Northside Hospital’s major expansion plan and a long-sought package of traffic-mitigation agreements were approved by Sandy Springs City Council Oct. 18.
The hospital plans to begin work almost immediately on its 8-story bed tower and 10-story employee parking garage with a target opening in October 2017.
“I think it’s time for the community to declare victory and go home,” said City Councilmember Andy Bauman, adding to hospital officials, “We’ll take it out on you if you come back for more and don’t follow through on this.”
“Both sides get to declare victory here,” responded hospital attorney Edward Lindsey. “Everybody wins with this plan. And you don’t get that very often in politics.”
For the hospital, it meant zoning approval for the tower—containing 62 beds immediately and up to 68 more later—and a 105-foot-tall garage with 1,271 spaces meant to consolidate employee parking. For the city, it means the hospital agreeing in writing to collaborate with other Pill Hill hospitals on traffic planning; to create a bicycle and pedestrian plan; to improve wayfinding; and to institute a high-tech “smart parking” program that directs drivers to open spaces in the right spots.
However, the deal drew its sole “no” vote from the hospital’s local councilmember, Tibby DeJulio. He unsuccessfully sought deferral because the final details of traffic mitigations were not worked out until just hours before the meeting, leading Mayor Rusty Paul and city staff to apologize for the lack of time for officials and the public to digest them. DeJulio noted the lack of clear information on such basics as bed counts, square-footage and total parking numbers, and the mayor briefly tripped up in reading the approval motion because it contained outdated language.
But other councilmembers agreed that the general agreement was what they were looking for.
“It’s a good agreement,” said Councilmember Gabriel Sterling. “It sets a good example for other hospitals to follow.”
Paul and the council began pushing Pill Hill hospitals a year ago to overcome their historical private and competitive natures to coordinate and collaborate on traffic planning in the increasingly car-choked medical center at Peachtree-Dunwoody and Johnson Ferry roads. Frustrated with slow-moving talks, the council essentially declared a moratorium in June on Pill Hill garages like the one Northside intends to build. That resulted in a rapid series of meetings and agreements.
“We need to work on traffic solutions and we have already begun doing so,” Lindsey said.
But the hospital also pushed back a bit, with Lindsey saying that Pill Hill traffic is largely a problem generated by non-hospital commuters. He said 82 percent of Northside employees already arrive via “traffic amelioration” methods—meaning anything from riding MARTA to adjusting schedules to avoid rush hours. He also indicated Northside’s own frustrations with the delay in its construction and said the hospital has been “very patient” in working with the city.
Lindsey also enlisted Dr. Joseph Funk, Northside’s head of emergency medicine, to press the council about how its zoning decision was “life or death.” Funk said any sort of construction delay, or requiring employees to ride shuttles or for patients’ relatives to park far way, could result in patients’ deaths.
“I feel uncomfortable being accused, if I don’t vote in favor of this, I’m causing somebody to die,” said Councilmember John Paulson.
The city also wasn’t done asking for further collaboration. Councilmember Chris Burnett said Northside must come up with a long-range strategic plan to lay out any more expansion goals, and Lindsey indicated that can happen.