Wielding miniature shovels, children in yellow hard hats dug in and broke ground on the construction site that is set to become University Health System’s new freestanding Women’s and Children’s Hospital.

The Saturday morning groundbreaking ceremony signifies the beginning of construction for what will be a 12-story, 600,000-square-foot hospital tower that will house two separate emergency rooms, a neonatal intensive care unit, close to 300 beds for patients, and rooms for families.

“There will be a top tier women and children’s hospital on the grounds you are standing on,” UHS President and CEO George B. Hernández  said to a crowd gathered on what is currently a hospital visitor parking lot. “This new hospital will provide a strong foundation for improving health and helping to shape the future for children who are here today, and who will be here tomorrow.”

Planning for the $500 million project began in 2017 following funding approval by the Bexar County Commissioners Court, and the hospital will take three years to construct, hospital administrator Mike Roussos said, noting the project is the next phase of the hospital system’s Capital Improvement Program. Progress on the building’s construction will be livestreamed online.

In a July interview with the Rivard Report, Leni Kirkman, UHS’ vice president of strategic communication, said that the project was born out of the realization that the health system’s 1 million-square-foot Sky Tower extension, which opened in 2014, was not meeting the growing needs of the community.

“With that expansion, our [patient] volume increased rather quickly, about 20 to 30 percent per year,” Kirkman said. “We are now on some days at full capacity.”

Dr. Dianna Burns-Banks

Currently, children occupy the seventh floor of the 10-foot Sky Tower, and the labor and delivery wing occupies the fourth floor of the Horizon Tower, which was constructed decades ago.

The new freestanding hospital will keep women and children together, and will serve those who can pay, as well as those who can’t, said Dr. Dianna Burns-Banks. “As a pediatrician, I am excited about a hospital that will specifically address the needs of women and children, moms, babies, and couples” in a single space.

The project was originally planned as a smaller building costing $390 million, but increased in size and cost as hospital officials sought to “right-size” it in order to address San Antonio’s rapidly growing population.

UT Health San Antonio President William Henrich said that, in addition to serving a growing need for medical care in the community, the new Women’s and Children’s Hospital will also serve the medical school, which partners with UHS on research and educational initiatives for its students and residents.

“It takes a partnership to get the bricks and mortar done, and it also takes the people who are motivated to carry forward the mission inside the bricks and mortar,”Henrich said. “We are incredibly excited about the opportunity. It will greatly expand what is going on now, and it will greatly improve the health of the city.

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.