Lingering questions about pedestrian bridges across I-85 and North Druid Hills Road from Emory University’s proposed $1 billion redevelopment of Executive Park led the Planning Commission at its Nov. 6 meeting to again ask the City Council for more time to consider the project.
Commissioners also said they wanted more details on bike paths, green spaces and multiuse trails that would be part of the redevelopment of the outdated office complex.
The 60-acre “Emory at Executive Park” site is across the street from a massive new Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta medical complex under construction at the I-85 and North Druid Hills Road interchange. Emory’s request to rezone the current retail-centric site would make way for a new hospital, multi-family residential buildings, a hotel and medical offices to be built in separate phases over about 15 years. Emory broke ground last month on its new Musculoskeletal Institute as part of the first phase of what it calls a “live-work-play health innovation district.”
“I kind of wish this was this were a project that was being built tomorrow where we could have data points to connect all the dots … but this is a 15- to 20-year moving target,” said Planning Commission member Conor Sen.
“There are some projects where we can nail everything down ourselves, and with this one, we’re kind of just trusting on faith that Emory and everyone above us will do the right thing,” he said.
The commissioners voted at the Nov. 6 meeting to request the City Council punt the rezoning request back at the council’s Nov. 26 meeting. The council granted the same request from the commission in September.
The city believes the bridges are the best way to give those living and working at Executive Park easy and safe access to CHOA and the Peachtree Creek Greenway trail as part of its bike and pedestrian plan. A bridge over I-85 to West Druid Hills Road would provide those living and working along the southern portion of Buford Highway access to the Greenway, according to the city. There are currently no illustrations of what the bridges would look like or exactly where they would be placed, according to the city.
Attorney Carl Westmoreland, representing Emory, said the pedestrian bridges should not be included in the rezoning request because they are not part of the redevelopment project. He and Emory officials say multiuse or other kinds of paths can be built across North Druid Hills Road to provide safe crossing for pedestrians and cyclists to connect to CHOA and its connection to the Greenway. The city is finishing up construction of the first mile of the Greenway between North Druid Hills and Briarwood roads with a ribbon-cutting ceremony set for December.
Private negotiations between the city and Emory are taking place that include discussions on the bridges.
“Those … conditions are inappropriate as zoning conditions and will be dealt with in a separate agreement with the city,” Westmoreland said.
The bridges would have to be first approved by the Georgia Department of Transportation.
Segal said Emory does not seem to recognize that connection to the rest of the city is important and added he worried Executive Park could become an “island … surrounded by cars” if the bridges are not approved.
City Attorney Chris Balch told commissioners during the work session the city administration is working with GDOT to get approval for the bridges. Emory’s need to rezone Executive Park gives the city leverage to get the bridges built, Balch said.
“[W]e believe the request [for bridges] is appropriate and enforceable,” Balch said. “We may get sued, but I think we can win it.”
If GDOT does not approve the bridges, Community Development Director Patrice Ruffin said the city’s codes would require alternative connections, such as a multiuse path.
“The bridges are additional, on top of what is already required by code,” she said at the work session.
Commissioner Bert Levy said it was obvious the Emory redevelopment had “momentum above us” but there were many things the Planning Commission did not know about.
“I respect Emory and what they have done,” Segal said. “There’s a lot of trust here, but I don’t think that’s my role.”
Segal said questions remaining from a September meeting about on multiuse trails and the seven acres of green spaces Emory would build within Executive Park are still unanswered.
“We have the same thing we had two months ago,” he said. “Do I recommend Emory? Yes. Do I recommend this plan and this application? I don’t.”
Emory is promising to build more than 1.5 miles of new sidewalk and a half-mile of new multiuse trail within Executive Park. Emory also supports connectivity with the Greenway through coordination with CHOA, according to spokesperson Laura Diamond.
“This is a large-scale project that will be phased in over more than 15 years and Emory will take the time necessary for a successful rezoning,” Diamond said.
Emory already operates several medical offices in Executive Park, including a joint medical and training facility with the Atlanta Hawks basketball team that opened in 2017.