Editor's note: For bios on our Underground pundits, click here.
When the World of Coca-Cola opens in May in its new location next door to the Georgia Aquarium, the bottom is expected to fall out of Underground Atlanta. That's the prediction of a recent study conducted by the city's finance department, which crunched the numbers for Underground and forecast a dismal future unless a major turnaround takes place. With the loss of the World of Coke as a tourist draw -- shifting its 800,000 annual visitors to Centennial Park -- revenues at Underground are expected to nosedive by 20 percent, continuing an ongoing decline in sales.
Atlanta taxpayers currently foot the bill for about $8 million a year in debt service on $85 million in bonds the city issued to relaunch Underground Atlanta in 1989. Right now, the only money the city earns from Underground comes from the adjoining parking decks, not from its shops, restaurants or bars.
So how does the city avoid a costly bailout of Underground? Creative Loafing invited a councilman, an urban planner, a downtown business owner and a community activist to discuss how Underground could be transformed from a failing subterranean mall into a vibrant component of a newly energized central business district.
CL: Despite its reputation as something of a civic white elephant, Underground Atlanta is a very unique property, with a strong history of culture and nightlife. How does this city best take advantage of Underground's uniqueness?
Kwanza Hall: Underground has a lot of meaning to Atlanta. There are some long-standing ties to that place. And I think that we have to leverage on top of that as we look into the future. For the last seven years or so, it's been generally a tourist-focused agenda. But we have many new residents. We have additional energy from 2,000 students that are going to be moving into the new Georgia State dorm on Piedmont and Ellis. I think we need to focus on Underground becoming a destination for neighborhoods, as opposed to just a destination for tourists.
John Skach: I think he's right. Underground was originally a piece of the framework of the city of Atlanta. But it really has to reintegrate itself. A task force might want to take a two-phase approach: looking at what needs to happen in the near term, just to get it solvent again. Then take a look at the long view and how it can be reintegrated into what is becoming a strong neighborhood.
Clay Farris: I think there's a lot to be said about Underground as a symbol. We're here today because it doesn't really seem to live up to any of those conceptualizations. No matter how you envision it, when you go there you are pretty much let down. As a neighbor, I can tell you what it is lacking right now, in terms of a community. It doesn't really look in its own backyard and ask how it can serve not only the residents that live there now, but the thousands of residents that I think will be pouring in over the next 18 months or so. It completely ignores the 60,000-plus workers that are there from 9 to 5. Tourism is not there anymore. Tourism is over at a place called Centennial Park.
Pablo Henderson: There are basically two downtowns at the moment. There's the downtown that's north of Marietta Street, and there's the downtown that's south of Marietta Street. I think there are a number of factors that create that dividing line, primarily an aesthetic one. There hasn't been the same economic impact. There hasn't been the same flow of business.
CL: Underground Atlanta is located in this awkward nexus of downtown, next to Five Points station on the edge of the central business district. So how does Underground overcome this problem; how does it best fit into the fabric of downtown?
Hall: Stepping back, if you look at the south-central business district, it's full of parking lots and old buildings. We also have the railroad gulch to the west. When you look at that entire area, you're talking 40 or 50 acres. That's half of an Atlantic Station. How many residents could we bring to that area? If you really want to look forward, you're going to look at a mixed-use redevelopment that incorporates transit. What are the needs for folks who work there, the students who pass through there everyday, as well as the residents? What about a bookstore where we could just hang out? Why not a grocery store? That's the direction that we need to be going in.
Henderson: I think that what you need next is something that's going to stimulate economic growth. The stigma on Underground is there. So to risk another failure is too dangerous.
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