A zoning code amendment made last year by the City Council specifically for Children’s Healthcare for its new Brookhaven hospital could bring 20-story highrises to certain portions of Buford Highway without a public review process.

CHOA is included in the proposed Buford Highway Overlay that is part of the city’s zoning rewrite now under review. Within that overlay will be a section tied to last year’s text amendment allowing up to 20-story buildings to be built by right so CHOA can build its $1.3 billion 446-bed hospital with two 19-story towers. The hospital is part of the massive medical complex development under construction at the I-85 and North Druid Hills Road interchange that was approved by the city in December.

The Buford Highway Overlay district is outlined in pink in this city zoning map. It covers large areas along Buford Highway, as well as the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Executive Park areas on the south side of I-85.

But CHOA, which is not on Buford Highway and located south of I-85, is only a small part of the proposed overlay that extends west on Buford Highway to the Buckhead border at Rivers Edge Drive and to the east to Skyland and Clairmont roads. The proposed overlay also includes some 60 acres of Executive Park owned by Emory University.

CHOA attorney Woody Galloway said during public comment at the Sept. 5 Planning Commission the latest draft of the zoning rewrite eliminated the previously approved text amendment as part of the Buford Highway Overlay to allow buildings up to 20 stories be constructed by right in areas zoned M (light industrial) and C-1 (local commercial). CHOA’s campus includes these zonings.

“That was the crux of the whole approval of the CHOA master plan,” Galloway told commissioners. “We can’t move forward without it.”

A city spokesperson said the newest edit was an oversight and the provision allowing for up to 20-stories be built by right in the overlay will be added back into the zoning rewrite to meet CHOA’s needs. But there are numerous other properties in the proposed Buford Highway Overlay zoned M and C-1 where up to 20-story highrise could now be potentially built. They include Northeast Plaza (C-1), a 41.5-acre site city officials wanted last year to pitch to the state as the site for Amazon’s second headquarters. The Brighten Park shopping center at North Druid Hills and Briarcliff roads is zoned C-1, Corporate Square is zoned C-1 and M, and many parcels along the corridor moving toward Buckhead are also zoned C-1 and M.

Planning Commission member Conor Sen said at the Sept. 5 meeting he believed that CHOA should have its own character area study. He made that comment during discussion of a proposed annexation of property below I-85.

“In looking at the map of that portion of DeKalb County, it seemed to me that it might make sense to think about the area as connected more to CHOA than to Buford Highway,” he said in a follow up interview. “But from a planning standpoint it’s ambiguous about how to handle it, since CHOA is in the city of Brookhaven, but much of the land adjacent to it is not.”

The Planning Commission is holding a retreat Oct. 24 and Sen said he may raise the idea of the city looking at creating a separate CHOA character area.

Community Development Director Patrice Ruffin said during the Sept. 5 meeting that the up to 20-story by right included in the June draft was deleted in the Aug. 31 zoning rewrite draft and replaced with the SLUP process for such heights to better fit in with the Buford Highway character area of the city’s comprehensive plan.

The comprehensive plan calls for creating a more walkable urban corridor through pedestrian-friendly development, including large shopping centers and mixed-use developments.

But the city will add back the original language, said spokesperson Burke Brennan. “We rezoned the district around CHOA to allow the construction of up to 20 stories in C-1 and M districts for hospitals and related buildings,” he said. “There was a text amendment approved in 2017 that allowed for the missing language that Woody brought up at the Planning Commission. The edit was an oversight and the language will be restored.”

CHOA spokesperson Brian Brodrick said CHOA is not planning future development along Buford Highway as it seeks to “transform the southern gateway to Brookhaven.” CHOA only wanted the up to 20-story by right for it North Druid Hills campus, he said. “Since portions of our property are included in the Buford Highway Overlay, that may have caused some confusion, but we have no plans to go west of I-85 at this time.”