The hospital now is eyeing another expansion and “makeover.” It plans to replace the current, often-crowded, cramped and outdated ER with a new, two-story, 80,750-square-foot emergency department on the opposite side of the Kennestone campus, and a 94,270-square-foot office and administrative space on the second level. It would be built on a property bounded by Church, Cherokee and Cherry streets and would be accessed from the hospital by an enclosed pedestrian bridge over Church Street.
But those plans have drawn criticism from a number of residents in nearby neighborhoods.
The Kennestone Hospital Authority does not need city zoning approval for the new ER building itself because it is a government entity and thus exempt from zoning regulations. It does, however, need an airspace easement from the city for the bridge.
Tensions between the hospital and nearby neighborhoods are not new. Neighbors have watched with a wary eye as the hospital and the numerous nearby clinics, doctors’ offices and the like steadily spilled into what had been residential areas. And many of those along Church and Campbell Hill streets fought a strenuous, but losing, battle against the hospital a decade ago trying to stop its plans to close part of Campbell Hill to allow for expansion of the current ER.
The unveiling of the latest plans for Kennestone caused tensions to reignite, and some of those tensions spilled over at a public hearing and at a recent council meeting. Another public hearing is set for Tuesday on the matter. These hearings, facilitated by Mayor Steve Tumlin, are a positive step to engage residents and explain the ER plans, as well as the opportunity for questions directly with hospital leadership.
Some of the opponents of the proposal complain that the landing pad for the hospital’s life-flight helicopter would be too close to their neighborhood and thus too noisy. They also say the noise from ambulances would be too jarring as well. But frankly, the Church/Cherokee corridor is already a noisy one, thanks to the constant traffic on those streets, the noise from the ambulances and hospital chopper, the 55 or so CSX Railroad trains that rumble down the tracks each day just a few blocks away and the overhead flights of Lockheed C-5s and C-130s.
Traffic around the hospital likely will not increase any more than it currently would if the new ER were not built. Instead, the new ER would actually divert existing traffic away from more residential areas along Campbell Hill that is currently used to access the ER.
Many opponents also have complained about the design of the proposed bridge over Church Street. The rendering shared thus far has been uninspiring, at best, depicting a modernistic, generic-looking structure. Yes, it has been described as just a “place-holder” until a final design comes along, but hospital brass should have realized that sometimes first impressions are everything.
Inasmuch as the bridge will traverse one of the major “gateways” into the heart of Marietta, and on a street lined with well-maintained century-old homes, it would be better if the new bridge did a better job of preparing travelers for what lies ahead as they enter town. A “historic”-looking bridge might appear out of place connecting the contemporary-style ER and hospital, but architects surely could come up with a design that blends traditional and contemporary elements in a more appropriate fashion. WellStar has publicly stated the city will have final approval of the bridge design. This would be an ideal time to get residents involved in the process, showing design options and receiving feedback.
Unfortunately, the hospital did not do an adequate job of laying the groundwork for its plans and getting a neighborhood buy-in before springing them on the public. The two sides now are at an impasse, with the city council caught between the proverbial “rock and a hard place.”
There’s no question the hospital needs a larger and upgraded emergency room. There’s also the undeniable fact that the hospital is a huge economic generator for the city.
The flip side of the issue is that the neighborhood that would bear the brunt of the expansion is one of the city’s most treasured and is home to many of the city’s most civic-minded residents. The mayor and council cannot afford to do anything to undermine the neighborhood’s viability, nor can they afford, politically, to run roughshod over its residents. Many residents’ greatest worry is future growth of the hospital further into residential areas and the impact on property values and quality of life. While this newspaper is not aware of plans for such future expansion, it is a legitimate concern for property owners and one the hospital would be well served to address with residents in areas immediately surround the hospital.
Which brings us back to the standoff. Another public hearing is scheduled for Tuesday. But after that opportunity for upset residents to vent and others to become educated, perhaps what’s needed is a cooling-off period, a time for the hospital to perfect its plans and try to build the bridges with its neighbors that it failed to do the first time around. A cooling-off period also might cause the council to get off the sidelines, show more leadership and be a “broker” helping the two sides find a reasonable compromise.
WellStar Kennestone Hospital has been a strong community partner for decades, provided quality jobs to many of our neighbors and plowed hundreds of millions of dollars directly back into the community. These investments have resulted in a first-class medical care in the heart of our community. Though WellStar stumbled out of the gate communicating its plans for a new ER and connecting sky bridge to surrounding residents, it doesn’t mean the project should be scrapped. Not building the new ER is not an option if the hospital wants to keep up with demand and improve patient care.
The neighborhood has valid concerns, but some of those talking the loudest have managed to make some of those concerns sound overblown.
It’s time for both sides to adopt a change in tactics and move forward.