September 29, 2005 - From the September, 2005 issue

VA Report Opens Door to ‘Reuse' of Veterans Administration West LA Campus

For over 100 years the Veterans Administration has occupied nearly 400 acres in West L.A. As land values in the area have risen, a recent report commissioned by the VA has brought up the prospect of ‘re-using' the land for commercial purposes. Appointed to the VA Local Advisory Panel by former VA Secretary Anthony Principi, Flora Gil Krisiloff spoke with TPR Sept. 19 in her capacity as citizen and community leader.

Flora Gil Krisiloff

PricewaterhouseCoopers recently released a report commissioned by the VA that suggests alternative uses and sources of revenue for the VA's West L.A. facility and property. Help our readers understand the context and objective of this PWC report to the VA?

My understanding is that PWC is tasked with looking at the property under the nationwide Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services (CARES) program. This is the second round of the national CARES process. The first round was to look at the assets and identify any underutilized facilities, and what they call "excess land" – in other words, excess to the VA needs over a 20-year horizon or longer. This second phase is being applied to 18 regional VA facilities that are so called "underutilized" or have "excess land." PWC has developed business plan options for capital projects, which are health care and medically related, and directly affiliated with the mission of the VA. PWC is also looking at what they call "reuse options," which are options beyond the capital plan projects. The reuse options are not necessarily related to the mission of the VA health care mandates. In the most extreme case, private commercialization or sale of the excess land could be proposed.

How does this report fit into the history of past discussions and proposals for the facilty?

The excess land was identified in round one, which many community leaders and veterans were involved in opposing. In the first phase of CARES, it was extremely controversial that the local VA administrators were proposing an internal land use advisory committee made up solely of VA administrators to decide future land use. This was extremely controversial because there would have been no veterans, community people, or elected officials, on this land use advisory committee. Ultimately, former Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi rejected the stacked VA committee after public outcry. This is round two of CARES, and this phase starts with the assumption that there is excess land on this nearly 400-acre campus, and that there are buildings which aren't necessary to the VA mission.

Over the past 20-some years there have been battle after battle over misguided proposals for the property, ranging from a NFL football stadium to a 24-hour mail out pharmacy which would have been an industrial type project, with trucks picking up pharmaceuticals 24-hours a day. Piece meal proposals have gone on for many years, many of them ill thought-out in terms of depleting the land donated for the direct care of veterans and negatively impacting the surrounding communities. There have been many battles to stop commercial development plans, including the efforts in 2002 to stop the severely flawed plan which proposed 2-1/2 Century Cities worth of commercial development. In the 1980's, there was an attempt to sell off 109 acres of VA land. Senator Alan Cranston stepped in and stopped the sale. He passed legislation so that the 109 acres would never be declared excess again or be put up for sale. In 1991, Congress passed legislation to require a 25- to 50-year land use master plan to stop the misguided piecemeal proposals. This is the only VA in the country to have a Congressional mandate to create such a land use master plan.

You mentioned that the community heard about the potential sale by rumor. How would you describe overall, the federal government's relationship with the stakeholders, and with how the VA site fits into the urban fabric of West L.A.?

It is a problem. I have been involved intimately for the last five years ever since I was officially appointed to the corrupted 25- to 50-year land use master plan process which preceded this CARES effort. I was excited at the notion that finally all of these skirmishes, these piecemeal projects would be looked at through a master plan. It is what you do in any other part of this county or city with potential development on this scale. When you have nearly 400 acres, you create a land use plan with a transparent public process and comprehensive planning. Unfortunately, the local VA Medical Director headed the previous land use plan process, and he did not understand planning principles or true public process.

The consultants were performing a highest and best use real estate analysis in a vacuum, which conflicted with the goal of preserving the land for services to veterans and maintaining a rehabilitative community environment. If you talk to any of the veterans' organizations – and I had the opportunity to meet many of the leaders from different veteran service organizations – they will say that, above and beyond health care, there are many other aspects of rehabilitative services that should be on the campus. The fundamental problem is that the local VA is narrowly focused; it is strictly applying a real estate model to maximize revenues. I started to say return on investment, but I will strike that, because the government didn't invest any money in this land. It was donated, in 1888, by several families for an Old Soldiers' Home for Civil War Veterans. Carolina Winston Barry is an heir of the original donors, and she is quick to point out that the deed was signed with the agreement that the land would remain in perpetuity to directly serve veterans. Not indirectly, by selling the land or commercially developing it to create a stream of revenue for the VA. This is a rationalization that is used, but it is the wrong approach. There are a tremendous number of veterans residing in as well as homeless in greater Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the Iraq war is creating more veterans, and who can predict what else will happen in the future.


The local veterans are fighting to maintain what is left of the donated land and use it for rehabilitation. So there is a real conflict. The veterans want to maintain the land for direct benefits to veterans, and the community supports this desire. Additionally, the surrounding communities are concerned about any outrageous proposals that would be inappropriate in West L.A., with the relentless traffic gridlock, density, lack of green space, proposed million square-foot FBI building in Westwood and more activity than the infrastructure can handle.

What sort of planning process would you like should the VA try to act on this PWC report or investigate any other revenue-generating activity? What process is going to balance the VA's desires with the veterans' interests, with the community's interests?

It has already been legislated that there be a comprehensive public land use planning process which truly includes all stakeholders. This is the outstanding mandate of the 1991 legislation Congress passed calling for the 25- to 50-year land use master plan, which includes references to green space and parks. Abundant green and open space now remains because it was an original rehabilitative feature. It was by design. This is the only VA in the country that has been mandated to have a master plan. It has to be an honest process, a real process, something that urban planners lead, not medical directors. It has to look at all of the factors and not exclude input from local officials, from veterans, or from the community. This land needs to have an analysis that goes beyond the limited facility needs of acute care medical services. This land needs to go beyond the traditional VA health care model; it's the only intact Old Soldiers Home left. Two National Historic Districts and National Historic Registry landmark buildings reside on the campus.

If you only use the national VA CARES model, of course you are going to conclude that there is excess land. No other VA uses 400 acres to deliver health care. We need to get beyond a highest and best use real estate model, and allow creative thinking to occur, talk about identifying the needs of the local veterans, utilize the mandated comprehensive master plan to directly serve the veterans and ensure compatibility with the surrounding communities.

We have an unusual situation where the federal government has jurisdiction over what is basically a highly visible and protected piece of West L.A. In closing, how have you seen the federal government interact re the VA property with county officials such as Supervisor Yaroslavsky, city officials and community leaders? How do they regard each other?

My point of reference is from the 25-year master plan process, which had very poor dynamics. The committee was made up of VA administrators, veterans from different service organizations, and a few community representatives. Congressman Henry Waxman was the only elected official allowed to have a representative on the committee. If any of the VA property is privatized, it becomes unincorporated County land, not under the jurisdiction of the City of L.A., therefore County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky is a key elected official to be included in the planning. He asked to have representation and was rejected by the former local VA Medical Director. Fortunately, Supervisor Yaroslavsky met with and developed a good relationship with former Secretary Principi. Secretary Principi ultimately issued decisions to respect the integrity of the WLA VA land for veterans, promised no commercial development ant the return to a new land use master plan after CARES. The most valuable federal property in the nation exists at the WLA VA, and the temptation is to look at how much revenue can be generated by the land. It is an unjustifiable, greedy and devastating approach that takes from the veterans who have sacrificed their lives for our nation. Current Secretary of Veterans Affairs James Nicholson has the opportunity to make a permanent commitment to save and preserve this national historic "Old Soldiers Home" site to honor and directly serve veterans.

Editor's Note: The VA held a public meeting Sept. 22. At least two more meetings are scheduled; dates have not been announced.


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