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Ground is broken for VA facility

Veterans Affairs chief Jim Nicholson helps launch a veterans home in West L.A. He won't rule out commercial development there.

July 07, 2007|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

It has been a rough-and-tumble year so far for Jim Nicholson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

After a media expose sparked a shake-up in March of the Defense Department medical system, Nicholson and the VA also came under intense scrutiny in Washington. Investigators concluded that many VA facilities had serious problems, including lack of training, staffing shortages, high patient loads and delays in getting medicine to patients.

Nicholson told the VA's 1,400 medical facilities to evaluate their conditions and needs, and the results revealed a total of more than $5 billion in deferred maintenance.

Locally, the Vietnam War veteran and past chairman of the Republican National Committee has continued to face opposition from residents and veterans -- and elected officials locally and in Washington -- who say Nicholson is determined, against their wishes, to encourage private development on the VA campus in West Los Angeles. Detractors dismiss him as a mouthpiece for the Bush administration.

So it must have come as a relief Friday when Nicholson was greeted with applause at the ground-breaking for a much anticipated state veterans home on the sprawling property. He vowed that veterans would find "matchless care" at the 396-bed facility, slated to open in 2010.

Appearing with him were Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Los Angeles City Councilmen Herb Wesson and Bill Rosendahl.

In a brief interview before the ceremony, Nicholson, a lawyer and former real estate developer, refused to rule out the possibility of commercial development at the campus. He did, however, say decisions on how to use the campus must be "consensual," with all stakeholders participating.

"There's considerable resistance to commercial development," he acknowledged, sitting in a trailer outside the Brentwood Theatre on the VA grounds. "But my responsibilities are to the veterans. In the end, we will have to make decisions based on what is best for veterans."

Nicholson graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1961. He served eight years on active duty as an officer and paratrooper, then 22 years in the Army Reserve, retiring with the rank of colonel.

In 1978, he founded Nicholson Enterprises Inc., a developer of planned residential communities, and in 1987 he bought Renaissance Homes, a builder of custom houses. Before Bush picked him to serve as secretary of Veterans Affairs, he was U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.

He oversees a department with about 230,000 employees and a budget for fiscal year 2007 of $77.3 billion.

Community activists, elected officials and veterans have long prodded the West Los Angeles VA to create a master plan for the campus that would lay out a timetable for future construction and renovations. They maintain that local VA administrators have made deals willy-nilly with private companies that do not directly benefit veterans.

Enterprise Rent-a-Car parks vehicles there, as does a bus company. In January, Fox Entertainment Group graded a portion of the campus for a storage facility, but Los Angeles County ordered construction halted after activists and elected officials blew the whistle.

VA officials counter that revenue from such shared arrangements helps pay for improvements.

Activists have criticized the prospect of the VA's negotiating so-called enhanced-use leases for the property. Such arrangements enable the agency to lease land or buildings to the private sector for as long as 75 years. The leases, which are being negotiated at other VA facilities, have "enabled [the] VA to leverage its diverse, underutilized real estate portfolio to generate significant revenues," according to congressional testimony.

Opponents say the practice would effectively privatize parts of the campus.

Describing the West Los Angeles site as "probably some of the most valuable property in the Western U.S.," Nicholson said that the master plan was in draft form and that he hoped to present a final version to the community by early fall.

The last public hearing about the campus was held in September 2005.

Over the years, residents and veterans have vigorously protested ideas floated for the campus, including a professional football stadium, a hotel and mixed-use developments. Nicholson said in the interview that he did not expect hotels or private residences to be part of the mix.

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martha.groves@latimes.com

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