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WRS To Reveal Underground Atlanta Plans This Month, CEO Says

Weeks after city officials dropped WRS Inc. from a Downtown Atlanta mixed-use project, the South Carolina developer said it is close to revealing the first phase of its long-planned redevelopment of Underground Atlanta.

The entrance to Underground Atlanta.

WRS CEO Scott Smith tells Bisnow the firm is roughly 30 days away from unveiling the first phase of Underground Atlanta's rebirth with a string of retail storefronts and residential properties above them along Wall Street.

“It has been much slower then we would have liked, but we are making progress. We thought that [the revitalization] would be [done] much more quickly,” Smith said. “I think, probably, we were two-and-a-half years early.”

WRS purchased the ailing subterranean mall from the city in 2017 for $34.6M after three years of negotiations. The developer originally planned to finish its transformation by 2022, but, WRS officials told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in March that the revitalization would be complete by 2025. The 2017 contract to sell the property to WRS did not stipulate any timetables for redevelopment, Invest Atlanta officials told Bisnow this week.

Last year, Atlanta-based Place Properties entered into an agreement with The Atlanta BeltLine and Invest Atlanta to develop a 20-acre section of the Westside BeltLine into a mixed-use destination known as Murphy Crossing. Place Properties partnered with WRS on the project, with WRS tapped to develop the retail portion.

But at the start of June, the Atlanta BeltLine and Invest Atlanta canceled their agreement with Place Properties, with plans to reissue the request for proposals later. 

Local media reported that continued inactivity at Underground Atlanta's redevelopment caused neighborhood groups around Murphy Crossing to lose confidence that the Place Properties/WRS partnership could accomplish its vision.

“There was some community pushback from people who voiced an opinion to me and Scott ...that WRS had not been progressing at Underground that some members of the community wanted. So they thought if they were slow at Underground, they'd be slow at Murphy Crossing,” Place Properties CEO Cecil Phillips said. “Whatever reasons they used were not in the letter.”

Rendering of the refurbished Kenny's Alley in Underground Atlanta

Details on WRS' plans would be welcomed by Downtown boosters.

When asked if he still has confidence in WRS, Central Atlanta Progress President A.J. Robinson said he does, "but I think they need to show us what they got."

"They definitely have the ability and wherewithal to do it. We really want to see some vertical activity," Robinson said. 

Atlanta is still awaiting WRS' master plan for Underground Atlanta, a blueprint that will be used to grant permits to the developer for future work on the site, Atlanta Commissioner Tim Keane said. Keane provides leadership and policy vision for various departments, including planning and zoning and housing and community development.

The lack of a master plan already curtailed work for an apartment project along Central and Alabama streets that WRS sought last year, Keane said.

“They had a plan [for the apartments], and we said we're not sure that's consistent with what you submitted when the agreement was reached in 2017 with the city,” Keane told Bisnow.

Smith objected in an interview, saying WRS did submit a master plan to the city, but that the coronavirus pandemic may be complicating its approval.

“I think he may have been mistaken. We submitted the plan in May,” Smith said. “With the virus, and people working from home, the plan may not have gotten to his desk until later. They have now given us the go-ahead to submit the SAP.”

While Smith didn’t reveal specific details to its overall Underground revitalization plan, he said it would include a 250- to 300-room hotel as well as further retail. But now the pandemic has slowed further leasing at the project.

“All of our tenants and all our future tenants … have put any expansion plans on hold until they can get their existing stores back open and operated,” he said.