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Panel Ponders Shriver Plan and Land Use at V.A.

By Gene Williams
Staff Writer

September 23 -- A plan by City Councilman Bobby Shriver for a regional center to shelter and serve hundreds of homeless vets took a step forward Thursday night during a ten-hour-plus public meeting at the Veterans Administration’s West Los Angeles campus.

In a process that will help determine future use and development of the VA grounds, the gathering drew some 800 concerned citizens to the Wadsworth Theater where a panel of eight local citizen advisors worked all day, then heard three hours of public testimony before deliberating.

The first to speak from the floor was Shriver, who said an “unprecedented alliance has come together” to support his proposal to expand homeless services at the VA.

He added that there are already some good programs on site, but many homeless vets can’t get there to use them.

“17,000 veterans are homeless in LA and the situation will get worse as people return from Iraq,” Shriver said. “It’s unconscionable that we will let people live in the streets who risk their lives for us.”

In a show of hands, nearly everyone in the near-capacity audience indicated support for the proposal.

Although the Local Advisory Panel didn’t vote on Shriver’s plan directly, several panelists voiced their approval.

The plan was further buoyed when the panel passed a series of motions that included a recommendation to consider a full continuum of housing at the site for vets in need of services.

But, in spite of public sentiment and the panel’s actions, Shriver’s plan might not bear fruit anytime soon, if ever.

The volunteer panel – composed of local politicians, health care administrators and VA officials – cannot legislate; they can only advise.

The fate of the largely undeveloped 387 acres of federally administered real estate ultimately rests in Washington with the Secretary of Veteran Affairs. And that’s where the discussion originated.

In the early 1990s, the General Accounting Office discovered that unused VA facilities were costing taxpayers one million dollars a day, according to a local VA spokesperson.

That prompted a long process called Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services (CARES) – a study looking to cut fat from VA facilities nationwide.

In an effort to “divest” the VA of its losing assets, the government identified 18 sites for further scrutiny. West Los Angeles was singled out as the only one with “excess land,” the VA spokesperson said.

And so, homeless issues were almost a sideshow to the day’s main event -- which was who will get to develop that “excess land.”

Many in the crowd were angry at Veteran Affairs consultant Price Waterhouse Cooper which presented “Business Plan Options” that would effectively cede chunks of the property over to private developers through “enhanced use” lease agreements.

“We do not want enhanced use leases, we want enhanced services for veterans,” West Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce President Jay Handal said as the room erupted in cheers.

A Viet Nam era vet accused the consultants of “verbacide” -- using intentionally confusing and misleading language to try to slip a fast one past the public.

Public officials past and present -- former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, former United States Congresswoman Bobbi Fiedler, Los Angeles Councilman Bill Rosendahl, Santa Monica City Councilman Bob Holbrook and others – showed up to speak against private development at the V.A.

Calling the property “hallowed ground,” Yaroslavsky said the VA was “not deeded as a subdivision, not a revenue spring. It was deeded for veterans.”

He added that the panelists had been “misinformed” by Price Waterhouse which said the VA was in the City of Los Angeles.

Although the City surrounds the property, Yaroslavsky said, the VA is in unincorporated land governed by the County – which is his jurisdiction.

“You should look to County zoning to tell what’s allowed here,” Yaroslavsky said. “And there ain’t much allowed here.”

In addition, two descendants of the families who gifted the land in 1885 spoke out, saying that leasing property out to developers would violate terms of the deed which stipulates that the land be used for an “Old Soldiers Home.” One of them, Ricardo Bandini Johnson, came with a photocopy of the deed.

The panel responded by passing several motions asking the VA to exclude private and commercial development as such. They recommended that the VA “affirm” existing guidelines and agreements – including the intent of the original deed – adding that facilities on the property should serve “the direct benefit of veterans.”

Noting that there are outside entities which already use the site – including schools and service providers -- some of which have leases or other agreements, the panel recommended that those agreements be allowed to stand.

The panel also left some wiggle room in their language, implying that future agreements for “shared use” of some facilities would probably be OK.

Two more public hearings will be scheduled over the next few months.

The Secretary of Veterans Affairs will probably have recommendations for the site sometime next year.

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