Money pit make-over 

Buckhead's woes may become Underground's bliss

The city's latest attempt to revive Underground Atlanta by turning the subterranean tourist trap into a mini-Bourbon Street -- made possible by granting it the privilege of pouring drinks until 4 a.m., while every other bar in the city must cease at 2:30 -- will probably have local conspiracy theorists swapping e-mails for months to come.

Michael Krohngold got a taste of the public's distrust and resentment for Underground's preferential treatment last week, after being first in line to lease space -- the largest space, no less -- in the city-owned urban mall. Krohngold, owner of Tongue & Groove in Buckhead, signed the lease only weeks after City Council voted to roll back the closing time for all bars and nightclubs -- with the exception of those located in Underground.

"People called to tell me I was selling out; a radio station accused me of making a deal with the devil," says Krohngold, a veteran of the Atlanta nightclub scene. "They said, 'You were fighting the city; now you're in bed with the city. What gives?'"

Krohngold is forced to concede that the circumstances and timing surrounding his involvement in the planned rejuvenation of Underground might seem odd at first glance, given that he was leading the charge against the city's efforts.

"This is business," he says. "I'm not going to say to hell with the city because they fucked me over."

Everyone affiliated with the new, improved vision of Underground -- from management to elected officials to new renters -- readily admits that there'd be no talk of an Underground revival if the council hadn't rolled back bar hours in the rest of the city.

What to some may look like connect-the-dots skullduggery, a sneaky way for the city to pump revenue into financially flailing Underground, might actually be who-knew serendipity.

"Did we make some kind of a backroom deal -- hogwash!" Krohngold says. "I fought [earlier closing times] harder than anybody."

The thread that runs through Underground's apparent reversal of fortune is actually held by Warren Bruno, the ex-owner of Atkins Park who's worked as a commercial real-estate agent and restaurant consultant since mid-2002. Bruno began his bar career working the late shift at Sgt. Pepper's during Underground's heyday.

"I knew how successful it was back in the late '60s and '70s and I'd always wanted to see it restored," he says. He was one of the first to dive back into Underground when it reopened in 1987; his Groundhog Tavern stayed afloat until 1996. By that time, he was already a fixture on the bar scene, having opened Aunt Charley's at the apex of the Peachtree-Roswell split in 1975, a time when it was one of the few watering holes in the then-decaying Buckhead Village. Two years later, ironically, in an attempt to revive the area, a desperate City Council passed a new ordinance that waived the parking requirement for Buckhead businesses.

Last year, Bruno and Krohngold hastily organized the Atlanta Licensed Beverage Council to fight the proposal by Buckhead Councilwoman Mary Norwood to do away with the long-standing 4 a.m. closing time for bars and nightclubs. Norwood's bill, of course, eventually moved up last call to 2:30 a.m., with a city-wide bar closing time of 3 a.m. City-wide, that is, except for Underground Atlanta, by virtue of being the city's only designated "special entertainment district." Not coincidentally, it also happens to be owned by the city and costs taxpayers upward of $6 million a year.

Suddenly, the answer of how to fashion a silk purse from Underground's sow's ear was obvious, says Bruno, who contacted his colleagues from the Licensed Beverage Council to see if they'd be interested in getting in on the ground floor.

"These are two initiatives that were completely unrelated," he claims of the earlier closing times and the desire on the part of the city to revive Underground.

Krohngold found himself converted to the cause within minutes of beginning his tour of Underground's cavernous vacancies, especially when he was told of the price, which he describes as below the market rate of about $25 a square foot.

"Underground Atlanta is like a ghost town, but it has potential," he says. "To have the advantage of later closing hours than anywhere else in the city is paramount."

But John Martin, manager of Midtown's the Riviera, which recently lost its 24-club status in court, says Krohngold and his fellow Underground converts have rolled over for the city. Currently, the Riviera, Backstreet and other former 24-hour clubs are going without their liquor licenses as they try to appeal the decision.

Martin says the city is trying to intimidate the mass of local bar owners while looking the other way as some bars bend the rules in holding after-hours parties.

"We believe we're the torch-bearers for this cause," Martin says.

"If that's true," says Krohngold, "where were they three months ago when we were fighting this? It's already a law now. Get over it."

Krohngold says he hadn't been looking for a second location, but with revenues falling at Tongue & Groove thanks to the earlier bar curfew and smaller Buckhead crowds, he had to think of a way to bolster his bottom line.

"I wouldn't open a bar anywhere else in the city," he explains. "It's just a terrible time."

And it's not likely to get much easier, says Councilwoman Clair Muller. Although Muller supported the earlier bar closing, she claims the "ultimate fix for Buckhead's problem" is to replace some of the bars and nightclubs now lining its narrow streets with galleries, retail stores and restaurants.

Some critics of Norwood's proposal argued that the real fix for Buckhead was to get more cops on the street to combat violent, late-night crime, a notion shunned by Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington. The chief has since, ironically, told the AJC he's willing to commit 50 or so officers to the equally crime-weary streets surrounding Underground.

In 2000, the council passed what Muller calls her "attrition ordinance," a measure that would allow the city to deny liquor licenses when they come up for renewal in order to reach a desired balance between bars and other types of businesses.

Ideally, Muller says, the ordinance would limit liquor licenses to about 10 percent of businesses in the Buckhead Village, although that figure could be adjusted if needed.

At the time her ordinance was adopted, however, city attorneys told her it wouldn't stand up legally, so it wasn't put into action. But when the city won its longstanding legal fight against 24-hour clubs such as Backstreet and Club 122, she was told the city now had the footing it needed to enforce her plan.

She says the attrition plan for Buckhead Village might be enforced as early as January 2005.

So maybe it makes sense that Underground is starting to look attractive -- and not just for being able to pour drinks an hour-and-a-half later. So far, Bruno has brought aboard the Tongue & Groove spin-off; a new goth-style music club from the owners of the Masquerade and the Chamber; a version of the Loca Luna tapas bar and a couple of others. He's also working to line up a gay bar, a hip-hop club, a pool hall, a steak house, a cigar and martini lounge -- all the components for a diverse mix of clubs and restaurants that will -- fingers crossed! -- make the now-cheesy Underground cool once more.

scott.henry@creativeloafing.com

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