Pill Hill hospitals and the city of Sandy Springs will meet regularly to coordinate traffic and commuter planning following a July 21 “transportation summit,” according to Mayor Rusty Paul.

“I felt it was a very positive meeting,” Paul said of the private summit, which also included officials from MARTA and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority. In the discussions with hospital officials, he said, “we learned a lot. I think they learned a lot from us.”

Mayor Rusty Paul

The summit came exactly one month after a far less happy mayor and City Council essentially declared a parking garage moratorium on Pill Hill in frustration at the lack of alternative transportation planning in the car-choked medical center at Peachtree-Dunwoody and Johnson Ferry roads. That warning shot got Pill Hill’s three hospitals—Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite, Emory Saint Joseph’s and Northside—scrambling to the meeting table.

Going forward, city Community Development Director Michelle Alexander will lead planning meetings between city staff and facilities management staff from the three hospitals, Paul said. There is no specific meeting schedule, but they will meet “regularly,” he said.

“We were pleased with the meeting and its discussion, and Northside looks forward to meaningful progress on this issue,” said Lee Echols, Northside’s vice president of marketing and communications.

The goal: 10% traffic reduction

Paul said the city came to the meeting armed with documents showing a “staggering” amount of existing and proposed parking facilities on Pill Hill. And he had a simple demand as well.

“The bottom line was, what I asked for was a 10 percent reduction in their traffic impacts,” Paul said. “A 10 percent reduction would be significant. It would really improve mobility in that area. It would make it easier for ambulances to get in and out,” as well as hospital patients and employees.

The mayor also asked the hospitals to do that specifically through “some coordination and cooperation”—which has been lacking among the competitive organizations for years. His idea is for the hospitals to team with MARTA to build shared parking garages at transit stations—an “innovative solution” that could help traffic and “save them millions of dollars in capital costs” to spend on other facilities. Paul said that MARTA CEO Keith Parker responded positively to that idea in a previous meeting.

The intersection of Peachtree Dunwoody and Johnson Ferry roads is often clogged with traffic atop Pill Hill. Photo by John Ruch.

As for the hospitals’ point of view, they talked about challenge of getting employees not to drive, Paul said, describing it in carrot-and-stick terms. The hospitals have “been using carrots to get people to use MARTA,” and when he suggested using the stick more frequently they cautioned that the market for healthcare workers is highly competitive. “If you wield the stick too hard, they’ll decide not to work there,” he said.

Likewise, “The city has some things it needs to do,” the mayor said. “If you want people to use MARTA, we have gaps in our sidewalks, for example,” to get people to and from stations.

“We’re going to have to take a real hard look at infrastructure needs…to remove the barriers to allowing more people to walk and bike and use alternative transportation,” he said. One item the hospitals mentioned was better pedestrian access through and around their own campuses, as Northside’s MARTA-using workers’ current best path to work is literally walking through Emory Saint Joe’s building, he said.

Pending plans, studies

Northside’s pending plan for a 10-story employee parking garage was not discussed due to competitors being in the room, the mayor said, adding that he understands the hospital’s general rationale for the facility. That plan was slated to go before the city Planning Commission that night, but is now on “administrative hold.”

Also not discussed was a traffic study for the area, except for confirmation that Northside is funding a Perimeter Community Improvement Districts study that may encompass all of Pill Hill. The city learned of that study from news reports and Paul said it “confused us all.”

“It’s a proprietary study,” he said. “I don’t know if they’ll share it with us or not. I don’t even know what the study is.”

A Google Maps view of the Pill Hill area, with Scottish Rite at bottom center, Northside to the north of it, and Emory Saint Joseph’s to the east.

However, the mayor said, he’s not that interested in more studies. “Truthfully…we’ve got more traffic studies than we know what to do with,” he said, adding the real need is better sharing of information and planning “to bring a broader picture together.”

While the three hospitals are within Sandy Springs, Pill Hill borders Brookhaven and Dunwoody. Paul said those two cities are not directly involved in the new traffic planning discussions yet, but will be invited to the table “when and if it makes sense.” All three cities’ transportation and planning staffs are in regular contact anyway, he said.

Meanwhile, the mayor is sounding more positive than he did in June, when he threatened to have the city “impose some solution” if the Pill Hill hospitals didn’t come to the table. He said he understands the hospitals are in the business of healing the sick and injured, and it’s the city’s responsibility to lead the coordinated planning discussions.

“Nobody committed anything to anybody other than to continue to work,” Paul said, adding that’s a good outcome at this point. “It’s too early to commit to anything. They know what our goals are. And it’s in their interest to find a solution.”

John Ruch

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