BY PAT McDONNELL TWAIR
This was the rallying cheer for veterans who gathered on Veterans Day 2009 at the padlocked Wilshire/San Vicente gate to the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs campus. They were protesting plans to turn sixteen acres of VA land into a public park.
A TV reporter talked with international banker and World War II veteran Dan Overmyer, 85, who denounced the VA for donating the land to private interests while as many as 20,000 homeless veterans are in need of shelter and care in Los Angeles. As two veterans, Mark Reed and Ari David, who are candidates in California’s 27th and 30th congressional districts, looked on, Overmyer said: “We’re obligated by the original owner who gifted this property to veterans to conserve it for its original purpose and only for that purpose.”
What makes veterans so hot under the collar was summed up in the words of Francisco Juarez of VVA Redondo Beach Chapter 53: “Statues and memorials to veterans are nice, but the best way to honor dead veterans is to take care of the living veterans.”
The 338-acre WLA VA property has an annual budget of $400 million. With more than 1,000 beds, it is the largest and most complex health care facility in the VA system. It also is wedged between some of the nation’s wealthiest communities: Bel-Air to the north, UCLA and Westwood to the east, and Brentwood to the west.
The explanation for its presence on such high-end real estate is steeped in a romantic bit of California history. In 1887, thousands of veterans disabled in the Civil War and Indian wars were in desperate need of treatment and shelter. According to a congressional act in 1887 and a land grant deed signed in 1888 by Sen. John Percival Jones and landowner Arcadia Bandini de Stearns Baker, the land was donated to the U.S. government. The deed stipulated the property was “to be permanently maintained as a National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers.”
Additional land donations accrued to around 600 acres for the first national veterans home west of the Rockies. Progress in the form of the coming of Wilshire Boulevard and, after World War II, the construction of the 405 Freeway and the West Los Angeles Federal Building subdivided the property and diminished it to its 388 acres.
As a graduate student at UCLA in the early 1970s, I often drove past the huge VA complex and the adjoining 114.5-acre National Cemetery where my uncle, who fought in World War I, is buried. Almost subconsciously, I wondered how many generations would pass before developers would wrest control of the park-like federal land and continue the Manhattanization of Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood.
Concern over the VA land was anything but subliminal for the Brentwood Homeowners Association in 1986 when it was rumored that the federal government was contemplating the sale of 109 acres of the WLA VA campus. Visions of more high rises and shopping malls further congesting their neighborhood spurred the BHA to organize the Committee to Save VA Land headed by Sue Young. Eventually, the 109 acres declared “in excess of VA needs” was reduced to 80 acres. Huge public rallies were staged by the Brentwood Homeowners Association. These extravaganzas starred celebrity residents and even Sen. Alan Cranston, who called for the preservation of the WLA VA property.
Largely due to Save VA Land Committee efforts, a moratorium was passed in October 1986 to prevent the sale of the WLA VA land. In 1988, a law was enacted stipulating that the land could never be sold and would remain federal property in perpetuity. The strategy of the Brentwood protectionists now focused on securing leases on the WLA VA land. The Veterans Memorial Gardens Foundation was founded with the same Sue Young serving as its director. What better way to beautify the 80 acres of VA land bordering Brentwood than to transform it into parks, picnic areas, and gardens filled with war memorials and fountains?
The rub was that a scenic park wasn’t high on the priority list of disabled veterans or homeless veterans who had begun to camp on the property. This issue was addressed by William K. Anderson, the director of the West Los Angeles Veterans Medical Center, when he created the Land Utilization Task Force (LUTF) in 1986. It was charged to study possible uses for the land through the year 2010 and make recommendations on how the land should be used.
Anderson appointed VAMC officials and a representative from the American Legion, as well as Young and two officials from UCLA, which was leasing VA land and wanted to lease more. No one questioned the presence of the ubiquitous Sue Young or the UCLA people on the task force.
By 1988, homelessness among veterans was reaching a critical point. In February, a federal judge proposed installing fifteen trailers on the WLA VA campus to house homeless veterans and their families. Young swung into action and managed to sit on a committee to study the homeless project. No advocates for the homeless or anyone who might question decisions made by Young’s commission were invited to its meetings.
The prospect of a homeless trailer park abutting Brentwood was dropped on the grounds that costs would be prohibitive to install running water and electric wiring for the trailers. Furthermore, the commission stressed that wildlife and the environment would be disturbed on “the last open space on the west side of urban Los Angeles.”
In March 1989, wealthy Brentwood landowners were confronted with a new nightmare when the Federal Register decreed that the 80 acres of WLA VA land would be made available to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Incredibly, Anderson provided Sue Young and her Veterans Memorial Garden Foundation a free office and phone on WLA VA property to launch a campaign against HUD.
Young’s foundation had transformed itself into the Veterans Park Preserve (VPP). The same arguments that had been used to stifle the homeless trailer park proposal were employed again to defeat the HUD proposal.
Nearly two decades later, Young has reincarnated her VPP into the Veterans Park Conservancy (VPC) located on San Vicente Blvd. directly across the street from the WLA VA. Commendably, she was successful in defeating a bid to build a National Football League stadium on the WLA VA campus and with blocking the erection of a colossal neon billboard that would have directed motorists on the 405 Freeway to the VA complex. VA had argued it could profit from selling advertising space on the billboard.
The director of asset management and chief of medical media and public affairs at the WLA VA is Ralph Tillman. Under his watch on Aug. 24, 2007, a no-bid, rent-free enhanced sharing lease agreement was approved with the Veterans Park Conservancy (a.k.a. Veterans Park Preserve, Veterans Memorial Gardens Foundation, Brentwood Homeowners Association). The lease for the 16-acre parcel of land bordering Wilshire and San Vicente Boulevards is for 20 years with a 10-year option.
While some veterans’ advocates believe that this parcel of land is worth $60 million an acre, West Los Angeles commercial property broker Michael Polk disagrees. “First of all, it’s federal land and has no zoning,” he said. “It can’t be sold.” But he said the value could range from $5.5 to $8.5 million per acre.
When the WLA VA Office of Public Affairs was asked if veterans would have access to the park and who would pay for its maintenance, sculptures, fountains, and monuments, it responded with a fact sheet that said the Veterans Park Conservancy will pay $7-10 million in improvements that will become VA property once completed. Furthermore, it claimed, local veterans will be involved in construction and maintenance of land improvements.
As early as 1990, the exclusive Brentwood School offered $250,000 to build six championship tennis courts on the northwest sector of the WLA VA campus. Veterans’ groups objected, questioning how these courts would benefit disabled veterans.
In 2001, the WLA VA entered a 20-year agreement with the Brentwood School to lease 21 acres for an athletic complex that is padlocked from the VA side and is off limits to veterans. Known as the East Campus of the exclusive private school, it houses soccer and football fields, running tracks, tennis courts, swimming pools, baseball diamonds, lockers, and parking lots, and is the official venue of the Special Olympics.
The school charges an annual tuition of $24, 575 for lower division and $28,500 for upper division students. Three of the children of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have or are attending the Brentwood School. The Governor delivered the commencement speech in 2008 when his daughter, Katherine, graduated.
There are, however, persistent rumors that the area beneath the athletic fields was once used by three VA hospitals as a dumping ground for low-level radioactive biomedical waste.
In early December 2009, a team of men began soil borings to test soils under the nearby Barrington Recreation Center baseball fields and a dog park—on WLA VA land—along a fenced-off drainage system. However, there’s no available documentation about the VA’s agreement with Breitburn Energy to drill on the WLA campus. The Department of the Interior controls the mineral rights agreement.
Another enhanced sharing agreement was signed by the WLA VA with the Sodexho Marriott Hotel to carry out laundry services in Building 224. The lease expires in 2010.
An enhanced sharing agreement with UCLA for a baseball diamond expires in 2011.
A 75-year lease is being negotiated with developers McCormack Baron Salazar to operate a homeless housing service for Building 209, which resembles a 1930s two-star hotel with several hundred rooms. The MBR website notes: “Our approach creates a competitive advantage in marketing, enhances asset value, and reduces turnover.” It sounds like MBR is geared to create condos rather than to establish a residence for homeless veterans. Veterans’ groups say there is no guarantee in the agreement that residents must be either homeless or veterans.
Vietnam War veteran Ernie Hilger questions the VA decision to enter leases to renovate buildings when it could hire veterans experienced in construction to do the same jobs while eliminating commissions paid in leasing services.
WLA VA has entered a 20-year sharing agreement with Westside Services to operate parking lots on VA land in Brentwood village. So outraged was Vietnam War veteran Al Biernesser that he refused to pay at a lot marked “Veterans’ Parking.”
“That parking lot has nothing to do with veterans,” said Biernesser, who led the fight to protect WLA VA land in the 1990s. “Being a disabled veteran with Purple Heart license plates on my car, I challenged the attendant to have my car towed and told him it wouldn’t make a favorable photo in the newspaper. He backed down.”
Controversy also centers around the nine-hole, par-3 golf course built for returning World War II veterans. In recent years, the VA opened it to the public at $12 a round. The seven-acre course was padlocked March 30 to enable federal investigators to examine the suspected embezzlement of $200,000 in user fees.
Some veterans argue that the VA closed the golf course to veterans and the public until it negotiates a lease with a non-profit organization to operate it for the public with “selected hours” set aside for veterans.
“Those selected hours will likely be any time before 5 a.m. and after 8 p.m.,” groused one veteran.
A 20-year enhanced sharing agreement which expires in December 2025 was signed by the WLA VA with Richmark Entertainment Group to run the Wadsworth and Brentwood Theaters. Veterans’ advocates have complained bitterly that Richmark has dropped the word “veteran” in the name of both venues.
The Wadsworth Veterans Theater was built in 1939 and, with its parking lots, covers 27 acres of the WLA VA campus. Veterans enjoyed productions in its early years, but with tickets ranging from $26 to $78 for most of its more than 250 annual performances, the clientele is more likely composed of wealthy Westsiders, not veterans.
Jay Platt, a preservationist with the Los Angeles Conservancy, noted: “The VA seems overly concerned with a for-profit development for the site.” He further observed that money-makers such as the Wadsworth Theater receive maintenance, but the historic WLA VA chapel remains in disrepair.
But Sue Young has announced ambitious plans for the chapel, which was built in 1900. Its interior was damaged years ago in a fire. She is negotiating with the Bob Hope Foundation to restore the Victorian edifice. Will the refurbished chapel then serve the spiritual needs of veterans or become a showplace for Westside social events? Or will it be rented to local religious denominations as the Wadsworth Theater was for weekly services of the Westside Shepherd of the Hills Church?
The Barrington Recreation Center sits on twelve acres of WLA VA land that has been leased since 1985 for $1 a year. It comprises two baseball diamonds. In 2003, a section was designated a dog park.
A two-acre plot between the Brentwood Athletic complex and the golf course is called a meditation garden, but no veterans practice yoga there. It has been padlocked and is off limits to veterans because it is “unsafe.” Some believe, though, that it is available to the film and TV industry. Rep. Henry Waxman’s web site contains no less than 21 WLA VA sharing agreements with TV and film production companies, and this list does not include transactions after 2007.
An additional ten acres of WLA VA land is leased for an undisclosed fee to Enterprise Car Rentals for vehicle storage.
When Vietnam-era veteran Robert Rosebrock tried to get copies of WLA VA leases using the Freedom of Information Act, he was told he would be obliged to pay $2,508.39 for the documentation.
The final insult to veterans is the one million dollars the WLA VA contributed toward a wrought iron fence that Young’s Veterans Park Conservancy erected on Wilshire and San Vicente Boulevards. The VA fact sheet says it did not donate one million dollars; rather, the money came from the Desert Pacific Healthcare Network. DPHN’s website, however, shows it is a division of the VA.
The elaborate gate is padlocked. What especially galls protesting veterans are the plaques at the ornate entry which say “National Veterans Park,” not “National Veterans Home.”
As complaints mounted over private and commercial leases of WLA VA property, Rep. Waxman and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced legislation enacted on Dec. 16, 2007, that prohibited the disposal of or commercial development of the land. So why is it still going on?
Furthermore, HR 2225—the WLA Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center Act of 2007—asked the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs to submit to Congress a master plan on the use of WLA VA property. When the WLA VA public affairs office was asked if a committee has been appointed to advise the VA secretary in developing a master plan, it did not respond.
Rosebrock finally had the opportunity to meet Sen. Feinstein when she made a speech at the WLA VA on Jan. 16, 2008. He asked her why she supported a park on VA land. Admitting she knew nothing about the matter, she said, “There will be no park.”
Trevor Daly, Feinstein’s district director, informed her that a public park is planned on the property. A meeting was planned in which Rosebrock and Juarez were to discuss the issue with Daly. The meeting has yet to take place. Out of exasperation, the two veterans filed a congressional complaint against Daly for “dereliction of duty.”
The WLA VA property is vast and contains lush acreage. It also has many empty buildings that either could be renovated or torn down and replaced with modern residencies for homeless veterans walking Los Angeles’ streets.
Efforts to rehabilitate homeless veterans are being undertaken by the Salvation Army in Buildings 207 and 212 and by New Directions in Buildings 116 and 257. Rent for each structure is one dollar a year, per the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987. Both programs offer emergency shelter and food, substance abuse treatment, mental health care, and job training at no cost to the veteran.
Some 260 veterans are in five programs run by the Salvation Army Haven. The SA’s Wanda Wells reports that 73 percent of those going through the one-year program generally move into transitional or permanent housing and 50 percent find employment.
“Homelessness isn’t an incurable life sentence,” said Cindy Young (no relation to Sue Young) of New Directions. “We don’t want to warehouse the homeless in dormitories. We want them to live independently and re-enter the community.”
Transitional rehab takes up to one year at New Directions. In 2009, it found jobs for 70 veterans and permanent housing for 146 individuals.
It’s a start, but the challenges are daunting, particularly as veterans age. In addition, relatively few Iraq or Afghanistan War veterans have sought rehabilitation services compared to older veterans. So far.
President Barack Obama and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki announced a $3.2 billion budget in 2010 to end the cycle of homelessness for veterans. Inasmuch as 11 percent of the nation’s homeless veterans are in Los Angeles, it is reasonable to expect funds will be directed to building new residences and dining halls at WLA VA so it can truly become the national veterans home that Arcadia Bandini de Stearns Baker envisioned in 1888.