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Development ban on VA campus struck from bill

Times Staff Writer

By the time it passed Congress last week, the $120-billion emergency war spending bill was missing some language that would have cheered Westside residents who fear that the vast West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs campus is destined for private development.

The language, which congressional negotiators had earlier agreed to include, would have barred the federal Department of Veterans Affairs from selling, leasing or otherwise transferring parts of the 388-acre property for commercial development.

Late in the game, however, the White House Office of Management and Budget said President Bush would veto the legislation unless the VA provision was removed, congressional sources said Friday.

“This was an unfortunate setback in our efforts to make sure that veterans get the best care possible,” Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) said in a statement Friday, “but I’m going to continue to fight.... This land is dedicated for veterans, and we are going to make sure that commitment is honored.”

The omission of the VA provision was first reported Thursday by the National Journal’s Congress Daily, which said OMB Director Rob Portman weighed in and succeeded in stripping the provision, along with some others, from the legislation. Congress Daily quoted Waxman as saying the language had come out “at the insistence of the administration.”

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A call to the OMB’s press office Friday was not returned.

The spending legislation provides funds for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gulf Coast hurricane recovery efforts, children’s healthcare and drought relief. Its passage ended a bitter showdown between Congress and Bush over the Iraq war.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who had traveled to Washington to promote the effort to protect the VA property, said the provision’s removal was disappointing and was further indication that the government wants to commercially develop the land.

Residents say commercial development at the property, on both sides of Wilshire Boulevard west of the 405 Freeway, would worsen congestion and take away from the campus’ chief mission: to serve veterans.

“We have had the belief from Day One that this administration was hellbent on optimizing the use of that VA land for revenue-producing purposes,” Yaroslavsky said in an interview. “The action taken by the White House in demanding that this be on the list of strikeouts is consistent with that view.”

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who also backed the provision, agreed, saying the government wants to use “enhanced leases,” long-term leases that she and others say could lead to parcels’ being sold to private developers.

The VA has proposed in recent years to partner with private entities to operate facilities on the property, such as the existing golf course and a YMCA, which would provide a wellness center and a cardiac rehab facility. Opponents of such ideas fear that the arrangements could lead to unfettered development.

Bill Brew, a Senate staff member who has been familiar with VA campus issues for three decades, said he doubted that the federal government could ever overcome the broad community and political opposition to commercial development for this “highly desirable” property. In addition to Waxman and Feinstein, opponents of development include area property owners and homeowners groups, the county Board of Supervisors, the Los Angeles City Council and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

“I just don’t see the property at risk,” Brew said, “even though there are plenty of developers in Los Angeles who would love to get their hands on it.”

He noted that the deed for the property, which was donated by private citizens, states that it is to be used for veterans. If the White House chooses to fight that provision, he said, it “would lose on the merits every which way from Sunday.”

Feinstein and Waxman vowed to continue to press their efforts to fend off private development and to require the government to prepare a master plan for the campus. Each recently introduced stand-alone legislation, and those bills are still in play.

martha.groves@latimes.com


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