Massive project will not be completed before 2018
The St James’s hospital site chosen is not free of planning problems, writes FRANK McDONALD
The Government’s decision that the children’s hospital will be built at the Rialto end of St James’s hospital, in Dublin’s south inner city, may not overcome the planning problems that beset the earlier scheme to locate it on the Mater hospital site.
An Bord Pleanála, which refused planning permission for the Mater scheme on grounds of its excessive height and bulk, also approved plans for a new private hospital at St James’s – but subject to a significant reduction in height from the eight storeys proposed.
Now, having abandoned that scheme, St James’s envisages a nine-storey building with a substantially larger footprint on the same site, in close proximity to two-storey houses on South Circular Road.
It would also involve demolition of a 19th-century chapel and other buildings.
The reason why the children’s hospital planned for the Mater was so uncomfortably large was that the site available for it was too small; there was simply no way of accommodating the new hospital’s floor area of 100,000sq metres other than by reaching for the sky. The site available at St James’s is significantly larger, at 6.5 hectares (16 acres), so there will be no need for a repetition of the extraordinary height (74 metres) and breadth (164 metres) of the rejected scheme for the Mater site. Still, nine storeys is very high.
It had been thought that Ministers would opt for the proposal by the Coombe Women and Infants University Hospital, involving an 8.3-hectare (20.5-acre) site made up of the former Player Wills factory, Bailey Gibson metalworks and derelict Boys Brigade playing fields.
One of its principal advantages was that it could be plugged into the Coombe hospital.
Such “co-location” was favoured by paediatricians such as Dr Fin Breathnach, who said it was “critical for very premature newborns” as they were “too vulnerable” to be taken by ambulance. The other major plus was that it offered not only room for expansion of the children’s hospital – which, as designed by Gerry Cahill Architects, would have been only seven storeys high – but also space for the development of a private sector biomedical research centre.
It would appear, however, that the Department of Health is planning to relocate all three of Dublin’s maternity hospitals: Holles Street to St Vincent’s, the Coombe to St James’s and the Rotunda to the Mater – “something for everyone in the audience”, as Gay Byrne used to say. St James’s is, of course, a brownfield site in the inner city rather than a greenfield site in the suburbs, such as James Connolly Memorial Hospital in Blanchardstown, which believed that its close proximity to the M50 was a trump card in its favour.
Connolly’s clinical director Dr Trevor Duffy left himself open to a charge of anti-urban bias when he said that “the kind of environment around city-centre locations can be frightening for children” – as if youthful patients were going to be assaulted in the streets.
The suburban lobby also argued that any inner city site, including St James’s Hospital, would raise access problems for parents arriving with sick children from other parts of Ireland. But the latest location for the project is less restricted in this respect than the Mater site.
There is almost direct access from the M50 via Con Colbert Road in Islandbridge. The Tallaght Luas line also runs through St James’s Hospital, connecting it directly with Heuston Station. And the St James’s campus is about 500 metres from the Coombe hospital.
One thing is certain: it won’t be finished in 2016. The huge project will take six months to select a design team, a year to design, another year to get through the planning process and three years to construct.
So it will be 2018 before the hospital materialises.