Council members debated the issue multiple times over recent months, postponing a vote twice even after expressing doubt an agreement can be reached between the Church Street residents who say the hospital’s plan threatens their historic neighborhood and sought-after, storied homes.
Two town hall meetings have also given homeowners the opportunity to air grievances and WellStar the chance to defend its plans.
WellStar officials have said Kennestone’s emergency room is grossly overcrowded and in desperate need of an expansion. They plan to develop an area they call “the triangle” at the corner of Church, Cherry and Cherokee streets by building a new two-story, 175,020-square-foot building there, including an 80,750-square-foot emergency department.
The new emergency room would be connected to the existing surgery department by a 20-foot sky bridge across Church Street. A parking deck is also included in the plans.
Kennestone has asked the city of Marietta for an easement to build the sky bridge, but residents have contended the bridge doesn’t fit in with the character of the neighborhood and clashes with their century-old homes. If approved, the City Council would have final say over the aesthetics of the bridge, but has no power over the actual construction of the emergency department because the land is owned by the Cobb County Kennestone Hospital Authority, a governmental entity that is exempt from city zoning rules.
Residents haven’t just expressed concerns about the bridge, though, and have said the construction of the emergency department itself should go elsewhere to avoid encroaching on their neighborhoods. They also allege WellStar abandoned its plans to consider what is best for the neighborhood when it quietly drew up the expansion plans.
WellStar has refuted those claims and maintains residents’ input will be paramount in the design of the sky bridge. An updated rendering, which does not represent a final product, was released this week showing a change in the design of the bridge moving from industrial-style metal columns to a brick facade in an attempt to better blend the structure into the neighborhood.
Plan gets some support
Councilman Andy Morris, who represents the area, declined to say how he intends to vote Wednesday, but said he has attended City Council meetings and town hall meetings where the issue has been discussed.
“I’ve gotten an opinion from everybody in my ward and that’s who I’ll be representing,” Morris said.
Morris cast the lone vote at the last City Council meeting against postponing making a decision and did not offer a comment on that vote publicly during the meeting or after when asked by the MDJ.
Both Councilmen Johnny Walker and Stuart Fleming say they support the hospital’s plan.
Fleming said it’s a challenging issue with no easy solution.
“However, I do think it is important to support the hospital’s growth in a responsible manner,” Fleming said.
Though he said he considers himself absolutely in the “supportive column,” he said it’s possible a point could be raised at tonight’s meeting that could sway his vote.
Walker said he expects the easement to be approved.
“I think we have pretty good support with the council,” Walker said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it was full support. I hope it is.”
The emergency room is “bursting at the seams,” Walker said, and the proposed location makes the most sense for the new facility.
“I just think the hospital has been a good neighbor and we need to support them,” Walker said.
Council-woman Michelle Cooper Kelly said progress is being made in appeasing concerned homeowners and accommodating the hospital’s need.
“I try not to disclose a vote, but I will say that things we’ve asked the hospital (to) do, they’ve made concerted efforts,” Kelly said.
She added the process will be transparent if council members approve the easement because city council has final approval of the bridge’s design.
“There’s really nothing that will be nontransparent if we did grant them an easement,” Kelly said.
Mayor Steve Tumlin has expressed support for Kennestone’s expansion in the past but said Tuesday he’s waiting to hear what residents and WellStar officials will have to say at tonight’s meeting. Both groups have made valid points, he said.
“I’m just curious how we can make sure we can have a good hospital and a good community around it,” Tumlin said.
Councilmen Grif Chalfant and Anthony Coleman both say they are undecided on how they will vote.
Chalfant said he continues to receive emails from constituents and is looking forward to tonight’s discussion.
“I want to hear if somebody has anything to say that could sway me,” Chalfant said.
Coleman also said he wants to consider public comments.
“You don’t want to be biased toward either side,” Coleman said.
Councilman Philip Goldstein declined to comment.