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VA to Reveal Plans for Its Wilshire Land

Times Staff Writer

The Westside is gearing up for what is expected to be a heated battle when the federal government Monday finally unveils its plans to develop the 388-acre Veterans Affairs facility in Westwood, the last large chunk of open space along Wilshire Boulevard.

The future of the land -- which residents consider a much needed oasis along the corridor of high-rise towers that runs largely uninterrupted from Beverly Hills through Brentwood -- has been debated for decades. Community activists have fought off proposals to build an NFL stadium and a 24-hour mail-order pharmaceutical delivery facility at the site.

Community activist Flora Gil Krisiloff, a veteran of the battles, said she was hopeful that the VA would heed the oft-expressed concerns of residents. They and local officials want the land to be used to benefit veterans, with no commercial development.

“If this report says anything other than that, they’ll have a fight on their hands,” said Councilman Bill Rosendahl, whose district includes Brentwood and other neighborhoods that border the VA complex.

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The residents’ biggest fear is that the government would seek to maximize the value of the land and allow developers to build high-rises on the property, which straddles Wilshire between the San Diego Freeway and San Vicente Boulevard. In the past, government officials have said they hoped to enter into partnerships with developers willing to build revenue-producing projects such as nursing homes and office space there.

The VA property, which stretches from the western edges of UCLA to Brentwood, includes a medical center among other facilities. It is marked by acres of open space and dotted with palms, Moreton Bay figs and other grand trees as well as low-rise buildings -- in contrast to the dense jumble of retail shops and offices that surround it.

At a time when more towers are rising in the vicinity -- notably in Century City -- some contend that the Westside cannot handle another big development.

The nearby intersections of Westwood and Wilshire boulevards and Veteran Avenue and Wilshire are two of the nation’s busiest. Separately, the federal government has proposed building a new Los Angeles headquarters for the FBI next to the Federal Building on Wilshire, with nearly 1 million square feet and 1,200 parking spaces.

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Residents have vowed to fight that and any big commercial development in the already clogged area.

In the 1980s, a plan for the federal government to sell part of the VA property prompted such passionate opposition that then-U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) secured passage of legislation that preserved 109 acres as open space.

A decade later, another law was passed requiring the VA to develop a master plan for the area. A plan was presented in 2001, but it generated fierce community opposition and died quickly. The document proposed more than 7 million square feet of commercial and medical-related development. Angry Brentwood leaders denounced it as advocating the equivalent of “two Century Cities” and secretly attempting to eliminate congressional protection of the open space.

Soon afterward, then-VA Secretary Anthony J. Principi met with the Westwood community. He pledged that he would not allow commercial development on the property and committed to giving the community a bigger voice in the planning process. Toward that end, Principi appointed a local advisory panel.

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But Principi stepped down in December, and community leaders now fear that the agency will not honor his promises.

After a public meeting about the process in May, PricewaterhouseCoopers, a consultant hired by the government, began devising a handful of “business plan options” for the property. Those options are to be posted Monday at www.va.gov/cares.

In June, U.S. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) wrote to request a meeting with Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson, Principi’s successor.

“It would be premature and almost certainly lead to another failed result,” Waxman wrote, “if the consultants disregard ... Principi’s commitment and proceed to develop options without comprehensive input from all stakeholders.”

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Waxman and Nicholson met in July, with what Waxman considered unsatisfactory results.

“I was more concerned after our meeting than I had been going into it,” Waxman said in a statement Friday. “There’s been very little transparency in the VA’s decision-making and very little opportunity for veterans and the community to provide input.... Unfortunately, we seem to be headed in an unnecessarily contentious direction.”

Krisiloff, a member of the local advisory panel, echoed Waxman’s concerns. “I’m really frustrated because I feel it’s a flawed process,” she said. “I feel we’re being rushed.”

The public can comment on the options at a Sept. 22 meeting to be held in the Wadsworth Theater at the VA complex. Two other public meetings are planned but have not yet been scheduled, said Barbara Fallen, a VA employee in Long Beach who is working with PricewaterhouseCoopers.

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Fallen said she had not seen the proposals, but said stakeholder concerns will be “a prominent aspect.” She attended the public meeting in May and said that “certainly, the theme was devoting that property to support veterans.”

Although the VA property has been the focus of emotional battles for more than two decades, its early days were far more sanguine.

It was deeded to the federal government in 1888 by the Jones-DeBaker family for use as an old soldiers home. One historic photo shows gray-haired veterans, one with a cane, playing chess at a makeshift table under spreading trees. The property encompasses the Los Angeles National Cemetery, which would not be part of any development proposals.

The land continues to serve as a healing venue for veterans, some of whom live in transitional housing on the site.

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The VA also contracts with such service organizations as the Salvation Army and New Directions, which offer transitional housing and other care for homeless veterans. Santa Monica City Councilman Bobby Shriver recently proposed that three buildings at the site be converted to serve as long-term care facilities for chronically homeless veterans.

Much of the property has the aura of neglect. Many buildings, though still in use, are in need of repair and modernizing. The Victorian-style Wadsworth Chapel, built in 1900, reputed to be the oldest structure on Wilshire, was damaged by a fire said to have been started by a homeless person. It is closed, and the VA is working with the Veterans Park Conservancy to raise funds for a restoration.

The nonprofit conservancy was formed in 1989 in response to the threat of commercial development. It is raising funds for a 16-acre memorial park at the corner of San Vicente and Wilshire.

The conservancy and the VA are collaborating on stately new fencing featuring columns and wrought iron. As envisioned by designer Mia Lehrer & Associates, the park would feature two rolling meadows ringed by trees, with pathways, gardens and open space for recreation and educational uses.

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