After the ceremonial peach dropped, and a new year has dawned, Atlanta city boosters are — again — trying to keep afloat trace vestiges of optimism that Underground Atlanta can soon rebound into a vital community nerve center. To many, and especially metro Atlanta residents who view Underground as an unsafe and failing submerged thrift-mall, cheers for the 12-acre, three-level historic property are beginning to sound tired. Last we heard, Mayor Kasim Reed said in April he was in talks with a pair of prospective retail "anchor tenants"; before that, he pipe-dreamed in 2011 about Underground morphing into an arts district. Prior to that, developer/owner Dan O' Leary's plans for an Underground casino faltered. Georgia State University's plans for student housing on site sputtered, as did an earlier pitch to bring the NASCAR museum (now running on fumes in Charlotte) to the former World of Coke building. What effect has so many transformative air-balls had on confidence that Underground may rise again?
In a thorough analysis of Underground's plight, the AJC tapped A.J. Robinson of Central Atlanta Progress and others who hope plans for a new retractable-roof football stadium downtown, and a possible new transit hub in "the Gulch," could inject life into Underground for tourists and locals alike. "The location remains as good as it was when Atlanta was first conceived," Robinson told the newspaper. "It's a good time to be thinking about the future of the whole corridor."
Though its retail spaces are 80 percent occupied, many of the restaurants and nightclubs that filled Underground during its 1970s heyday are long gone, and its kiosks and instances of crime have done little to restore the former luster. Given Underground's current state, it's hard to believe that New York's South Street Seaport, Boston's Faneuil Hall Marketplace and the newest incarnation of Underground Atlanta were all created by the same developer, the former Rouse Companies (now part of the General Growth Properties juggernaut).
What is it about Underground that makes it so undesirable? Persistent panhandlers? Lackluster retailers? Crime, the AJC points out, has shown no recent spike there.
When it comes to Underground's draw, at least city officials seem to have their heads above sand. "When we direct tourists to Underground and Five Points, we want to make sure it represents the best of Atlanta, which it doesn't right now," Atlanta's chief operating officer told the AJC. Perhaps more telling is the account one Arizona tourist provided to the newspaper, recalling what she thought was a blatant drug deal at Underground's food court recently.
In this new year, city officials are promising investments in cleanliness and public safety measures, "focusing on the stretch of road that runs by Underground between Five Points and the beginning of Peachtree Street," the AJC reported. Could this be the beginning of true progress, or another drop in the bucket?