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VA neglects historic properties, study finds

Two crumbling structures in West L.A. are among the VA's historic buildings that are at risk as the agency opts for construction over preservation, review says.

November 06, 2013|By Martha Groves and Alan Zarembo
  • In 2012, the VA determined that this Victorian-era chapel on the West Los Angeles VA campus should be mothballed.
In 2012, the VA determined that this Victorian-era chapel on the West Los… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

Hundreds of landmarks on U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs properties are at risk of being permanently abandoned or demolished due to lack of maintenance and the agency's failure to comply with federal laws to protect historic buildings, according to a new study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The VA has more than 2,000 historic buildings across the country, including many on the 11 campuses built in Ohio, Tennessee and elsewhere immediately after the Civil War.

In West Los Angeles, the sprawling VA campus has about three dozen buildings designated as historic structures or deemed eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. Among them are two crumbling structures on the National Register: a Victorian-era chapel on Wilshire Boulevard and a trolley stop.

The study, released Wednesday by the nonprofit advocacy group, reported that roughly half of the VA's historic buildings were unoccupied and at risk of deterioration — even as the VA finds itself with a growing need for real estate to house and care for veterans of the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. The number of veterans receiving VA healthcare has jumped from 3.4 million in 2000 to nearly 6 million today.

Instead of renovating old buildings to accommodate them, the VA has embarked on a spree of new construction, the report said. Several new replacement medical centers are planned or are under construction at a total cost of $10 billion.

The VA has ignored its own analyses that consistently show restoration would be more cost-effective than new construction, said Leslie Barras, a Texas attorney and preservation expert who conducted the study for the preservation group.

"There's a perspective that we can't adapt old buildings, especially for medical facilities," Barras said.

The VA said in a written statement that it "takes seriously its responsibility to care for historic buildings in its custody" and plans to use historic buildings in the fight against homelessness among veterans. The agency said it will review the report's recommendations.

The need for VA facilities is acute in the Los Angeles area, with its estimated 6,000 chronically homeless veterans. It took the federal VA several years to approve $20 million in funding to convert a little-used building at the West L.A. campus into therapeutic housing for chronically homeless veterans. That work is underway. Two other buildings await funding for conversion into housing.

"The report illustrates the challenges in terms of how the VA has maybe looked at these buildings as a liability" rather than assets, said Adrian Scott Fine, the director of advocacy for the Los Angeles Conservancy.

The National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act do not forbid the destruction of historic buildings. But they require the VA and other federal agencies to evaluate alternatives and involve the community in their decision-making. Not doing so can leave the agencies vulnerable to lawsuits.

U.S. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) said in an interview that public-private partnerships would be a good way to cover the costs of renovating aging structures at the West Los Angeles VA. He cited the 1900 Wadsworth Chapel (named in honor of a Civil War officer) just north of Wilshire Boulevard as a candidate that could benefit from the creation of a nonprofit arm for raising funds. In 2007, the VA projected that restoring it would cost $11.5 million.

The VA spokeswoman said that over the last decade, the agency had entered into partnerships with the private sector to renovate nearly 5 million square feet of VA structures for veterans' housing.

martha.groves@latimes.com

alan.zarembo@latimes.com

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