Green/Urbanize Atlanta

Near the storefronts, the Underground team is building a 21-stall food hall curated by Robert Montwaid, best known for creating New York’s Gansevoort Market, with hopes of rolling out the first eateries late this year or early next.

Two new businesses have opened, alongside music venue the Masquerade and a nightclub. And at 86 Pryor Street, a brick building above the underground corridors, a gallery and coworking space has set up shop across three floors.

In addition to Underground Roots, the below-street section is hosting “The Art of Banksy: ‘Without Limits,’” a 33,000-square-foot, 140-piece exhibition about the enigmatic artist that’s open to the public every other weekend until December. A free event series, the Underground Night Market, will also run from 6 to 10 p.m. each Thursday, featuring drinks, food, and music.

Decatur resident, real estate developer, and avid MARTA patron Shaneel Lalani, CEO of Lalani Ventures, bought ailing Underground from South Carolina-based shopping center developer WRS in November, paying $31 million—or $4 million less than WRS had paid in 2017.

The main Underground retail corridor. Various TV shows (The Walking Dead) and movies (the Fast and Furious franchise) have used this area for filming. Josh Green/Urbanize Atlanta

Lalani calls the pop-up businesses part of laying the groundwork for reactivation after Underground lay dormant for several years.

“We’re thrilled to be able to offer temporary, rent-free space for burgeoning entrepreneurs and artists to be able to test their concepts,” said Lalani in today’s announcement. “[We’re] re-establishing Underground Atlanta as a top destination for the city.”

• Photo tour deep into Underground Atlanta as renovations finally begin (Urbanize Atlanta)