There was a time when Underground Atlanta was a place you wanted to visit.
In the 1970s, it housed more than 70 bars, earning a reputation as Georgia's Bourbon Street. When the world waited to learn which city would host the 1996 Summer Olympics, the downtown attraction's plaza was overrun with Atlantans. Major retailers such as Victoria's Secret and Sam Goody had outlets in the mall. Next door, more than 800,000 people a year visited the World of Coca-Cola.
Today, the shrine to soft drinks and its visitors are on the other side of downtown. The big-brand chain stores have been replaced over the years with an array of nightclubs, shops selling tourist tchotchkes, palm readers, and ear candling outposts.
Recently, Mayor Kasim Reed directed his staff to re-examine possibilities for the city-owned, subterranean shopping center as part of a larger look at downtown. Nearly everything — save for mothballing the historic 12-acre area, which cost more than $140 million to renovate in the late 1980s — is on the table.
Over the last two decades, Underground has become a conundrum that leaves tourists befuddled and struggles to attract locals, despite being the only place in Atlanta where spirits flow until 4 a.m. To truly fix Underground, the city must address the larger issue of fixing downtown.
Underground's origins date back to the 1920s, when city leaders constructed viaducts over railroad tracks in downtown, an engineering feat that essentially buried the first floors of many buildings. Second-floor windows soon became storefronts. In the late 1960s, those storefronts were transformed into shops, restaurants, and bars, and Underground, where men with handlebar mustaches and women with Fawcett hair mingled on cobblestones, became one of the most popular places to dance, drink, and dine in metro Atlanta.
But then development started marching north on Peachtree Street and out into the suburbs, crime picked up in downtown, and Underground lost its luster. In 1982, it closed. In the late 1980s, the city took on $85 million in debt to renovate the area and reopened the attraction. It partnered with developers John Aderhold and Dan O'Leary in 1999 to operate the facility, and gave them an offer only a fool would refuse: an 88-year lease for $100,000 a year, though that figure rises if revenues prove favorable.
Yet it's hard to imagine Underground competing in the near future with more established retail areas such as Atlantic Station and Lenox Square, or drawing the nightlife crowds found in Virginia-Highland, Inman Park, or the Westside.
Despite O'Leary and Aderhold's best efforts, Underground is not what it could — or should — be. In an AJC interview last week, O'Leary acknowledged as much, adding that whatever might turn around Underground has "to be a big idea. And we know it. But big ideas take a long time to happen."
City officials have rounded up a pro bono team of real estate professionals to help them brainstorm about Underground, including the various developers behind three major local projects: the massive mixed-use retail center Buckhead Atlanta, the downtown train terminal in "the Gulch," and Ponce City Market.
Possible ideas — and for now, they're simply ideas — are aplenty. The mayor has touched on the concept of turning Underground into an arts district. A local businessman wants to move a Black Music Hall of Fame into the site. Georgia State University could perhaps take over the area, turning storefronts into labs and classrooms or a student center.
Then there's the idea of building a casino. Not the depressing video lottery terminals proposed in years past, but an actual casino that could lure people from across the metro region and the Southeast. But considering that the mayor and the Republican-controlled Gold Dome, which would have to approve such a proposal, oppose gambling, that's pretty much a no-go.
One city official has broached the idea of flooding the terraced plaza to create a waterfront and gathering area for residents, students, and office workers. Though potentially costly, it would alter downtown's landscape. It's the kind of public project and amenity that, if done well and in concert with cleaning up the surrounding area and more policing, could help the historic neighborhood retain and attract what it needs the most: people.
But no matter what big idea is proposed, it will fail if people continue to feel uneasy about coming to the area. Combatting that complicated and unfair Five Points-is-scary stigma won't happen overnight. But it's vital to the success of whatever proposal the city, O'Leary, and Aderhold run with.
The good news is that City Hall is viewing the effort as more than just a chance to reboot the oddball attraction. The mayor appears to be looking beyond Underground and at the rest of downtown. He's convened a separate group to consider how to improve the historic and growing neighborhood. Central Atlanta Progress is working with downtown property owners to clean up the community. For the last two years, the city's Office of Cultural Affairs' Elevate program has brought public art, including building-size murals and public performances, to downtown.
Why not also craft an ambitious plan to rebuild the Five Points MARTA station? Use the mayor's strong ties with the state to win partial funding for the project, giving the vital station at the heart of the capital city the treatment it deserves, and in the process, create an environment where existing and new riders might feel comfortable. Find a new purpose for the former World of Coca-Cola Museum. And locate and convince the area's many absentee landlords to rent out vacant storefronts to galleries, artists, and small start-ups at reduced rates, a move that could bring more foot traffic to downtown and increase property values.
Yes, a big idea could do a lot for Underground. But more than anything, the area needs a strong downtown to prosper.