Emory, Brookhaven disagree over condition for I-85 pedestrian bridge

An initial design plan for Emory’s new complex in Executive Park. (Photo: Courtesy of Emory University)
An initial design plan for Emory’s new complex in Executive Park. (Photo: Courtesy of Emory University)

Brookhaven has a vision for an efficient and iconic pedestrian bridge stretching over I-85, connecting the city and making it more friendly to walkers and bicyclists. But Emory University, planning a $1 billion development nearby, said it shouldn’t be forced to build it as a condition for a rezoning it is seeking from the city.

Emory is seeking to turn 60 acres of land near Executive Park into a sprawling complex of medical buildings, apartments, a hospital, walking paths and a hotel.

The city’s staff recommended approval of the plans, but on the condition that Emory “install” two pedestrian bridges over I-85 and North Druid Hills Road, according to documents filed ahead of a Planning Commission meeting Wednesday night. Brookhaven also wants to see Emory build a “transit center” inside the site.

Carl Westmoreland, an attorney representing the university, said Emory needs more information from the city about what that deal would look like. He told the commission it would be “improper” to negotiate the bridges as a zoning condition.

“I think it’s unfair to assume that this development would be responsible for something that doesn’t obviously just serve this development,” Westmoreland said after the meeting. “It was a bit of a recent request from the city.”

» READ MORE: A pedestrian bridge over I-85? City considers plans for Emory complex

He said Emory remains open to discussing a plan for pedestrian bridges in order to connect Executive Park with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta across North Druid Hills, and the new Peachtree Creek Greenway across I-85. He also recommended that Emory work out a separate deal to install the transit center, which would serve any future MARTA bus rapid transit system in the area.

“They’ve been put on the table,” he said. “We’ll have that conversation before we come back.”

In an interview Thursday, Brookhaven City Manager Christian Sigman said he does not think it is “out of the norm at all to ask a development — public, private or higher education — to install the infrastructure that is needed to support their development.”

Emory, he added, is “not an island, and they’re not building an island.” He said he hopes to continue the dialogue with Emory to make the bridge project a reality, and lauded Emory as a “great partner” throughout the planning process. The nuts and bolts of how the bridges get done, what they will look like and who pays for them will be worked out later, Sigman said.

The project is aimed at improving connectivity in Brookhaven, especially around the North Druid Hills area. The city is also planning to build a new flyover ramp over I-85 south of Executive Park that will be used by cars and pedestrians, Sigman said.

Things to know about Emory Healthcare

At Wednesday night’s meeting, the Planning Commission still had some questions about Emory’s grand-scale project, and wanted to see more renderings of some of the buildings, paths and even the bridges. The members unanimously voted to recommend that the City Council send the proposal back to the Planning Commission for further discussion.

Emory officials released new details about what the new Brookhaven complex would house, including a musculoskeletal center and brain health building. It plans to make several improvements to nearby intersections and build 1½ miles of sidewalks.

“Traffic is the focus of any development in this area,” Westmoreland said, referencing the frequent congestion on North Druid Hills Road.

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The university is treating the campus as a long-term project that will be gradually built over 15 years.

“Our vision for Executive Park is a health innovation district that advances the future of health care through community partnership, patient-focused care and innovative research,” David Payne, Emory’s associate vice president for planning and engagement, told the commission.

Officials don’t yet have an estimate of how many employees would work at the Executive Park location. Payne also said it would be “premature” to discuss potential financial incentives at this point in the planning process.

The center would expand Emory Healthcare’s footprint in metro Atlanta. In addition to the main Druid Hills campus, Emory has a major center in Midtown and other hospitals across the region.

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