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Neighbors Fear VA Plans for Westwood

A consultant's report seems to allow major development, say some who have seen it.

September 13, 2005|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

The federal government's vision for the sprawling Veterans Affairs complex in Westwood left nearby residents fretting Monday that it was fraught with loopholes and could lead to major development in an already congested corridor.

Several people who saw a report prepared by consultant PricewaterhouseCoopers said the government seemed to be opening the door to extensive development on the site by listing such options as "medical research" and mixed-use residential areas that presumably would include retail or office space.

Such uses, critics said, would abandon the pledge of a past VA secretary that the property would not be commercially developed.

Proposals to redevelop the 387-acre VA campus have sparked heated debate for decades.

Nearby residents and veterans want the site, which straddles the busy roadway between the 405 Freeway and San Vicente Boulevard, to retain as much open space as possible and to benefit veterans directly, as was called for when the property was deeded to the government in 1888 for use as a home for Civil War veterans.

Opponents of development there point out that the Westside is already a chokepoint. Traffic and population are poised to increase, given extensive construction in Century City, the possibility that Santa Monica Place will be redeveloped and the federal government's own plan to build a nearly 1-million-square-foot FBI headquarters next to the Federal Building in Westwood.

Residents and local officials have repeatedly called for a land-use master plan for the VA property that would take into account other development in the area. A plan presented in 2001 proposed more than 7 million square feet of commercial and medical-related development and, residents realized by reading the fine print, attempted to eliminate congressional protection of open space at the campus. It generated fierce opposition and was scuttled.

Critics said Monday that the government appeared to be using similar semantics in a 23-page summary report.

Acknowledging a commitment made by Anthony J. Principi, who stepped down as VA secretary in December, not to allow commercial development, the report noted that "certain reuses of the property for commercial purposes" were not considered. The report defined "commercial" as retail operations providing products and services exclusively for sale to the general public.

That definition, the report said, ruled out shopping malls, movie theaters, convenience stores, fast-food outlets and industrial-manufacturing activities. It said the definition would allow institutional and office uses that supported or complemented the needs of veterans, such as assisted living, transitional housing and recreational research. But the report also called for possible mixed-use residential development, without specifying a connection to veterans.

Many of the options do, however, offer improvements for veterans, including renovating the existing hospital.

Contrary to government assurances that the "reuse/redevelopment options" would be posted on a website Monday, the report instead was presented Monday morning to only a few congressional staff members. After those briefings, consultants decided to make some changes in the report, which now may appear today at www.va.gov/cares.

The VA's failure to post the eight options Monday as promised left residents, veterans and even local elected officials scrambling to glean whatever information they could.

Staff members for U.S. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and U.S. Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-El Monte) attended the Monday briefing.

Throughout the day, they, in turn, shared information with Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and others.

An outraged Yaroslavsky -- whose district includes the VA site -- sounded off about the proposals after viewing a 50-page PowerPoint presentation and the 23-page summary report.

"What's missing is a land-use plan," he said in an interview. "What we've been calling for for several years is a land-use plan.

"We're generally skeptical and nervous about this because bureaucrats and administration officials sitting back in Washington look at this West Los Angeles property and say, 'Oh, my God. Outside of Central Park, this is the most valuable real estate in the U.S. and we could make some money off this.' "

He wondered what the government might mean by "medical research," one of many suggested options: "Does that mean a long-term lease with a biotech concern out of Silicon Valley right here, where it already takes an hour to get from Brentwood to Westwood?"

Flora Gil Krisiloff, a community activist who has fought past proposals to build an NFL stadium and a 24-hour mail-order pharmaceutical facility at the site, expressed concern that the VA might advocate putting mixed-use residential structures on acreage that is protected against such development.

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