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VA Options Aired, Jeered

Times Staff Writer

The message to the federal government came through loud and clear Thursday when hundreds of Westside residents, military veterans and elected officials showed up for a 10-hour public meeting that lasted well into the night: Don’t put commercial development on the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs campus.

And ensure that any uses approved for the 387-acre campus directly benefit veterans.

Dozens of speakers spoke forcefully of the need for housing and improved medical services for veterans and open space for veterans and the community. They voiced strong opposition to suggestions in a recent report that the VA consider a mixed-use residential complex, a medical office building for non-VA doctors and other commercial uses.

The VA for decades has been looking at ways to better use the aging complex, but past proposals have met stiff community opposition.

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The speakers were cheered by audience members who at one point filled most of the 900-seat main floor of the Wadsworth Theater on the VA campus, just west of the 405 Freeway.

Onstage, government consultants who prepared the report and eight members of a local advisory panel listened. The panel, which was appointed by VA Secretary Jim Nicholson, includes local and state VA officials, a veteran, a service provider and community activists.

The panel issued nonbinding recommendations to the secretary immediately after Thursday’s hearing, although two more public meetings are scheduled. The meetings will still be held, but the panel was required under the VA’s contract with the consultants to issue its recommendations after Thursday’s meeting. The panel’s strongest message was that the VA should forgo commercial development at the site.

One of the first speakers Thursday was former Mayor Richard Riordan. He told the panel that he rides his bike on the campus and plays golf on its nine-hole course. “We should make it into the greatest park in the world,” he shouted to loud applause.

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Throughout the day, members of veterans groups and other organizations offered their visions for the property, which is widely viewed as a much-needed oasis between densely packed Westwood and Brentwood.

One speaker was Jerry Schnitzer, 77, a Korean War veteran. In an apparent reference to private developers, he urged the VA “to turn the rascals away.”

“Do not allow them to despoil this beautiful, verdant, important place in our country’s history.”

The Los Angeles Conservancy implored federal officials to develop a plan that would preserve the historic character of the site, which has been in use since the late 1880s and includes a chapel built in 1900 that is thought to be the oldest building on Wilshire Boulevard.

After hearing 3 1/2 hours of comment, the advisory panel deliberated for nearly three hours more before compiling its recommendations.

It urged consultants to study several options for renovating the VA’s existing hospital and other facilities or building new structures to ensure state-of-the-art medical care and other veterans services. They backed the idea of affordable and transitional housing for nurses and for veterans and their families. But they gave thumbs down to the mixed-use residential complex, the medical office building or any medical research facility that did not involve and benefit the VA.

The panel’s recommendations will go to Nicholson, who has final say about how to use the property.

Barbara Fallen, a VA employee in Long Beach who is working with the consultants, said the panel’s wishes would get thoughtful consideration.

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“I think he certainly recognizes the hard work of this group,” she said. “I would think that their recommendations would hold quite a bit of weight.”


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