WRS sells Underground to local owner giving it ‘a ray of hope’
By Maria Saporta
A relatively unknown local entrepreneur purchased Underground Atlanta Wednesday from South Carolina-based WRS Inc., who has owned Atlanta’s historic center since 2017.
Shaneel Lalani, CEO of Billionaires Funding Group, is a retail entrepreneur who has worked in retail his whole life, according to a press release written by the Wilbert Group. He started out as a store clerk, and he bought his first real estate property in 2012. Today the firm’s portfolio encompasses more than 1 million square feet of retail and office space.
Lalani, who moved to Atlanta from India in 1999, also heads up Lucky Fortune, a coin-operated amusement machine company that is licensed by the Georgia Lottery Corp., which supports the HOPE scholarship program and pre-kindergarten funding.
It is unclear whether Lalani is interested in developing a video gaming attraction at Underground. A controversial proposal for a major video gambling attraction at Underground proposed more than a decade ago never materialized. It also is highly questionable whether the state would permit the development of a casino in Underground.
Lalani, who was not available for a phone interview Wednesday night, responded to questions submitted through a spokeswoman.
When asked about whether he was interested in developing the property into a casino, Lalani responded: “Underground Atlanta at its best has served as vibrant entertainment district for the city. We are exploring a number of exciting uses that will bring new energy and activity to this part of Downtown. It is premature to talk about specific plans.”
When asked why he wanted to buy Underground, Lalani spoke of the area’s potential.
“I built my career around value-add real estate investments and saw an incredible opportunity with Underground Atlanta,” Lalani said. “The historic retail and entertainment destination has long struggled to meet its full potential. With the surrounding growth in downtown, now is the right time for Underground Atlanta to finally become what it was always meant to be.”
Lalani would not disclose the purchase price. Also, T. Scott Smith, CEO of WRS, did not respond to a couple of texts Wednesday night.
A.J. Robinson, president and CEO of Central Atlanta Progress, did sound upbeat about the sale of Underground.
“Given this challenging year for our community, the purchase of Underground by a new buyer is a ray of hope for the future,” Robinson said. “I remain hopeful that Shaneel and his group can unlock the real potential of this visible and historic patch of real estate that is such a barometer for our city. It appears he wants to do the right thing with Underground, and I know we will give him a chance to do just that.”
Responding through a spokeswoman, Lalani appeared to appreciate Underground’s intrinsic value.
“We recognize the significance of Underground Atlanta – its deeply connected history with the city and the role it should play in the future of downtown,” he said. “Good urban design is important to me, and I’m currently focused on building a team of experts who specialize in mixed-use urban redevelopment.”
Lalani also said he was looking forward to working with the community at large as he develops the vision for Underground.
“Collaboration at all levels is critical to the success of this project,” Lalani said. “I intend to engage local businesses, neighbors and civic leaders in the planning process to ensure the highest and best use for the district. I also plan to work with a local nonprofit focused on homelessness to help the homeless community in the area.”
Underground is adjacent to the site of Atlanta’s zero-mile post – created by the formation of the three railroad lines that connected at a place called “Terminus.” The town’s name was eventually changed to Atlanta.
As Atlanta developed after the Civil War, the railroad lines in the center of the city created major traffic jams. So, by the early 1900s, proposals to build a series of concrete platforms and viaducts over the railroad tracks. As a result, the buildings at the original street were buried to create Underground Atlanta.
In 1969, the area was turned into a national tourism destination with bars, restaurants, stores and a thriving Underground street life. But the construction of the new MARTA transit system ended up demolishing several historic blocks of Underground, and the retail and entertainment center closed in the early 1980s.
Underground Atlanta reopened as an urban retail and entertainment district in 1989, and it did well during the 1990s (it was the city’s center for the local celebration of when Atlanta was awarded the 1996 Summer Olympics). But then Underground gradually started to decline. Eventually, WRS began exploring the possibility of buying the complex, and it was the sole bidder when the city put the property out for bid. The deal closed in 2017, but WRS’ plans to redevelop the four-block area never seemed to gain traction.
According to the press release, Lalani’s real estate company has the financial strength and stability to develop the project on its own, but he is open to exploring partnerships with the other investors. Lalani intends to retain an ownership stake in each parcel to ensure consistency throughout the district.
Similar to WRS’ plans for Underground Atlanta, Lalani envisions a multi-phased redevelopment completed in four blocks. His initial focus is on Block Two, which will comprise multifamily residential, street-level retail and structured parking.
The other three blocks will encompass a dense mix of uses with engaging street-level retail, restaurant and entertainment concepts.
In addition to vertical development plans, Lalani’s company owns Alabama Street and intends to transform it into an activated, walkable streetscape. Security throughout the district will also be a priority for Lalani.
In the past five years, with WRS’ purchase of Underground Atlanta, there has been renewed interest. WRS started redeveloping the district and bringing the buildings back to stable condition.
In 2016, The Masquerade moved to Kenny’s Alley and opened three uniquely designed venues that host an incredibly diverse lineup of live music performances and festivals. The Masquerade has since become a signature experience for the property, and Lalani plans to extend the nightlife and energy created by the music venue along Kenny’s Alley, with outdoor patios and places for bands to perform.
“We are passionate about cowntown Atlanta and its future as a lively city center with walkable streets and exceptional entertainment,” Lalani said in a statement. “We look forward to immersing ourselves in the community and working with the brightest minds in the business to bring the vision for Underground Atlanta to life.”
For Kelly Jordan’s photo retrospective of Underground Atlanta, click here.