Residents concerned about tree removal at Regions Bank site

Top story graphic

slideshow

Buckhead resident Sylvia Williams was shocked last month when she discovered the tree canopy along West Paces Ferry Road by East Andrews Drive was torn down to make way for a construction project.

Birmingham, Ala.-based Regions Bank is building a new branch at the intersection and removed numerous trees in the process. Regions bought the land more than a year ago from Houston-based developer Camden Property Trust, which is building an apartment complex on East Andrews Drive.

“They first knocked down a chunk of it and left a line of trees along West Paces and now the line of trees along West Paces is just completely gone,” said Williams, who lives less than a half-mile from the site. “It’s just sad. There are so many cars coming and going down West Paces. … You’ve got nothing to suck up the pollution.”

Mercy Sandberg-Wright, who lives in the Tuxedo Park neighborhood nearby, said she drives by the corner every day.

“A lot of people in the neighborhood are very upset about how this has been handled,” she said. “It’s such an eyesore.”

Said Buckhead resident Tim Sheehan, “Naturally everybody’s upset over the clear-cutting of the property. … They took down 100-year-old oak trees. It’s crazy.”

He lives on Valley Road close to the site and said he is even more concerned about a planned right-out exit for the bank, which he believes will cause a “safety hazard on an already overburdened artery on West Paces Ferry.”

Regions spokeswoman Evelyn Mitchell said the trees were removed from the property as a result of the project’s site design.

“The location of the building on the property determines which trees must be considered for removal,” she said in an email. “Also, the [Special Public Interest-District 9] zoning requires sidewalks and landscape zones along both of the street frontages and requires all the trees along this street to be removed. The building placement was determined mainly by the SPI-9 zoning classification of the site. The SPI-9 classification establishes maximum setbacks lines — meaning the building cannot be placed behind the setback line — from both West Paces Ferry and East Andrews. This placed the building near the intersection of the two roads. So any of the trees in that area had to be removed to make way for the building.”

Mitchell said the site plan and tree removal were approved by the city of Atlanta on Dec. 19 and the trees were taken down on or about Jan. 13.

“It is my understanding that no objection concerning the removal of the trees was filed with the city,” she said. “The approved plans include extensive landscaping, including the addition of grass, numerous trees and shrubs. Our intention is to create attractive and inviting space to serve our customers and support responsible development in the Buckhead area.”

Mitchell did not provide details on how many trees were removed, how many will be added or if the company was required to pay a fine for the tree removal. The bank is slated to open during the second half of this year.

In October about 50 residents upset with the bank’s plans for the branch protested its construction.

WellStar partners with Mayo Clinic

WellStar Health System announced Thursday it will be the largest member of the Mayo Clinic Care Network in the Southeast and the only member in metro Atlanta.

Reynold Jennings, president and CEO of WellStar Health System, said the partnership, which has been in the making for 18 months, makes good business sense.

The collaboration will allow specialists at WellStar to consult with experts at the Mayo Clinic about diagnosis tests and treatment plans for complex cancer cases.

Local physicians can submit a specific question to the Mayo Clinic Care Network with supporting notes, image scans and medical records to get a formal response within two days.

Jenninngs said the collaboration is a cost-efficient way to increase the care offered by WellStar.

The Mayo Clinic could also be a best-practice resource on changes to WellStar’s business structure. And, there are plans to open access to the Mayo Clinic’s research, clinical trial information and education tools.

WellStar has always been able to refer patients to Mayo clinics, most commonly in Jacksonville, Fla., or Rochester, Minn.

Now, the online sharing of knowledge will keep WellStar patients closer to home, without additional costs for travel. The second opinion from the Mayo Clinic will be free to WellStar patients.

Pooja Mishra, who has been the director of oncology operations at WellStar for three years, said the partnership will bring doctors together to evaluate specific cases through “tumor boards.”

This type of telecommunication on a unique case is in the best interest of patients, “when they are already going through a very troubling experience,” Mishra said.

WellStar staff reaction

On Thursday morning, board members, hospital administrators, medical staff and community leaders gathered at the WellStar Development Center in Smyrna for the announcement.

Robert Jansen, executive vice president and chief administrative medical officer of WellStar, began the event by making sure the crowd knew it was not a merger announcement.

“We remain independent, but this is a collaboration,” Jansen said.

With more than 13,000 employees, WellStar is one of the largest health systems in the Southeast, serving a population of more than 1.4 million residents in five counties.

The collaboration will rely on WellStar doctors acknowledging they need help to solve a problem.

“No matter how great physicians are, humility is a great quality,” said Avril Beckford, WellStar’s chief pediatrics officer.

Beckford, who has been with WellStar since it was Northwest Georgia Health System in the early 1990s, said she has seen the network grow through many changes.

“This is one of the best decisions ever,” Beckford said.

Janie Maddox, chair of the WellStar Board of Trustees, said the Cobb community expects excellence in treating personal health.

“We kind of know how good we are,” Maddox told the crowd. “But to be able to collaborate with Mayo is just over the top.”

Stephen Lange, southeast medical director of the Mayo Clinic Care Network, attended Thursday’s event with several administrators and chief officers from their clinics around the country.

The Mayo Clinic Care Network began in 2011, and has 25 members in 14 states, Puerto Rico and Mexico.

“Working together, we can increasingly assure patients that they have access to the latest medical knowledge here, in their community,” Lange said. “Medical care is improved by collaboration. We do it because it is the right thing to do for the patients.”

The partnership with WellStar will stretch Mayo’s influence in the medical field and accelerate innovation in treating cancer, he said.

Maddox told the Mayo representatives, “You may learn as much from us as we learn from all of you all.”

Buckhead neighbors concerned about tree removal at Regions Bank site

Buckhead resident Sylvia Williams was shocked last month when she discovered the tree canopy along West Paces Ferry Road by East Andrews Drive was torn down to make way for a construction project.

Birmingham, Ala.-based Regions Bank is building a new branch at the intersection and removed numerous trees in the process. Regions bought the land more than a year ago from Houston-based developer Camden Property Trust, which is building an apartment complex on East Andrews Drive.

“They first knocked down a chunk of it and left a line of trees along West Paces and now the line of trees along West Paces is just completely gone,” said Williams, who lives less than a half-mile from the site. “It’s just sad. There are so many cars coming and going down West Paces. … You’ve got nothing to suck up the pollution.”

Mercy Sandberg-Wright, who lives in the Tuxedo Park neighborhood nearby, said she drives by the corner every day.

“A lot of people in the neighborhood are very upset about how this has been handled,” she said. “It’s such an eyesore.”

Said Buckhead resident Tim Sheehan, “Naturally everybody’s upset over the clear-cutting of the property. … They took down 100-year-old oak trees. It’s crazy.”

He lives on Valley Road close to the site and said he is even more concerned about a planned right-out exit for the bank, which he believes will cause a “safety hazard on an already overburdened artery on West Paces Ferry.”

Regions spokeswoman Evelyn Mitchell said the trees were removed from the property as a result of the project’s site design.

“The location of the building on the property determines which trees must be considered for removal,” she said in an email. “Also, the [Special Public Interest-District 9] zoning requires sidewalks and landscape zones along both of the street frontages and requires all the trees along this street to be removed. The building placement was determined mainly by the SPI-9 zoning classification of the site. The SPI-9 classification establishes maximum setbacks lines — meaning the building cannot be placed behind the setback line — from both West Paces Ferry and East Andrews. This placed the building near the intersection of the two roads. So any of the trees in that area had to be removed to make way for the building.”

Mitchell said the site plan and tree removal were approved by the city of Atlanta on Dec. 19 and the trees were taken down on or about Jan. 13.

“It is my understanding that no objection concerning the removal of the trees was filed with the city,” she said. “The approved plans include extensive landscaping, including the addition of grass, numerous trees and shrubs. Our intention is to create attractive and inviting space to serve our customers and support responsible development in the Buckhead area.”

Mitchell did not provide details on how many trees were removed, how many will be added or if the company was required to pay a fine for the tree removal. The bank is slated to open during the second half of 2014.

Ethics watchdog cries foul on apartments getting bonds

The issuance of bonds to two upscale Buckhead apartment developments in the past six months has one Buckhead resident crying foul on the subject.

Bill Bozarth, the retired executive director of ethics watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, said the projects do not need the bonds and the tax breaks that go with them and should not qualify for them because they don’t add enough jobs or low-income housing.

The apartment projects, Elle of Buckhead and SkyHouse Buckhead, received bonds of $62 million in August and $71.5 million in December, respectively, from the Development Authority of Fulton County. Elle of Buckhead sold to MetLife Real Estate Investors for $100 million Dec. 26.

“The heart of the issue is that the Georgia code enables development authorities for certain specific functions within the political framework,” said Bozarth, who today is a Neighborhood Planning Unit B board member. “The intent of the [state’s] Development Authority Act is give local government the tool to incent development where it otherwise may not occur.

“The authority is giving a tax abatement to the development. No. 1, the project never could justify it based on Invest Atlanta’s denial. They awarded it to the developer after the project had already been completed. It reduces taxes 50 percent in the first year and gradually the abatement reduces to 100 percent. You’re taking money out of the treasury and the majority of the taxes go to Atlanta Public Schools, a slice goes to the Atlanta general budget and the county general budget. Those of us who are watching tax dollars have a problem with it.”

But Maceo Rogers, president of the development authority, said the government entity, formed in 1973 to create jobs, increase the tax base and spur economic development, was right to issue the apartments bonds.

“If a project furthers those goals, then the DAFC will likely provide incentives to support the project,” Rogers said, adding some top companies in the county would not be here without the bonds they received from the authority. “… Finally, some of the biggest corporate names in metropolitan Atlanta have been beneficiaries of DAFC bond financing, as corporations and developers tend [to] avail themselves of lower financing and development costs.

Elle of Buckhead opened in 2012 and was the previous year denied bonds from Invest Atlanta, the city’s development arm. Rogers said the authority was not aware of Invest Atlanta’s decision, but added it may not have kept the project from getting county bonds. He also said the fact that Elle of Buckhead was sold after it received the bonds “is immaterial to the goals of the DAFC.”

But Bozarth said the projects should not have qualified for the bonds, which gave each development millions in tax breaks.

“It’s a loss of revenue for no apparent reason,” he said. “It’s also unfair for others to not get the bonds and this advantage. It’s hard to see how they justify it.

“I believe there’s general community support for underwriting a development project when there is some obvious public benefit in doing so. The support I believe is appropriate when the development authority is generating good jobs in the community or providing affordable housing that would not otherwise be there. When all of those are absent, one has to ask the question: Why are we giving away tax money to build something that would probably be built anyway? The heart of Buckhead is one of the most desirable real estate locations in the state. In my opinion, it’s the last place you would want to give tax incentives for developers.”

Bozarth said he has talked to District 2 at-large Fulton County Commissioner Robb Pitts about the issue but has not heard a response yet. Email and phone messages left with Pitts’ office last week were not returned.

District 4 Commissioner Tom Lowe, who represents Buckhead, Sandy Springs and part of Roswell, said the board of commissioners has supported the authority in years past but added he would look into the issue.

“The development authority dances to a different tune,” Lowe said. “I don’t know whether everything should go through them or not. If it can be handed out in private practice, issuing bonds, it may be the best way to go.”

Click here for a related story on one apartment developer defending its project’s bonds.

Lowe announces retirement from board of commissioners

Tom Lowe

slideshow

Ten-term District 4 Fulton County Commissioner Tom Lowe, who represents Buckhead, Sandy Springs and part of Roswell, announced Wednesday at the board of commissioners’ meeting he will not seek reelection this year.

“I’m in my 40th year of service and have not missed any regular meetings,” Lowe, 85, said. “That is 470 meetings so far. … I think the greatest thing in the world is to know when your time is up. I’ve got to spend more time with my family and it’s time for me to go. I offer my best wishes to each and every one of you [on the board] and my staff. Thanks so much for 40 good years.”

Chairman John Eaves thanked Lowe for his service to the residents of north Fulton.

“It is with some regret that I get the news that he is retiring from the board,” Eaves said.

Lowe also served on the Atlanta-Fulton County Water Board and on the Fulton County Pension Board. He has advocated for support for Grady Memorial Hospital.

City council gets preliminary snowstorm report

With last month’s snowstorm still fresh on their minds, officials gave Sandy Springs’ overall response to the crisis a favorable review.

The critique by City Manager John McDonough — which also identified room for improvement — came during Tuesday’s city council meeting at City Hall.

“We’re going to turn our [findings] into a report over the next couple of weeks,” McDonough said. “We’ll be taking the lessons learned and determine what we need to do going forward in the event that we’ll have another one of these [storms] and we will have another one of these at some point in the future.”

A wintry mix of snow and ice struck the metro Atlanta area Jan. 28 through 30, rendering roads unsafe to travel and stranding many residents.

“Some of our success [stemmed] from the fact that we recognized early on that this was going to be a major event, a life-and-death situation for people from a shelter standpoint,” McDonough said.

He listed the city’s adequate supply of road treatment and “excellent” demonstration of situational awareness among the pros to be taken away from the experience.

Communication with other agencies was among the challenges McDonough outlined.

“This is not to say that we didn’t talk to outside agencies; we did,” he said. “It’s more about [the lack of] action.”

Access to regional emergency supplies was also identified as an area in need of shoring up. The city manager’s preliminary evaluation included a call to purchase similar items — to officials, merchants and residents.

“I think one of the major things that everyone learns is that you cannot count on the higher levels of the government in the event of an emergency,” McDonough said. “You have to be prepared for a minimum of 72 hours on your own and perhaps longer — if [Hurricane] Katrina taught us anything.”

City staffers from several departments and partnering private firms were singled out and awarded plaques Tuesday for their efforts during the snowstorms.

The city’s new emergency call center, which became operational Jan. 1, fielded more than 2,000 calls between Jan. 28 and 31. About 320 people took refuge from the weather in local shelters as arranged by Sandy Springs workers and volunteers.

Mayor Rusty Paul saluted the “whole team” for a job well done.

“It is not that we were without problems; we had significant problems,” Paul said. However, “I have never ever been more proud of the community — from the professional staff, elected leadership and just ordinary citizens who stepped up to help.

“I talk a whole lot about the need to build community. … Last Tuesday and Wednesday, we proved that we were a community.”

In other business, council members voted unanimously their approval of a deal to purchase the property at 4697 Wieuca Road, home to Sandy Springs Fire Station 4, from the city of Atlanta.

Atlanta moves forward with bike-sharing program

The city of Atlanta is moving forward with a plan to launch its first citywide bike-sharing program.

Mayor Kasim Reed announced Wednesday the city is beginning contract negotiations with its preferred bike-share vendor, CycleHop. The company is expected to partner with two local firms to garner sponsors and discuss potential rental locations.

The bike-sharing program calls for residents and visitors to have 24-hour access to GPS-enabled bicycles 365 days a year. The program is expected to launch in spring 2015.

Interim Chief Operating Officer Mike Geisler said the city is hoping for the program to include 500 bicycles at 50 stations throughout Atlanta.

Among other cycling-related goals, city officials are hoping to double the percentage of people who bike to work from 1.1 to 2.2 percent by 2016.