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Atlanta's 3am bar/club closing a boom for DT?

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Buckhead bars go Underground

Longer hours lure nightspots downtown


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Underground Atlanta is trying to unearth a third comeback at age 35, this time by luring bars to relocate from the city's unofficial party spot in Buckhead.

Underground's owners and Atlanta City Councilman H. Lamar Willis have persuaded about eight nightspots, including Tongue & Groove and Mako's in Buckhead Village, to relocate or open new establishments in the downtown entertainment complex.

Free-flowing alcohol, Underground's lifeblood during its initial heyday in the 1970s and its rebirth in the early 1990s, sealed the deal, officials said.

A fine-print loophole in city law exempts Underground from Atlanta's new 2:30 a.m. last call and 3 a.m. closing time for bars. The downtown complex can pour until 4.

That edge, coupled with complaints in Buckhead Village about violence, noise and cruising, sold some bar owners on shifting downtown, said Michael Krohngold, co-owner of Tongue & Groove.

"Buckhead has had its share of problems and that's been the impetus for people to look elsewhere," Krohngold said. Underground can be "a centralized place for people to party and have a good time and not disturb anyone else," he said.

Atlanta taxpayers, who pay $6 million a year to cover Underground bonds from its 1990 rebirth, need for the complex to be successful, said Willis. The councilman backed a law enacted last year to let people carry open containers from one Underground club to another.

"[An entertainment district] is what Underground was supposed to be, and it's something it hasn't really achieved," Willis said. "This is in the city's best interest."

Underground has never been able to compete with popular nightlife districts like Buckhead, said Dan O'Leary, president of O'Leary Partners, which owns the complex.

But the alcohol loophole gives Underground what it has lacked -- something unique, he said.

"It's unfortunate for Buckhead and what they're going through, but it's a huge plus for Underground," O'Leary said.

The owners of Loca Luna, a Latin dancing and tapas restaurant in Midtown, and The Chamber, an alternative dance club off Cheshire Bridge Road, are also planning Underground locations.

The first new bars could be open within three months, O'Leary said.

Other bar owners are in talks with Underground, and more announcements are coming soon, a spokesman for Willis said.

Security will be paramount, O'Leary noted. Underground will hire additional people and strictly control access to the complex after 9 p.m. The Atlanta Police Department already has a miniprecinct on-site.

Willis and O'Leary hope the influx of bars will return Underground, often a lonely place after dark, to the bustling hot spot it was in years past.

The few blocks of 19th century streets that opened in 1969 became Atlanta's favorite hangout in the 1970s, recalled Angelo Fuster, a former city official who used to play guitar in an Underground club called the Bank Note.

Celebrities waited in line for a table at restaurants like Dante's Down the Hatch, musicians and a monkey grinder played to crowds that mingled in the streets, and more than a dozen bars stayed open into the early morning hours, Fuster said.

But the 1970s Underground eventually fizzled out, and Mayor Andrew Young enlisted mall developers Rouse Co. to revive the complex in the late 1980s.

The current Underground opened in 1989 with new polish and national brands like Fat Tuesday.

But after some initial success and a good run during the '96 Olympics, the reincarnation failed to draw tourists, and more importantly, locals after dark, said Dante Stephensen, owner of Dante's Down the Hatch in Buckhead.

"That doesn't mean it can't work if it's done right," said Stephensen, who has opened and closed in Underground twice. "To return it to what it was would be great, but it's a challenge to do that. That doesn't mean they shouldn't try."

Asked whether he'd come back a third time, Stephensen said, "I'm too old." But he added, after thinking it over, "I would consider it."

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Too bad they couldn't just open new nightclubs there without closing them elsewhere. From what their proposing it sounds like a zero-sum gain.

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A 'fun, safe' Underground

City plan counts on security


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


252 robberies in the Underground Atlanta area in 2003. There were two murders and 16 rapes.

70 robberies in the Buckhead Village area in 2003. There were four murders and seven rapes.

5 murders in 2002 in the Underground Atlanta area. There were 11 rapes and 283 robberies.

3 murders in the Buckhead Village area in 2002. There were three rapes and 106 robberies.

Note: Figures for Nov. 15 through Dec. 31, 2003, were not available.

Whether a new Underground Atlanta can be successful hinges heavily on whether Atlanta area residents and tourists will feel safe going downtown for entertainment.

The city, which owns the historically money-losing complex, knows it. "It has to be only the quality operators," said City Councilman Lamar Willis.

The company hired to manage Underground knows it.

"This has got to be a really fun, safe environment," said Dan O'Leary, Underground general manager.

City officials announced plans this week to bring popular nightclubs from Buckhead and Midtown to Underground Atlanta. Clubs that have signed on to relocate or open new venues at Underground include Mako's, Masquerade, Tongue & Groove, Loca Luna and Black Bear Tavern. More club owners are expected to sign on in the coming weeks.

Underground management invited those clubs because they have reputations for being well-run establishments that do not have histories of attracting crime, city officials said.

But while plans have not been finalized, police say more officers are needed to patrol inside and outside the complex, including surrounding streets and public parking garages, said assistant police Chief Alan Dreher.

Currently, Underground has private security guards and surveillance cameras. And, Atlanta police have a mini-precinct there with 14 officers.

"But we might end up having 50," said police Chief Richard Pennington. "We might end up having 60."

Police Department officials could not say Wednesday where they would get the officers.

"We're not going to be pulling any officers off any other patrols just for the Underground," Dreher said.

Money to pay extra police officers could come from a proposed door charge to enter Underground at night. Another suggestion has been to pay for police with a portion of valet parking fees or a proposed bartender's license fee, Willis said.

Tenants already pitch in for security through a common-area maintenance fee, said Warren Bruno, spokesman for the Atlanta Licensed Beverage Council.

The city's Buckhead entertainment district has suffered due to violence outside clubs.

A shootout in Buckhead Village last year killed two men and sped up the decline of that area's reign as Atlanta's nightlife epicenter. Buckhead's troubles were in part associated with hip-hop clubs. So far no hip-hop clubs are included in Underground's new lineup. But Willis said he is courting reputable hip-hop club operators.

Because Underground is mainly an indoor complex the crowd can be more easily managed, O'Leary said.

"Every entry will be controlled," he added.

Underground will institute a policy of not allowing anyone under age 21 to enter after 9 or 10 p.m., O'Leary said.

The indoor environment at Underground coupled with downtown's maze of one-way streets should deter the cruising traffic that has plagued Buckhead on weekend nights, Willis said.

"We've talked about how to deal with cruising if that did become a problem," Willis said.

Public transportation is available; however, the MARTA station across the street closes about 1 a.m. when trains stop running. Underground can stay open until 4 a.m.

"There has been no decision to date about extending those hours," MARTA spokeswoman Steen Miles said.

"That is not to say those discussions could not be held in the future," she said.

Police will continue to enforce public nuisance laws to discourage panhandlers and street corner shouters that hang around the MARTA Five Points station, across the street from Underground.

"We've made hundreds of arrests over the past year and we will continue that enforcement," Dreher said.

The question remains whether the crowds will follow the clubs.

"I'd at least check it out once," club-goer Aaron Fullen said. "I'm looking for a place in Midtown or downtown and if it's cool, it might sway my decision."

Fullen, a 29-year-old Vinings software salesman who frequents Midtown clubs such as Eleven50 and Leopard Lounge, said he hasn't been to Underground Atlanta in four years because there's nothing there for him.

Dante's Down the Hatch, a jazz club, closed its Underground location in 1999 and since has concentrated on Buckhead. Dante Stephensen said he left Underground because his club was the last one standing and could not survive alone. "If the streets are empty, there's an intimidation factor," he said.

Stephensen said Underground's image was unfairly tarnished by downtown street crimes that often had nothing to do with the facility. The notion that Underground was dangerous scared off customers more than any actual crime inside the place, he said.

"The perception of crime was bad," Stephensen said, "fed by the media's need to preach doom."

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