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Hoping to Resuscitate a Portion of the City’s Heart in Atlanta
Richard Fausset | The New York Times


An entrance to the street-level stores, many of which are closed, at Underground Atlanta. Credit Kevin Liles for The New York Times

There was a time in the 1960s when Underground Atlanta, a 12-acre complex of viaducts and storefronts in the heart of downtown, was billed as this city’s answer to Bourbon Street. In the 1980s, it was reimagined as a tourist-friendly “festival marketplace” full of novelty retailers angling to attract out-of-town conventioneers. When that idea faltered, there was talk of turning it into a casino.


Today, after languishing for years as a tacky, costly hole in the center of the city, Underground is due for its next major makeover, one based on a radical concept for this sprawl-loving metropolis: People might actually want to live downtown.


By September, a South Carolina development company is expected to complete its $25.8 million purchase of Underground. Plans discussed by the company, WRS, call for adding roughly 900 apartments and a supermarket, and renovating the cavernous below-street-level mall, home to a row of shuttered nightclubs and vendors hawking hip-hop CDs, $10 jeans and rhinestone cellphone cases.


These days, “there’s not really much attracting people to Underground,” said Tre Tate, an out-of-work actor who was hanging out there recently.


Mr. Tate, 45, was standing on Upper Alabama Street on a late afternoon, near a Waffle House and a number of vacant retail spaces. He asked one passer-by for a dollar for bus fare.


The street is among a number of viaducts built a century ago to help manage the flow of traffic in what was then a booming railroad hub. The viaducts cover the ground-floor storefronts below, giving the zone its curious upstairs-downstairs character. For decades, developers and city leaders sought to capitalize on that design, imagining Underground as a one-of-a-kind destination for downtown visitors.


The new plan, said Kristi Rooks, a WRS project developer, will focus on attracting residents, now that this city, for so long defined by suburban development, appears to be looking inward.


In the 1970s, a decade characterized by white flight and suburban sprawl, the city of Atlanta shed roughly 70,000 residents. But recent population estimates suggest that the city is adding thousands of residents per year, with some looking for a more soulful urban experience, or at least a way to avoid a soul-deadening commute.


The population boom is helping drive other developments in the city, including the BeltLine, an unfinished 22-mile pathway for pedestrians, bikes and possibly public transit that follows old railroad lines; and Ponce City Market, a project that is transforming a historic Sears, Roebuck & Co. building into new retail, residential and office space.


“I don’t think that our idea is revolutionary,” Ms. Rooks said of Underground. “I think that our timing is spot on. People want to be in urban centers, and they want that authenticity, and they want to be on transit. And that wasn’t always the case.”


The sale, if completed, will come as a relief to the city government, which has been losing roughly $8 million a year on the property. It has also excited urban planners and city dwellers, who believe that Atlanta has for too long allowed its downtown to be dominated by government buildings, anonymous skyscrapers and tourist attractions like the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coca-Cola museum.


Over the last decade, there has been an injection of life downtown, largely from the 32,000-student Georgia State University, which has expanded aggressively, building new residence halls and taking over office towers for use as classroom space.


There have been other signs of a reawakened neighborhood, with a clutch of old buildings around Underground recently converted into art galleries and loft-style office spaces. Ms. Rooks visited one of those spaces for a recent meeting, telling about 50 residents that the plan, particularly the supermarket, could serve as a catalyst for more residential development.


“This is probably the only opportunity in downtown to get the retail uses that I think downtown desperately needs to be successful,” she said.


Underground and the city blocks around it constituted one of Atlanta’s first commercial districts. The history of the area since then has reflected both the shared plight of American downtowns and the peculiarities of Atlanta, the economic capital of the Deep South.


The area was home to a number of saloons as early as the 1870s.


The first modern revival of the district came in the late 1960s and ’70s, as a night life center aided by liquor laws in Fulton County that were looser than those in many surrounding counties.


The second revival of Underground, as a tourist-oriented shopping mall, had some success, but eventually fell victim to changing retail trends and perceptions that the area was overrun by panhandlers and petty criminals.


White fear of a majority-black city also played a role. “Gradually, gradually, gradually, we’re getting over it,” said Priscilla Smith, the executive director of Eyedrum, an avant-garde art and music gallery that recently relocated near Underground. “It’s awful. But it’s taken a while.”


The recent meeting was sponsored by the Center for Civic Innovation, a nonprofit that calls itself “Atlanta’s City Lab.” Kyle Kessler, president of the Atlanta Downtown Neighborhood Association, showed responses to a recent survey about the area around Underground. Among the most common were: sketchy, forgotten, blighted, scary.


Participants then talked about their hopes for the area, writing some of them on large sheets of paper.


They spoke of a neighborhood with more full-time residents of many races and income levels, and streets that did not become desolate after dark.


One participant, wielding a marker, boiled such comments down to a two-word phrase.


“REAL CITY,” she wrote.