The new Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta hospital campus on North Druid Hills Road at I-85 will be among metro Atlanta’s largest medical complexes. Some residents living in surrounding neighborhoods believe it will create the area’s largest traffic headache.
At recent meetings, residents and officials have called for more traffic planning and more thought about how to pay for solutions. Meanwhile, CHOA is already building the first phase of the 45-acre complex, an eight-story ambulatory care tower, and says it will build its $1.3 billion new hospital between 2020 and 2025.
“It’s not our problem. It’s your problem,” resident Sonny Chaffin told CHOA officials about traffic planning at a May 24 community meeting. “We’re not traffic engineers. You are.”
DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader and Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst have different levels of concern about paying for traffic improvements.
“Call [hospitals] charitable if you will, but they are big businesses and they generate a lot of infrastructure,” Rader said. “I don’t know how the city will pay for the improvements.”
“If improvements aren’t made, developments won’t happen,” Ernst said. “There are numerous funding opportunities – it’s not rocket science.”
Before CHOA can build the new hospital, which will replace the 235-bed Egleston Hospital on Emory University’s campus, it must find a place to locate staff and offices currently housed in the Tullie Circle office complex in Brookhaven.
That place is intended to be a new eight-story building on the Northeast Expressway and on about 11 acres of property CHOA is asking Brookhaven to annex. On July 5, the city Planning Commission will hear the annexation request and request for a special land use permit to allow CHOA to build the building eight stories tall. City Council is slated to consider the requests July 25.
If CHOA gets approval, it plans to start building the office building later this year and complete it in 2019, when all the personnel located on Tullie Circle will relocate into the new support building. Plans are then to demolish the Tullie Circle offices to make room for the new hospital.
CHOA is currently building an eight-story Center for Advanced Pediatrics on the campus. Set to open next year, the new facility will house 457 physicians. CHOA officials anticipate it will attract more than 100,000 patient visits in the first year.
“What are you going to do?” asked a skeptical Chaffin at a May 24 meeting CHOA held with residents at its Tullie Circle offices. Chaffin lives nearby on Sheffield Glen Way and said traffic from the new support building onto the Northeast Expressway will clog area residential streets further.
CHOA representatives said they plan to hold several meetings with residents to gather input and ideas on how to handle traffic.
Chris Chelette, vice president of Planning, Design and Construction for CHOA, acknowledged the top three problems he hears are “traffic, traffic and traffic.”
The truth, Chelette said, is that CHOA “is very quickly running out of beds” and expansion is necessary to continue providing care to sick children throughout Georgia.
“We all agree we need it, but this is an idiotic place to put it,” another meeting attendee said.
Chelette said 11 other sites were examined, but the North Druid Hills site was chosen because of its access to I-85. Emory University’s purchase last year of 60 acres of Executive Park, across the street from CHOA, also played a role in picking the site. Emory and CHOA have a longstanding relationship.
“Ultimately, this is about the kids,” Chelette said. “We are completely in the way of ourselves right now, right here [on Tullie Circle]. We have got to get out the way. This [area] sets the tone for the next 100 years … to keep up with the growth of Atlanta, to keep up with the growth of Georgia.”
Many residents have been asking for more than a year what exactly CHOA plans for the entire area, saying they want to see the whole project rather than watching it be revealed in bits and pieces. CHOA says it intends to release the master plan in the fall and will provide an update in a few months.
After the master plan is complete and CHOA starts the application process with Brookhaven, a Development of Regional Impact (DRI) will be triggered. That DRI will include specifics on how to deal with traffic mitigation.
Paying for infrastructure is, of course, a major issue. Brookhaven’s budget this year is about $37 million. CHOA, a nonprofit hospital that does not pay property taxes, brought in $1.5 billion in revenue last year, according to Fortune.com.
The city last month applied for an $800,000 Transportation Improvement Program grant through the Atlanta Regional Commission to cover costs to design upgrades to the North Druid Hills Road interchange at I-85, including a “diverging diamond” interchange similar to the one at Ashford-Dunwoody Road and I-285. The design would include the addition of “braided ramps” to connect the northbound and southbound access roads directly to the interstate on/off ramps so access road traffic from the south on I-85 can bypass North Druid Hills Road.
According to a city memo, construction is estimated to cost $14 million.
Rader, who commissioned a DRI for the area 10 years ago for a planned mixed-use development in Executive Park, said recently he is not sure how the city will pay for what many envision will be massive road projects, not only for the CHOA campus but what will likely be major Emory development in Executive Park.
“GDOT typically wants matching grants from municipalities,” Rader said. “Maybe the hospitals will pay for them … but Brookhaven doesn’t have a lot of resources.”
Ernst said CHOA and Emory will both have DRIs that will guide the city and the healthcare facilities.
“The hospitals will be required to make improvements. We are well aware of the issues that area has with traffic,” Ernst said.
CHOA says it is willing to make “significant” transportation investments to improve existing traffic conditions around the new replacement support building on the Northeast Expressway, including intersection improvements at Briarcliff and Cliff Valley Way, the I-85 underpass and along Cliff Valley Way, said CHOA spokesperson Brian Brodrick.
“[A]s long as GDOT, DeKalb County, Brookhaven and others are in agreement that they are appropriate and necessary,” he said.
Transportation improvements for CHOA’s North Druid Hills Campus will be guided by the ARC’s DRI process so those specifics have yet to be determined, he added.
“We do anticipate making significant investments to improve traffic in the area surrounding the new campus over the next decade but there are many existing challenges that are regional in nature and will require state and local funding,” Brodrick said. “We plan to investigate various sources of funding, including the potential of forming a Community Improvement District. We hope to be a catalyst and advocate for those regional improvements.”
CHOA is currently proposing adding dedicated turn lanes to Cliff Valley Way and on Briarcliff Road at that intersection.
That DRI traffic plan presented to DeKalb County in 2008 includes recommendations such as widening Briarcliff Road, adding a second westbound turn lane on Clifton Road at Briarcliff, adding a second northbound through lane from North Druid Hills Road to East Roxboro Road and widening East Roxboro Road to four lanes from North Druid Hills Road.
CHOA is also using HGOR Planning Landscape Architects for its building and hospital design, the same company that worked on the planned Executive Park mixed-use development and that is familiar with the decade-old traffic plans. But things have changed and this is a different kind of development.
“As we move through the planning process, we are obviously considering past work done on traffic to help us plan potential transportation improvements related to the new campus,” Brodrick said.
“Much has changed in a decade,” Brodrick added. “Our hope is that with the input of the community – as well as the experience of our team of planning and traffic consultants – we can be a catalyst for significant traffic improvements that will allow our patient families, as well as our neighbors, to reach their destinations more easily.”
One resident at the May 24 meeting, who declined to give her name, recommended letting employees at the support building park at the Brookhaven MARTA station and then catch shuttles to their offices so “Brookhaven can help support the infrastructure” needed to handle the traffic. Other ideas include “traffic calming” measures such as speed humps and road signs.
One fix CHOA is proposing is to add four lanes under the interstate overpass leading into the proposed new development south of Cliff Valley Way from the access roads. CHOA representatives said the plan is receiving support from the Georgia Department of Transportation.
Corrected version: The original version of this story gave an incorrect timeframe for CHOA’s release of its master plan.