The intersection of Peachtree Dunwoody and Johnson Ferry roads is often clogged with traffic atop Pill Hill. A recent surprise plan for a dense apartment building on a piece of hospital property sparked calls by the mayors of Sandy Springs and Brookhaven for better planning. Photo by John Ruch.
The intersection of Peachtree Dunwoody and Johnson Ferry roads is often clogged with traffic atop Pill Hill. A recent surprise plan for a dense apartment building on a piece of hospital property sparked calls by the mayors of Sandy Springs and Brookhaven for better planning. Photo by John Ruch.

Pill Hill in Sandy Springs is nicknamed for the three major hospitals—Northside, Emory Saint Joseph’s and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta—that treat hundreds of thousands of patients a year. But it might as well refer to the aspirin a driver might need for the medical center’s rush-hour traffic headaches.

The heart of Pill Hill, the intersection of Peachtree Dunwoody and Johnson Ferry roads, often is clogged.

A recent surprise plan for a dense apartment building on a piece of Emory Saint Joseph’s property sparked calls for better Pill Hill planning from the mayors of Sandy Springs and neighboring Brookhaven. Meetings among both city’s engineering staff and the hospitals are in the works.

“I’m going to be sitting down with the hospitals…to talk about mobility,” Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul said in August. “It’s truly a public safety issue.”

“The bottom line is still the traffic,” said Brookhaven Mayor Rebecca Chase Williams. “We try to work, and certainly talk about working, with a regional view. But now we’ve got to walk the walk.”

Emory Saint Joseph’s and Northside said they offer various commuting options to their thousands of employees, many of whom use MARTA’s Medical Center station. But they are open to meeting, they said.

“We always welcome dialogue that addresses traffic conditions and traffic safety,” said Northside spokeswoman Katherine Watson.

The hospitals agree that there is more to be done in an area also impacted by the neighboring Perimeter Center and the Ga. 400/I-285 interchange. Heather Dexter, Emory Saint Joseph’s chief operating officer, said at a recent Sandy Springs Planning Commission meeting that traffic is sometimes a challenge for the hospital’s doctors and ambulances. All three hospitals work with the Perimeter Center Improvement Districts, which offers commuter consulting, and is planning various street and bike path fixes in the area.

“We’re very engaged with our hospital community,” said Yvonne Williams, the PCIDs president and CEO. “We know traffic is going to be expanded because so much growth is going on with the medical area and the corporate area in general.”

Pill Hill’s boom began when Northside opened its doors in 1970. The other hospitals followed within the next eight years, along with a sprawling array of medical offices and nursing colleges. Today, the medical center is a jewel of the Perimeter, offering a full range of well-regarded health care, employing thousands, and offering millions of dollars worth of free health screenings and other local charitable activities. At the same time, it’s become increasingly hard to get in and around the area, at least during peak hours.

“It’s wonderful we have this fabulous complex of hospitals,” said Sandy Springs City Councilman Tibby DeJulio, whose district includes Pill Hill. Not so wonderful, DeJulio said, was when he recently was stuck in traffic through 10 cycles of a traffic light next to Northside Hospital.

“We need to have a coordinated plan for traffic in the Pill Hill area, where we need to bring all three hospitals together,” DeJulio said. “As the hospitals continue to grow and the population continues to age more…I think it’s just going to continue to get worse.”

Children’s Healthcare last month filed paperwork to expand its Pill Hill hospital by 60 beds. A new, much larger Ronald McDonald House, which houses families of ill children, is going up at Peachtree Dunwoody and the Glenridge Connector. Northside owns a huge vacant parcel, the site of a former hotel, marked with signs saying only, “Planning for growth, investing in the future.”

Then there’s Emory Saint Joseph’s plan to sell a Johnson Ferry parcel to North American Properties for a 305-unit apartment building along the Brookhaven border. North American says it will be just the sort of walkable project that could help relieve Pill Hill’s traffic crunch. Neighbors worry it will add to the traffic nightmare.

Lack of notice in Brookhaven was also a concern, drawing Mayor Williams to hold unusual meetings with Sandy Springs officials, helping to spark the new attention to Pill Hill. Communication is an underlying issue: city to city, hospital to city, and both to the neighborhoods.

Mayor Williams said she was surprised by Emory Saint Joseph’s “radio silence” on the apartment plan. DeJulio said, “We don’t really hear from the hospitals.”

“We are open to having broader conversations and look forward to working with city officials, since the governments will ultimately be responsible for the infrastructure required to make…improvements,” said Emory Saint Joseph’s spokeswoman Mary Beth Spence.

Yvonne Williams said the PCIDs work with the hospitals in two major ways that have helped. One is the new Perimeter Connects commuter consulting program, which helps with such efforts as carpool and reduced MARTA fares. It’s also talking with hospitals about consolidating some of their shuttle services.

Then there are major infrastructure projects like the proposed widening of Peachtree Dunwoody, including adding bike lanes, under I-285. That would connect with the PATH400 multiuse trail planned to run between Pill Hill and Ga. 400.

Such “multimodal” transportation projects would be a huge help, Williams said, and the pending Ga. 400/I-285 interchange project is a big opportunity for fixes. A previous project, completed in 2009, added better sidewalks and other streetscape for pedestrians.

Another big opportunity is some type of transit-oriented development directly around the MARTA station, as MARTA is planning at some other stations, including in Brookhaven. Williams said there no formal plans for that yet.

Pill Hill’s issues can be complex. While rush-hour traffic is bad, the streets can be relatively clear on off hours.
Pedestrians, on the other hand, can still have safety and wayfinding challenges. The streets have wide crossings where cars turn against walk signals. Construction blocked some local sidewalks last week. On two recent Pill Hill visits, lost pedestrians were struggling to find Emory Saint Joseph’s and a medical office located in one of the many nondescript buildings.

Yvonne Williams said that having the Perimeter Center’s “corporate community, a Fortune 500 community, right adjacent to a medical center is very unique…It makes it a very appealing area. Our assets are very strong. We just need to develop opportunities to connect those uses.”

John Ruch

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

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