WellStar Health System’s plans include building a new two-story, 80,750-square-foot emergency room between Church, Cherokee and Cherry streets. The hospital’s existing surgery department would be connected to the new emergency room by a 20-foot sky bridge across Church Street.
Neighbors said they were unaware of the proposal until WellStar filed an application with the Marietta City Council for an easement to build the sky bridge over the city road.
It’s all a result of continued growth at Kennestone Hospital, which now operates the busiest emergency room in the state, seeing 125,000 visits each year, several WellStar officials told a crowded room in City Hall’s meeting chambers on Monday.
“We simply need a new place; we need to handle the number of patients we receive,” said John Knox, an emergency room physician who lives on Church Street.
Patients in the hospital’s emergency room are subjected to overcrowding, sometimes being placed three to a room separated by curtains, said Dan Woods, president of Kennestone.
Bob Prillaman, chairman of the WellStar Kennestone Hospital Authority, said the health system is the envy of others throughout the state and pointed to the recently announced partnership with the Mayo Clinic as an example of Kennestone’s success.
But the hospital still has room to improve, Prillaman said.
“There is one area that they don’t envy and that’s the emergency room,” Prillaman said. “It is grossly overcrowded.”
Neighbors want dialogue
Church Street homeowners told Mayor Steve Tumlin, council members and WellStar officials at the town hall meeting decisions about Kennestone’s request for the sky bridge easement should be postponed to give more time for the health system to communicate with neighbors.
“I kind of feel like I got blindsided by this,” said Carolyn Johnson, who has lived on Seminole Drive for more than 20 years.
A community advisory group formed to give neighbors input into WellStar happenings was created several years ago.
“For the last eight months, there hasn’t been a neighborhood meeting and then an easement comes up,” said Steve Imler, who lives on Church Street. “That doesn’t breed confidence.”
Conversations could have alleviated the neighborhood’s concerns, said Kee Carlisle, who serves on the neighborhood committee.
“If we could have just met two months ago and talked about this, think about it,” Carlisle said. “We could have gone to the people in our neighborhood and prepared them for this instead of getting a big surprise out of the newspaper that made us distrust the process.”
Some neighbors told WellStar its application for the sky bridge easement should be withdrawn to give more time for community input and planning.
Sky bridge not only concern
Part of the objection for some residents is about the proposed sky bridge over Church Street, which was shown as having a glass and metal façade in an early rendering provided by WellStar.
Woods said that image is only conceptual and presented four additional potential renderings to the group of residents. Some of the possibilities had brick facades, which Wood said would better blend into the neighborhood.
“There’s people in the camp that like the bridge, and there’s people in the camp that don’t like the bridge, and I’ll go on record and say I don’t like the design of the bridge,” Woods said.
Still, many homeowners said the bridge isn’t their only concern.
“I think you’ve done an excellent job explaining to us why you need a newer emergency room … I think you’ve failed to explain to us why it needs to go there,” said Lars Finderup, who lives on Seminole Drive and serves on the community advisory committee.
Some residents urged Kennestone to complete more studies into the feasibility of the proposal and the impact on traffic in the neighborhood.
The last time a traffic study was completed was in 2003, Woods said.
Residents questioned if the new emergency room would increase traffic. Woods said while the proposed expansion is to serve current patients, not bring in additional ones, he wasn’t sure of the possible traffic impact.
“It’s difficult for me to stand here and predict the future traffic patterns,” Woods said.
Haydn McLean, a resident of Kennesaw Avenue, said no matter where the new emergency room is located, traffic will be a concern and the proposed expansion is needed.
“We got to have a new facility,” McLean said.
‘Not seeing the need for the big rush’
The City Council must approve the sky bridge project for it to move forward, but the city has no control over the 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.
The Marietta City Council will consider WellStar’s easement request at a non-voting meeting at 5:15 p.m. Wednesday at City Hall, 205 Lawrence St. Its next voting meeting is set for 7 p.m. April 9 also at City Hall.
All members of City Council with the exception of Anthony Coleman attended Monday’s town hall meeting.
Councilman Andy Morris, who represents the Kennestone area, said it may not cause a problem to slow down the process and delay the vote on the easement request. Though, Morris added he needs to learn more about why Kennestone needs the easement now before deciding on any postponement.
Councilman Grif Chalfant said a delay might be needed.
“I’m really not seeing the need for the big rush,” Chalfant said.
It may be possible for City Council to approve the easement with the stipulation WellStar not expand further south, Councilman Johnny Walker said in an effort to protect Cherokee and Church streets.
Mayor Tumlin previously told the MDJ that he supports Kennestone’s plan.
“I’ll be more supportive if they weigh this and address some of the concerns,” Tumlin said after the meeting.