Experts assemble to make recommendations on future of Underground Atlanta

Local engineers, architects, and designers recently gathered for a three-day charrette on redeveloping Underground Atlanta.

After purchasing Underground Atlanta for $31.6 million last November, the Downtown property’s new owner is considering multifamily residential options, more retail and restaurants, and reactivating outdoor spaces.

Those are some of the recommendations that came out of a recent three-day design charrette with some of Atlanta’s leading urban planners, architects, engineers and placemaking experts.

The team, which was assembled by owner Shaneel Lalani, CEO of Billionaires Funding Group (BFG), and HGOR, an Atlanta-based urban design, placemaking and landscape architecture firm, envisioned the first drafts of a master plan for the storied district. To follow the charrette, Lalani said the team would soon seek community feedback to help inform the final master plan

New owner Shaneel Lalani outside Underground Atlanta.

“Our hope with the redevelopment of Underground Atlanta is to create the right environment for the city and a gathering place for Atlantans of all ages to utilize,” said Lalani. “We commissioned the design charrette as first step in creating a uniquely activated entertainment district that will restore the sense of wonderment and excitement around Underground Atlanta. We look forward to the opportunity to speak with the community to hear their thoughts on what uses will best serve the needs of the surrounding neighborhoods and the city to allow us to create an informed plan for this project.”

At the design charrette, the experts split into three teams each focusing on different elements of the project. Following Lalani’s vision of a multi-phased redevelopment, the team presented a first draft of a master plan that addresses the rehabilitation of existing historic buildings and structures; incorporates viable residential options; creates engaging retail and entertainment concepts at both the street level and the underground mall around Kenny’s Alley; adds programmable indoor and outdoor public spaces and rehabs existing public areas, and includes plans for vertical growth with the addition of taller buildings for a variety of potential uses.

The team also indicated a need for immediate onsite activation and programming to draw people back to Underground. BFG said there would be continuing conversations with neighborhood stakeholders to ensure the redevelopment considers the identity, insight and needs of Downtown.

Underground Atlanta in the summer of 2020.

“Underground Atlanta will always have a place in Atlanta’s history as well as the feeling of nostalgia among the many who visited the district over the years,” said A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress (CAP). “To ensure the success of Underground’s next phase, we must revive its sense of relevance. I was inspired by the conversations and initial plans that were presented at the charrette, and the team’s understanding of what is needed to create a great place within our Downtown community. I am impressed with Shaneel and his team’s vision to reestablish Underground Atlanta’s importance in our city’s future.”

In addition to the design charrette, BFG hired a leasing director with significant urban retail leasing experience, India Turkell, who will focus on retail and restaurant leasing for the 400,000-square-foot district.

Lalani purchased Underground from South Carolina-based  developer WRS, which had purchased the bought the property from the city in 2017 for $34.6 million and had planned to redevelop the 12-acre site into a live-work-shop community. WRS had announced several projects – including a hotel, an LGBTQ+ nightclub/restaurants, and apartments – but said the pandemic had caused a delay in construction.

Lalani also purchased the nearby One Park Tower, a 300,000-square-foot office building located at 34 Peachtree Street in Downtown, for $12.75 million, earlier this year.

The New Year’s Eve Peach Drop at Underground Atlanta.

Lalani’s planned redevelopment is another chapter in Underground’s storied history.

The retail and entertainment district, which became best  known for hosting the annual Peach Drop on New Year’s Eve and as the home of The Masquerade music venue, was created after the Civil War as bridges and viaducts were built over Downtown’s railroad tracks. The section of the city, containing about 12-acres, was eventually covered and forgotten as the street level was raised one-and-a-half stories by the end of the 1920s.

Underground was rediscovered in the 1960s and the original store fronts, brick streets and gas lamps were renovated and turned into a restaurant and nightclub district in 1969, including the original Dante’s Down the Hatch. The heyday was short-lived and Underground became home to vagrants until the late 80s, when it was resurrected again in 1989.

The second heyday didn’t last long either as the upscale retailers and restaurants fled and were replaced by small shops, chain stores and fast-food restaurants.

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Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley is the editor of Atlanta Intown.