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Battle lines drawn over VA site

Critics say agency plans for some 'reuse' on the Westside campus really mean 'privatization.'

September 06, 2007|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

Veterans, elected officials and Brentwood and Westwood residents are bracing for a potentially contentious meeting today that could help decide whether parts of the sprawling West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs campus eventually end up under the long-term control of private entities.

For several years, Department of Veterans Affairs officials have promoted the idea of privately developing portions of the 388-acre property. Several businesses use the grounds for such purposes as storing rental cars and buses and operating a laundry service.

A 177-page report released in advance of today's meeting, sponsored by the VA, indicates that the agency plans to set aside several aging buildings north of Wilshire Boulevard for "reuse" or demolition.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky called the term "reuse" a "euphemism for privatization."

"This is an outrageous land grab," Yaroslavsky said in an interview. "They want to develop it. They think it's worth billions of dollars."

Community members and local politicians said this week that they would continue to strongly resist any such actions because the property was deeded to the government only for the use of veterans.

Several people contended that the federal government was attempting to commercialize the property piecemeal without first studying veterans' needs or the effects -- including increased traffic -- that commercial endeavors might have on the site and surrounding areas.

Residents and veterans have complained loudly that the VA has ignored the community's wishes that the campus be used strictly to provide programs and services for veterans.

Two years ago, a local advisory panel, established to guide the VA as it considered how best to use the campus, recommended that the agency complete a master land-use plan for the property and forgo any commercial development.

At the same time, some panel members criticized a PricewaterhouseCoopers report -- commissioned by the VA -- that suggested the agency consider a mixed-use residential complex, a medical office building for non-VA doctors and other commercial uses.

One prominent community member faulted the VA's just-released follow-up report, also prepared by PricewaterhouseCoopers as part of a multiyear effort to assess how to modernize VA facilities nationwide and maximize any potential reuse of VA-owned properties.

"It is an obvious attempt to improperly piecemeal the development plans by separating plans for veterans services from plans for commercial reuse of the property, which are not being disclosed," said Wendy-Sue Rosen, chairwoman of the Brentwood Community Council. She added that, under the national Environmental Protection Act, such a large project would require the government to prepare a unified plan so its cumulative effects could be analyzed.

Keith Jeffreys, president of Citizens for Veterans' Rights, agreed.

"As it stands," Jeffreys said, "the process seems to be in place so that the VA can continue to do whatever it wants with the property."

Both Rosen and Jeffreys said they feared that the VA would disband the local advisory panel after today's meeting and make deals with private companies without having to face public scrutiny.

Jeffreys also accused the VA of "throwing bones to certain groups" to reduce potential opposition. Last month, the VA said it was designating three unused buildings on the campus for homeless veterans' programs, including supportive housing, and planned to study whether to build a columbarium.

It also recently signed an agreement with the Veterans Park Conservancy that awarded the nonprofit organization rent-free use of 16 acres for a park.

In a letter Wednesday, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) told outgoing VA Secretary Jim Nicholson that he believed the agency had already overstepped its bounds by entering into several agreements with private enterprises.

Those companies include Fox Entertainment Group, Enterprise Rent-a-Car, the Tumbleweed bus company and Breitburn Energy.

Waxman asked the VA for a detailed accounting of gross and net revenues derived from the agreements. He also asked for an explanation of how the funds generated from the leases have been or would be applied to veterans' services at the West Los Angeles campus.

Opponents of commercial development on the campus have high hopes for a provision in the 2008 military construction and Veterans Affairs spending measure -- on which the Senate is expected to vote today.

The provision, sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), would prevent the VA from selling any portions of the property for private use or entering into long-term agreements -- known as enhanced-use leases -- with commercial entities.

The Senate on Wednesday rejected an amendment that would have stripped the Feinstein language from the appropriations bill.

The Bush administration has signaled its support of the spending measure but said it opposes the Feinstein provision. The Office of Management and Budget estimated that the provision "would eliminate more than $4 billion of revenue." If the provision passes and is signed by President Bush, the VA presumably would have to revise its plans.

The meeting, which is open to the public, will run from 5 to 9 p.m. at the Wadsworth Theater on the VA campus.

martha.groves@latimes.com

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