Underground Atlanta will not be getting a casino anytime soon. But as one door closes, another one opens.
As my colleague, Scott Trubey, and I reported in this week’s Atlanta Business Chronicle, plans to turn the retail and entertainment complex into a c asino of “video lottery terminals,” is on hold, at least until Gov. Sonny Perdue leaves office.
Perdue has let the Georgia Lottery board, the group that would have to approve the casino, that it won’t happen on his watch.
There’s a wide range of opinions — for a myriad of reasons — on whether such a casino would be good for downtown, the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia.
No doubt, boosting Atlanta’s tourism and hospitality industry would be a plus. Generating new dollars to pay for the Georgia Lottery’s HOPE scholarship program would be a welcome turn of events.
But the proposal that was under consideration had several drawbacks as well. To call the development a casino was a bit of stretch. It would have had rows and rows of video terminals — a far cry from the Las Vegas-style of casinos with Black Jack tables and a communal experience with other players.
As some have observed, if we’re going to have a casino in downtown Atlanta — let’s go all out and have one the best. After all, we have the world’s largest airport and the world’s largest aquarium. Why settle for second or third best?
There were other issues with the proposal. The city of Atlanta owns Underground Atlanta, but the biggest beneficiary of the casino would have been the Georgia Lottery and the company that has the longterm leasehold interest on the property.
Somehow, the developers were able to get off easy when they sought support for the casino from the Atlanta City Council. They promised to beef up security around the complex. They said they buy out the remaining $56 million in bonds still outstanding on the project, which costs the city between $7 million and $8 million a year.
But why should the city, which has invested millions in the project for decades, all of a sudden sell all its rights to Underground Atlanta for others to make a windfall?
One aspect of the project that received little scrutiny was the fact that Phase 2 of the project would have called for a 29-story hotel to be built on what is now the urban plaza leading towards Underground.
That is the public space where there’s the annual Peach Drop. That is where thousands of Atlantans gathered early one morning in September, 1990 to watch on a super-sized screen Juan Antonio Samaranch, then president of the International Olympic Committee, say the 1996 Summer Olympic Games were being awarded “to the city of Atlanta.”
Public spaces, urban plazas and parks are far too precious for our city to just let the be replaced by development. There are so many surface parking lots in downtown Atlanta. Couldn’t one of those be the site of a mega-casino instead of one of our few urban plazas?
So that brings us back to the present. What is the best vision to transform Underground Atlanta, the Five Points MARTA station, the railroad gulch — all key stops in the corridor between the state capitol and the Georgia Dome?
This past week, the Urban Land Institute, meeting in Atlanta, held a special workshop to discuss the area and a plan — called the “Green Line” — that has been proposed by Central Atlanta Progress and designed by HOK-Atlanta.
As the name implies, the Green Line would connect the east side of downtown near the state capitol and Underground to the west side of downtown with Philips Arena, CNN Center and Centennial Olympic Park with new development and green corridor.
The out-of-town planners had plenty of advice on how to improve the plan, inlcuding having greater density of housing bordering the green corridor and to create a thriving neighborhood that goes beyond office buildings.
Atlanta is lucky that Georgia State University’s campus is adjacent to Underground Atlanta. The university is in dire need for more student housing, and it has been focusing its residential development on the eastern fringe of downtown along Piedmont Avenue.
The best, longterm solution for Underground would be for it to become overrun with students living next door. Several parking lots exist between Decatur Street (where the campus really begins) and Underground Atlanta. Imagine if those concrete holes were filled with midrise dorms and housing for thousands of students.
Underground then could organically develop into a gathering place for college students. Coffee shops, galleries, music halls, off-beat retail and a place for a fresh market selling vegetables, fruit and other essentials for downtown living.
Cities after cities have seen their downtowns transformed when young people are able to individualize the community with their unique personality. Downtowns that have a special style of their own turn into tourist attractions as well.
Now that Georgia State has a new president, the opportunity exists to create a whole new campus vision that looks to spread a campus-like feel towards Underground.
But several other pieces of the puzzle are just as important. Something must be done with MARTA’s Five Points station. The design just doesn’t work for the space.
For starters, the roof structure over the station needs to be removed to open up the environment. And MARTA, the city and Central Atlanta Progress need to come up with a strategy on how to make the whole area around the station more inviting and welcoming to residents and visitors alike.
Ideally, MARTA would decide to relocate its headquarters from the Lindbergh Station to its hub station at Five Points. The transportation nexus would be further enhanced when the city and state finally build the multimodal rail and bus station across the street.
Creating a community for students at Underground Atlanta, renovating the Five Points MARTA station and building a multimodal station would spark a true renaissance in this oft-forgotten part of downtown.
With such a strategy, we might not need a casino after all.