Residents of the historic neighborhood say they were caught off guard when WellStar’s Kennestone Hospital presented documents to City Council showing plans to build a new two-story, 80,750-square-foot emergency department, parking deck and a pedestrian bridge across Church Street.
WellStar says its plans aren’t final and community input will be considered in planning for the proposed expansion that involves constructing a 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.
To build the sky bridge, WellStar needs City Council to grant an easement, but the city’s say ends there. The proposed site is owned by the Cobb County Kennestone Hospital Authority, a government entity that is exempt from city zoning regulations.
City Council members said Thursday more conversations need to take place between WellStar and neighbors before they decide if an easement will be granted. Council was originally scheduled to vote on the issue Wednesday, but the topic has been tabled and won’t be considered until next month at the earliest.
“We have several public meetings before we have any speed humps … we’re talking about a bridge across one of our most important streets,” said Councilman Grif Chalfant, who called it “unconscionable” not to have input from residents.
Council wants more dialogue
Richard Calhoun, attorney for WellStar, urged council to grant the easement and said there would be no harm in moving forward because the hospital has agreed to give the city the final say in the design and aesthetics of the proposed bridge.
The hospital needs to know it has a commitment from the city before spending “hundreds of thousands of dollars” on architectural plans, said Bruce Dean, vice president of real estate for WellStar.
“We’d like to make certain that we’re not doing it as an exercise,” Dean said.
Councilwoman Michelle Cooper Kelly said she would still like to see more public input before she casts her vote.
“I’d rather you skin the cat and meet with the community before coming to us,” Kelly said at Thursday night’s meeting. “A happy community is important, right? I also think it’s important for your business model.”
Mayor Steve Tumlin said the city will host a town hall meeting next month on the hospital’s proposed growth, but a date hadn’t been set Thursday night.
“This affects the entire city,” Tumlin said. “I think immediately of 17 streets and five subdivisions that it touches.”
Councilman Stuart Fleming said he has received numerous phone calls about the proposed expansion that expressed a wide range of grievances, including concerns about noise from Kennestone’s helicopter pad to not wanting anything built on the proposed site.
He asked residents to unify their concerns.
“I would encourage you to align on what those substantive issues are you have resistance to,” Fleming said.
Councilman Andy Morris, who represents the area around Kennestone, was quiet during Thursday night’s discussions but said before the meeting residents would get to speak their minds.
“I think we’ll have the final say-so of what the bridge will look like, if that’s what (residents) want to do,” Morris said.
WellStar surprised by outcry
Residents say they’re pleased that the council opted not to make any decisions until they have a chance to give input to the hospital.
About 15 residents attended Thursday night’s council session.
“The dialogue needs to happen,” said Meg Crawford, who lives on Church Street. “Without dialogue it’s unlikely we’ll get to a win-win.”
Lars Finderup, who lives on Seminole Drive, was also happy with the decision.
“They seem to understand we definitely need to do some more talking,” Finderup said.
Finderup is a member of a community advisory committee created to give residents input into activities at Kennestone, but he says that committee hasn’t met in six months.
He criticized WellStar for a lack of long-term planning.
“A little over a year ago, WellStar gave us a commitment to prepare a new, up-to-date master plan, and cooperate with the city and neighbors on development guidelines for a zoning overlay district,” Finderup said.
But Calhoun argued a five-year plan has been completed.
“I think that’s part of the frustration on the part of the hospital, that we did do exactly what we were asked to do,” Calhoun said, adding the push back has “taken us by surprise.”
Calhoun said much of the problem is that the community has the impression that WellStar is further along in its plans than it is.
“I think it’s really just a timing issue and maybe we’ve just gotten off on the wrong foot with that,” Calhoun said, referring to the timing of the easement request.