The controversial Pill Hill apartments plan got a thumbs-up from the Sandy Springs Planning Commission Nov. 19—though for 270 units rather than the requested 305. The plan next goes to Sandy Springs City Council for a final vote.
The North American Properties project at Johnson Ferry and Old Johnson Ferry roads continued to draw strong local opposition, especially over possible worsening of the medical center’s notorious rush-hour traffic. But commissioner Dave Nickels was among those who said housing produces far less traffic than another medical office building.
“The residential [use] makes a lot of sense to me,” Nickels said.
The $55 million project on the Sandy Springs/Brookhaven border includes a small amount of offices and a restaurant space, as well as a public park on the corner. The land is being sold by Emory St. Joseph’s Hospital. The project requires a rezoning to mixed-use and a permit to allow part of the building to be 70 feet high rather than 60.
Bill Gannon of Sandy Springs’ High Point Civic Association was among those seeking another deferral of the project. He noted that the project has given the community the first real pressure in years to produce some kind of master plan for Pill Hill.
“We want to see a master plan for Pill Hill,” said Gannon. “We always knew when one of the hospitals needed something, we’d have leverage.”
In the wake of the apartment controversy, the three hospitals—also including Northside and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite—met with Mayor Rusty Paul and agreed to do such planning. Gannon said there should be time for that planning to vet the apartments, as well as a Perimeter Centers Improvement Districts study of a possible Lake Hearn Drive connector road.
But commissioner chair Lee Duncan said that while Pill Hill needs such a plan, they “can’t hold [the developer] hostage.”
North American’s Richard Munger repeated that this project is modeled on a similar project his company built in Nashville to provide housing targeted at doctors and hospital staff. The housing near the hospitals should reduce traffic, he said. North American has added sidewalks to the plan to connect to neighboring parcels and is considering adding a bike lane on Old Balloon Road, he said.
On the Brookhaven side, opposition leader Alton Conway asked for a denial, but acknowledged, “We’re fighting a snowball going downhill.” Barring a denial, he requested the removal of the restaurant from plan and denying the extra height. Neither request was taken up.
Munger defend his company’s reputation, saying its critics spread “misinformation.” He complained that Brookhaven Mayor Rebecca Chase Williams falsely claimed to be surprised by the project when he told her about it weeks ahead of time. And, he said, a critic recently called him up to say “if I was a good Christian, I would drop the application.”
Munger reminded the commission of North American’s reputation as the developer of Alpharetta’s popular Avalon project.
“Avalon speaks for itself, he said.”
“I’m not thrilled about this project, but I think he’s a good developer,” said commissioner Susan Maziar before the commission’s vote to recommend approval at 270 units. “I feel bad for [the Brookhaven neighborhood] Byrnwyck because this is going to change the character of their area.”