Despite public outcry and concerns from some of the councilmembers themselves, the Atlanta City Council voted 10-4 on Monday evening to approve a resolution to “abandon” portions of several Downtown streets that run through Underground Atlanta.
The vote allows parts of Lower and Upper Alabama Street and two blocks of Pryor Street to become part of the sale of the Underground property to South Carolina-based development firm WRS Real Estate Investments. The company plans to turn the historic Underground site and surrounding properties into a mixed-use development with retail, restaurant, hotels, homes and student housing.
Mayor Kasim Reed said including the streets was essential to finalize the deal to sell Underground, but residents were concerned that there was no public hearings or opportunity for comment on the move by the city. Specifically, residents questioned whether the streets would still be open to pedestrians, bicyclists or vehicles once they became part of the project.
Councilmember Kwanza Hall said WRS has pledged to engage Downtown business owners and residents as plans for Underground’s re-development moves forward. “All the plans haven’t been revealed yet as negotiations continue, but I think the community will be happy,” Hall said, noting that WRS is committed to historic preservation. “Investment in Underground will make Downtown the attractive place we want it to be.”
Councilmember Felicia Moore, who voted against the legislation, said she believed the Neighborhood Planning Unit (NPU) should have had the opportunity give input and advice, but the process was bypassed by the city. “The streets belong to the public until we give them away permanently as part of this development,” Moore said. “What happens with the streets is definitely a planning issue and should be under the purview of the NPU.”
Councilmember Cleta Winslow, who represents the area that includes Underground, said she believed the developers were committed to the process of making Underground a success. “I’m very excited that after more than two years that WRS is still interested and hasn’t backed away,” Winslow said. “They want to protect the historic buildings in the Downtown area. I think they’ll do the right thing.”
“I can’t recall an incident where the city had any remorse for abandoning a street for redevelopment,” Councilmember Michael Julian Bond said, commenting that the street abandonments were nothing new with local developments, citing Georgia Tech and English Avenue projects.
Bond said he remembered Underground in its heyday in the 1970s when the subterranean streets created by railroad viaducts were rediscovered after being forgotten for decades. There were bars, restaurants and even a wax museum that drew locals and tourists alike, he said. After going into decline in the 80s, Underground was revived to great fanfare in 1989, but that fanfare was short-lived.
“Downtown used to be vital and vibrant,” Bond recalled. “It was the heart of the city. Now people avoid the area, are victimized by crime and residents are plagued by the conditions.”