The City Council voted, 6-1, with Councilman Andy Morris voting against, on Wednesday to delay making any decisions about WellStar’s request for an easement to air rights above Church Street that would enable the construction of a controversial two-story pedestrian bridge connecting to Kennestone Hospital.
Residents of Church Street say the bridge clashes with their historic neighborhood lined with century-old homes and a new emergency department would create a traffic nightmare in their community.
Morris represents the ward that includes the hospital and the surrounding neighborhoods on the City Council. Homeowners in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting let out a series of gasps and hisses after Morris cast his lone objecting vote. Morris did not participate in discussion about the hospital’s request during the meeting and refused to comment following his vote.
It’s the second time the City Council has put off making a ruling. The issue was first tabled last month and received little discussion Monday from council members during a work session.
Residents of Church Street, whose homes are often highly sought after, have accused WellStar of purposely keeping them in the dark while planning Kennestone’s new emergency room, which is proposed to connect to the hospital’s existing surgery department by the bridge.
Many residents have said they support the growth of WellStar and recognize it is an important economic engine in Cobb, but they have argued growth shouldn’t happen at the expense of their neighborhoods.
WellStar has refuted claims it hasn’t actively sought the input of neighbors and has said its plans aren’t final.
What the hospital wants
Kennestone’s proposed expansion includes constructing a new two-story, 80,750-square-foot emergency department, parking deck and bridge across Church Street.
To build the bridge, WellStar needs City Council to grant an easement, but the city’s authority over the project ends there. The proposed site is owned by the Cobb County Kennestone Hospital Authority, a government entity exempt from city zoning
regulations. Though it’s exempted from taxes and zoning rules, the authority has voluntarily subjected itself to zoning in the past.
Before Wednesday’s vote to table the bridge request, Leo Reichert, attorney for WellStar, said postponing making a decision would “slow down a project we need to get to.”
He told the City Council the emergency department must be located on the proposed site and acknowledged there may be little room to compromise.
“We’re not ever going to convince, I don’t think, the folks that live there that’s the place it’s got to go,” Reichert said.
It’s the best location, he said, to get critical patients into surgery quickly in situations when seconds could mean life or death.
“That bridge goes right into the central core of the hospital, right into surgery, right into neuro intervention, right into cardiac intervention,” Reichert said.
Dan Woods, president of Kennestone, admitted communication between the hospital and residents could have been better in the past.
Still, he contended his request is to “begin conversations, not end conversations” and residents will be involved in designs.
“I personally believe that the bridge, with the input of residents, could be a marquee for the city of Marietta and welcome people into the city of Marietta,” Woods said.
Council doubtful of compromise
Though they voted to give WellStar more time to come to terms with the concerns of its neighbors, many council members said Wednesday they don’t think a compromise will be struck.
“The need for the bridge and the reality of the bridge is coming,” said Councilman Stuart Fleming. “The question is how to make it the best bridge for the city of Marietta.”
Fleming said he fears the community will be in the same stalemate next month when City Council takes the issue up again.
Councilman Philip Goldstein also said it’s unlikely the two parties will reach a deal because many residents aren’t just opposed to the construction of the pedestrian bridge. They’re also against building the emergency department at the proposed location between Church, Cherry and Cherokee streets.
“The hospital has the right to build there, and I’m not comfortable with saying, ‘I’m going to hold the ER hostage, or you can’t build there or you have to make other commitments,’” Goldstein said.
Public meetings have been held, but little progress has been made in reaching an agreement between the hospital and homeowners, said Councilwoman Michelle Cooper Kelly. She wants to see the parties develop an action plan outlining how to amicably move forward and present it to City Council next month.
Questions have been asked by residents, Councilman Grif Chalfant said, that have yet to be answered.
Chalfant said his own question about the feasibility of building an underground tunnel rather than a pedestrian bridge has yet to be addressed. After raising the issue, Chalfant was told by hospital officials at the meeting a tunnel would take too long to transport patients from the emergency department to the surgery wing and would cost 50 percent more.
Mayor Steve Tumlin said he will conduct another public meeting to give another opportunity for differences in opinions to be overcome. It will be his second town hall on the subject.
“There are a lot of people involved, and I think we need to have a central place to bring ideas together,” Tumlin said.
Councilman Johnny Walker agreed residents should have input.
“Kennestone Hospital is the heartbeat of our city,” Walker said. “I support the hospital. I support the ER. And I support the bridge. But I support the homeowners who live around there.”
Residents have their say
Four opponents stepped up to the lectern at Wednesday’s meetings to encourage City Council to call a time out.
One of those was Steve Imler, who lives on Church Street.
“The problem is that we have a great health care system that by its success creates a threat, a permanent threat, to our homes,” Imler said.
City Council should use WellStar’s easement request as an opportunity to give the health system what it needs but require stipulations that protect the neighborhood, he said.
Fellow Church Street resident Patty Pearlberg said she doesn’t have the same protection that residents who are governed by homeowners associations have. Her home was built before homeowners’ covenants were commonplace.
So she said she is relying on City Council to protect her home.
“The moment they mentioned moving this facility to the triangle (between Church, Cherokee and Cherry streets), the citizens and the committee vehemently opposed it,” Pearlberg said.
Jim Morris, who lives on Frayer Drive, was “very much in a panic” after learning of WellStar’s plan.
He’s concerned about the plan to place the hospital’s helipad on top of the new emergency department, which he says will cause motorists to be “eyeball to eyeball while they are expected to drive” along Church Street.
“Of all the things we have talked about over the last month, that’s the best example of how horribly thought out this scheme is,” Morris said.