They say WellStar abandoned its commitment to consider the desires of the community during growth of Kennestone Hospital when the nonprofit quietly sent the city a proposal to build a new two-story, 80,750-square-foot emergency department, parking deck and a pedestrian bridge across Church Street.
But WellStar says its plans are preliminary, and community input will be an important step in planning for the proposed expansion.
The issue came to light when WellStar filed an application last Wednesday for an easement to build the proposed 20-foot sky bridge across Church Street connecting the hospital’s existing surgery department to the new emergency department planned to be built between Church, Cherokee and Cherry streets.
City Council will consider the easement request at its next meeting set for 7 p.m. March 12.
But the city has no control over construction of a new building because the proposed site is owned by the Cobb County Kennestone Hospital Authority, a government entity that is exempt from city zoning regulations.
It’s all the result of continued growth at Kennestone, which now runs the busiest emergency room in the state, said Candice Saunders, president and chief operating officer for WellStar Health System.
Kennestone’s emergency room sees 125,000 visits a year.
The hospital has grown “beyond a small suburban hospital into a well-known and respected regional destination for the latest medical technology and treatments,” Saunders said in a prepared statement issued Tuesday by WellStar.
She said the expanded ER facility is still in the early planning stages but will be a “major asset to our community.”
Neighbors say input disappeared
Still, neighbors argue they haven’t had any involvement to date.
They used words like “betrayed” and “arrogance” to describe WellStar’s proposal.
Jim Morris, a retired judge, lives in Cherokee Heights and says WellStar’s plan would bring the hospital one square block closer to his neighborhood.
He’s a member of a community advisory group that was formed to give neighbors input into happenings at WellStar, but he said meetings of that group stopped about six months ago. Residents of Church Street and the surrounding areas say they weren’t aware of the proposed expansion until the sky bridge request was filed with the city last week.
“I think they just got the sense that they’re going to do what they’re going to do,” Morris said.
Patty Pearlberg says the community had a good working relationship with the health system for many years that allowed the hospital to grow while protecting the historic integrity of the surrounding neighborhood.
“All of a sudden, that all kind of went out the window,” said Pearlberg, who has lived at the corner of Church and Sessions streets since 1996. “It’s a bit disconcerting that the people that are there now don’t seem to have any concern for the neighborhood.”
Early renderings given to the city by WellStar show a sky bridge stretching across Church Street supported by metal beams. It’s a preliminary image of what the bridge could look like, and plans are not set in stone, Saunders said.
“No plans have been finalized, and we will rely heavily on community involvement to ensure that both projects maintain architectural aesthetics complementary to the historic Marietta area,” Saunders said.
The proposed sky bridge is out of character with a street lined with historic homes, said John Schupp, a Church Street resident. He says it’s better suited for downtown Atlanta’s high-rise condominiums.
“Successful development is all about finding balance,” Schupp said. “Balance between growth and balance between preservation.”
Cindy Dye has lived on Church Street for 28 years and has held wedding receptions and Easter egg hunts in the backyard of her home.
She called the proposed sky bridge a “monstrosity.”
“I know it’s going to happen,” Dye said. “I know they’re going to push it through and it will ruin the neighborhood.”
Pressuring City Council
Neighbors say they support the growth of WellStar but want to see it done responsibly.
“Nobody is saying don’t expand. Nobody is saying don’t grow. All we’re asking is stick with the commitment you made to the neighborhood,” Pearlberg said.
Dye says she continues to see health care-related offices popping up in her neighborhood and is fearful the growth of the medical industry will intrude on her home.
“I don’t want the hospital not to grow and prosper and do well, but I don’t want them to do it at the expense of a historical area that brings a lot to the city of Marietta,” Dye said.
They plan to ask City Council to stop the sky bridge from moving forward and say they are disappointed by the lack of representation from their Councilman, Andy Morris. He did not return phone messages left by the MDJ Monday and Tuesday.
“We need to put pressure on the city … I think we just need to shut them down, lock it up and make a lot of noise,” said Lars Finderup, who lives on Seminole Drive and serves on the community advisory committee.
Katie Sanstead fell in love with the historic feel of the neighborhood when she moved into her Church Street home five years ago, but she said city government seems to not see the same thing she does.
“It seems that the local government and the commercial industry are kind of oblivious to the character and charm that the area has to offer,” Sanstead said.
Proposal gets mayor’s support
Mayor Steve Tumlin thinks WellStar’s request for an easement to build the sky bridge would garner the approval of the council if it were to be voted on tomorrow.
“That’s a logical place to put it,” Tumlin said of the plans to put a new emergency room at Church, Cherokee and Cherry streets. “I support it.”
He said the anticipated growth of Kennestone has been discussed in detail and the “die’s already been cast there” with medical offices popping up around the hospital.
“Kennestone is a dynamic force,” Tumlin said. “It’s going to keep growing.”
He defended WellStar’s relationship with the community and said the city isn’t privy to meetings held between the health system and residents.
“I don’t think WellStar would have breached anything that they’re committed to,” Tumlin said.
He says it’s not a win-lose situation.
“If they were tearing down 13 houses, I’d have a problem, but they’re not,” Tumlin said.
Councilman Anthony Coleman said he wants to see a community meeting held to gather input from both sides of the issue.
Both Councilman Philip Goldstein and Councilwoman Michelle Cooper Kelly said they have received one email from a concerned resident and would welcome more feedback on the issue.
Councilman Grif Chalfant also said he’s looking at the issue closely and is willing to listen to concerns about the sky bridge, but he thinks the new emergency room is proposed for a reasonable place.
“I really didn’t see that as a huge obstruction to what they’re doing because it’s already being used as doctor’s offices and all that. I’m not following their logic,” Chalfant said.