Cobb County’s plan to divert future Braves stadium traffic onto Northside Drive was blasted as a “nightmare” by the Sandy Springs City Council at its June 21 meeting. But adding behind-the-scenes fuel to the fire was the plan’s lack of any of five traffic fixes the city has suggested for nearly two years.
And the stadium was just one of two plans the council slammed the brakes on that night due to traffic concerns. The council effectively declared a parking-garage moratorium in the Pill Hill medical center out of frustration that no traffic master plan has emerged eight months after the city demanded one.
“The employers here have to be part of [traffic solutions]. It can’t all be done behind this desk or inside this building,” Mayor Paul said in a later interview in his City Hall office.
But even where the city has a seat at the table—like in the Braves traffic planning—the city still runs into surprise, miscommunication and lack of leverage. Just hours after the mayor complained of the missing Pill Hill traffic plan, the Perimeter Center Improvement Districts said one is already underway—yet the city and one of the area hospitals said they had never heard of it.
The council’s outrage over the stadium traffic resulted two days later in a meeting between Paul and Cobb Chairman Tim Lee. The city and county managers will now meet regularly, too.
“I think we’re in a good place. I think we’re on the same page,” said Kellie Brownlow, Lee’s deputy chief, adding the chairman believes they will “end up with great solutions for both of us—both sides of the river.”
And Braves spokesperson Beth Marshall said “it appears that all entities will continue to communicate to reach a plan that will benefit all parties.”
But it remains unclear why the city’s own ideas for coping with stadium traffic weren’t included in Cobb’s plan, or what the exact roles and lines of communication for “stakeholder” agencies are going forward.
One of those fixes is moving ahead immediately: a city-funded study of a new I-285/Powers Ferry Road interchange in Cobb. But other key ideas are up in the air, including a “slip ramp” allowing stadium traffic to go from I-285 to Northside without using local streets.
Paul said he’s “optimistic” that Cobb will draw up better traffic plans eventually. “Will it be in place by…[Opening Day in] April 2017? Not at this point,” he said.
The mayor said the city could not have done more to get its ideas in the traffic planning originally.
“Ball’s in their court,” Paul said. “We have no leverage on Cobb County. That’s the tragedy of this whole issue.”
At the June 21 meeting, the City Council placed a surprise 60-day deferral on a rezoning request for a 450-space parking garage at the Center Pointe medical office building on Johnson Ferry Road. Northside Hospital occupies most of that building, and is planning a 10-story parking garage on its own campus.
The council was “somewhat blindsiding” the applicant, Duke Realty, Paul said at the meeting. But, he said, the city needed a way to emphasize the need for alternative commuting plans on Pill Hill, which can be gridlocked during rush hour.
City and hospital officials have called Pill Hill traffic a public safety issue. Last fall, the mayor gathered leaders from the area’s three hospitals—Northside, Emory Saint Joseph’s and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite—to talk about a coordinated plan. But that never materialized.
“To my knowledge, there’s been no [subsequent] meeting at all of all the hospitals together,” said Councilmember Tibby DeJulio, whose district includes Pill Hill. The hospitals are historically competitive, and the deferral vote was intended “to force those people to talk to each other and start working on solutions.”
Yvonne Williams, president and CEO of the Perimeter Center Improvement Districts, said a “master plan study” of traffic was approved by the PCIDs board in May and is underway, conducted by the firm Kimley-Horn. She said it began as a state-requested study of how the upcoming I-285/Ga. 400 interchange project will impact Northside, which is funding the study. But PCIDs asked for the study to be broadened to the whole area, with hospitals “sharing all the information,” she said.
But Northside communications vice president Lee Echols said he can’t confirm that, and Emory Saint Joseph’s was “not aware of the traffic study,” said spokesperson Mary Beth Spence. The PCIDs apparently made no public announcement of it.
Meanwhile, the mayor is thinking up his own solutions, like building more parking at MARTA’s North Springs Station and shuttling Pill Hill employees in from there. Such alternative commute planning could become mandatory, he said, if Pill Hill institutions don’t heed the council’s recent warning shot.
“You can’t expect to automatically build another parking deck and suck more cars in there,” the mayor said. “If they can’t figure it out, or choose not to figure it out, we may come in and impose some solution to drive them in that direction.”
But the city’s only real leverage, Paul and DeJulio said, is when individual projects need zoning approvals.
“The only thing we can do is, when you want something, we can start negotiating. A lot of times, people aren’t willing to come to the table until they want something,” DeJulio said.
“There needs to be cooperation,” he added. “Nobody can do this alone.”