A Tale of Two City Developers

Underground Atlanta

If you live in a big city, you gauge your age by the changing real estate. As a kid and then as a teenager, I saw Shea Stadium and Giant Stadium being built. Both are now memories. Driving a New York City cab in the early ’80s, I rarely got a fare to Williamsburg and, when I did, I quickly turned around and headed back to Manhattan over the Williamsburg Bridge. That landed you on Delancey Street on the Lower East Side where turn-of-the-century (20th, that is) tenements still lined the street and where uptown gentry might only venture for cheap fashion or a corned beef sandwich at Katz’s Deli.

Over the past 20 years, those neighborhoods have served as landing pads for ambitious and creative young people forging their own big-city dreams. They’ve also served as blueprints for the reclamation of rundown neighborhoods in nearly every A and B metro in the United States.

Joseph Ferrara cut his teeth in New York real estate in the terraforming of Williamsburg and the Lower East Side. “We jumped into the East Village before anyone,” said Ferrara. “We did it in Williamsburg, offering the first ferry access. In Downtown Brooklyn, we broke ground on the first for-sale condominiums.”

The second-generation builder and principal of BFC Partners has turned his attention to his own home turf of Staten Island, the New York City borough voted least likely to ever be cool. Ferrara emphatically disagrees. He predicts that the Empire Outlets that BFC is building at the Staten Island Ferry terminus of St. George (rebranded as “The North Shore”) will become one of New York’s top tourist attractions, as well as a draw for outlet-deprived locals. It most certainly will be aided by a compelling billboard — the 630-foot-tall New York Wheel.

“The Wheel will be the world’s largest LED canvas, and every night it will put on an orchestrated light show,” Ferrara said. “The Staten Island Ferry, meanwhile, is already the No. 3 or 4 tourist attraction in New York. Every year, 23 million people ride it, and anyone accessing the terminal has to walk through my project.”

As Ferrara and BFC explore new ground in New York, Scott Smith and WRS Inc. will be reclaiming and repurposing one of the South’s legendary retail and entertainment centers, Underground Atlanta.

The subterranean site came into being in the early years of the 20th century when Atlanta built a bridge and elevated street level for freight train access to the Georgia Railroad Depot. Building owners moved their entrances to their second floors and the “Underground” thrived for years as a nighttime scene of bars and music halls. It faded when Atlanta relaxed its public drinking laws and then was transformed by Rouse into, essentially, an underground mall in 1987.

That lasted but 10 years, however; and in 2014, the city of Atlanta put the largely abandoned site up for sale. Smith and WRS came calling and this past March bought the property for $34.6 million with a plan to turn it into a mixed-use facility, including a dormitory building for nearby Georgia State University.

“We saw the possibility of building a community right in the heart of downtown Atlanta,” he said. “Mayor Kasim Reed and his staff shared the same vision to put this property back in play. This was the original shopping area of Atlanta, and we were confident it was something we could regenerate. With Georgia State, we have a built-in local audience of 40,000 people.”

Rouse’s redevelopment had thrived for its proximity to the World of Coca-Cola, one of the city’s leading tourist attractions, and the promise of the approaching 1996 Atlanta Olympics. However, once the Olympic Flame was extinguished, so too was the long-term viability of Underground Atlanta.

“It turned out to be just another mall, and you could find a mall anywhere,” Smith observed. “People had no reason to be there after 6 p.m.”

And so, like so many developers of retail projects, WRS will attempt to attract its own core of shoppers with residential towers and necessity-based retail at street level that will lead to more stores below ground. Smith’s and the city’s ultimate hope is to create a thriving new neighborhood packed with modern city-dwellers.

“Our timing is good, because there’s a tremendous movement to come back downtown,” Smith said.

Underground Atlanta and WRS are also helped by another growing movement that other developers will surely continue to benefit from — cities willing to make attractive deals on potentially prime real estate. “This will be the first time this property is on the Atlanta tax rolls,” he said.

What does this tale of two city developers say about the future of downtown retail? Perhaps Charles Dickens will forgive us for transposing his most famous opening line and posit that, perhaps, it is the worst of times and it is the best of times.

Al Urbanski
aurbanski@chainstoreage.com,
@AlUrbanski (Twitter)

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