An illustration of the apartments planned at Johnson Ferry Road and Old Johnson Ferry Road on Pill Hill, on the Brookhaven-Sandy Springs border.

A controversial Pill Hill apartment project was not only approved by Sandy Springs City Council Dec. 15—it also was reborn as a pioneering local experiment in creating affordable “workforce” housing.

North American Properties, developer of the 305-unit project on Johnson Ferry Road in the medical center, agreed to price 10 percent of the units as affordable to households earning 80 to 120 percent of Fulton County’s area median income for 10 years.

North American’s Richard Munger said he agreed beforehand to the workforce-housing deal in routine private meetings with city staff to review the plans. An affordable component was raised “by the staff on a number of different occasions…We told them, ‘Let’s keep it on the table,’” Munger said in an interview, adding that a final deal came in recent weeks.

He told the council that the affordable component would not impact the financial feasibility of the $55 million project. “It’s not going to have any effect whatsoever, definitely not a negative effect,” he told the council.

Housing affordability for the middle class is a growing political concern in increasingly expensive Sandy Springs, where the council also is considering a housing stipend for police officers and firefighters.

“I think this [affordable component] will absolutely become more prevalent” in future residential developments, Munger said in an interview. “It just has to be a solution that works for both sides and is not so onerous it doesn’t work financially.”

The apartment project, planned for a site currently owned by Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital, has been hotly controversial since debuting this summer, receiving repeated deferrals from the council and the city’s Planning Commission. The site is close to the Brookhaven border, and many residents of both cities have voiced opposition. Brookhaven Mayor Rebecca Chase Williams personally attended early Sandy Springs meetings to protest the project, claiming a lack of notice that Munger has denied.

About 70 residents attended the Dec. 15 council meeting and, judging from sarcastic laughs and grumblings, most were still opposed to the project. But the council noted its successes in using the controversy to leverage at least two extraordinary benefits. Besides the workforce housing component, there is the first unified planning effort among Pill Hill’s three hospitals. Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul said the hospitals are following through on their promise to work together with city staff on a coordinated plan for Pill Hill in Sandy Springs’ new Comprehensive Plan.

“They are working together,” said Paul, who convened hospital leaders in his office in October. “I can report positive movement.”

Pill Hill’s nightmarish rush-hour traffic is the heart of the controversy. Many residents say a 305-unit apartment building will make it worse. But Munger argues that the project will reduce traffic by housing Pill Hill employees and because of its proximity to MARTA’s Medical Center Station. The council found Munger more convincing.

Trisha Thompson, president of the influential Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods, spoke in support. She noted the often overlooked fact that the closest neighbors, in the Johnson Ferry Park townhomes across the street, were also in support.

“They liked the use,” Thompson reported. “They liked the reduction in traffic.”

“I think it will actually help traffic in the area,” said Councilman John Paulson, adding that the possibility of housing people close to work “is powerful to me.” Munger estimated that 75 to 85 percent of the tenants will be Pill Hill employees, based on his company’s experience with a similar project in Nashville.

Councilman Gabriel Sterling said that “we are wildly under-housed in this area” and noted that the property as zoned could have a much more traffic-creating medical office building instead.

Alton Conway, a leader of Brookhaven’s opposition, maintained concerns about the building’s density and height, which would be up to 70 feet, requiring a zoning variance. He also threw a new curveball, claiming that part of the property may actually be within the city of Brookhaven. But Michelle Alexander, Sandy Springs’ director of Community Development, shot that down, saying North American’s certified survey and the city’s own data shows the property is entirely within Sandy Springs.

Another item delayed a previous council decision on the plan: the Perimeter Center Improvement Districts’ concept of a new roadway extending the Perimeter Center Parkway from the “flyover bridge” across I-285. At the Dec. 15 council meeting, Sterling said his understanding is that the apartments would not get in the way of that still entirely conceptual roadway.

Meanwhile, the council wrung a couple of other concessions out of North American. In one nod to traffic woes, the developer will pay $40,000 to upgrade the traffic light at Johnson Ferry and Old Johnson Ferry to the highest available technology. And 70 percent of the units will be one-bedrooms, which the council considered more attractive to workforce-type tenants.

Besides the controversial residential element—which comes with a pool and fitness and business centers—the project will include some medical offices and a restaurant. Another praised feature is a sizable public “pocket park” preserved at the Johnson Ferry/Old Johnson Ferry corner.

In an interview, Munger said he expects a construction start late next summer, with the work taking 20 to 24 months.

This story has been updated to clarify the meeting process where North American Properties agreed to the affordable component and with further comment.

John Ruch

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