Brookhaven Mayor Rebecca Chase Williams (right) talks with residents before the Sept. 17 Sandy Springs Planning Commission meeting about the Pill Hill apartments.
Brookhaven Mayor Rebecca Chase Williams (right) talks with residents before the Sept. 17 Sandy Springs Planning Commission meeting about the Pill Hill apartments.

A controversial Pill Hill apartment plan’s developer won at least two more weeks to negotiate with neighbors—around 80 of whom showed up in opposition—at the Sept. 17 Sandy Springs Planning Commission meeting.

Commission members, who granted a 30-day deferral last month to North American Properties Atlanta, were unhappy that virtually nothing about the 305-unit Johnson Ferry Road project had changed in that time. But they suggested that nearby Brookhaven and Sandy Springs residents can be more flexible, too.

“I think there needs to be movement on both sides,” said commission member Susan Maziar.

North American Properties partner Richard Munger showed off a couple of changes to the $55 million project, including a 5,000-square-foot restaurant space and reconfigured driveway. Heather Dexter, chief operating officer at Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital, the property’s seller, described it as a solution to traffic issues because hospital doctors and staff can live there.

“Walkability’s a real deal, folks,” said Munger, describing the dense apartments in a mixed-use building as in line with Sandy Springs’ Comprehensive Plan.

But many neighbors—including Brookhaven’s mayor and several members of Sandy Springs’ High Point Civic Association—spoke in opposition, citing traffic, lack of true connectivity and poor responsiveness from North American.

“Unfortunately, as you heard, not very much progress has been made in the last 30 days,” said Brookhaven Mayor Rebecca Chase Williams to the commission. “I’m very disappointed because there’s a gridlock issue that has not been addressed here by the applicant.”

“I have a hard time understanding why, when you have a deferral, why you didn’t get your act together” and design a compromise, commission member Steve Tart told the developer.

Brookhaven resident Alton Conway, one leader of community opposition, said neighbors have an alternative idea: owner-occupied condominiums. And they’ve found a developer with local ties willing to do it, Conway said, though Conway later declined to identify him.

But some commission members noted that condos create traffic and density issues, too, and questioned what the neighbors really want.

“It boils down, in simplest terms, to the A word. Nobody likes apartments,” said commission member Andy Porter. “I know it’s an emotional thing for neighbors. We need to stick with facts.”

Commission Chair Lee Duncan said that Sandy Springs and Brookhaven officials need to show better leadership on Pill Hill’s infrastructure issues as the medical center continues to grow. So do hospital leaders, he added, calling Pill Hill a “mosaic” of institutions that isn’t being put together as well as it could.

“I feel like sometimes these people [leading the hospitals] are isolated and they’re afraid to look up and see what’s going on,” Duncan said, adding he is surprised no one proposed a Pill Hill inter-hospital shuttle service.

The commission voted to recommend that Sandy Springs City Council give the project a deferral. The City Council next meets on Oct. 6, so the developers have at least until then to make changes.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.