Everything You Need To Know About The Massive, Decaying West LA VA Campus -- And The Plan To Fix It
It's hiding in plain sight next to the 405 freeway.
It's green, it's big, it's surrounded by shopping, world-class academia and ritzy communities. It has a baseball stadium. It has oil drilling. Plus a golf course, soccer fields, theaters, churches, and even a parrot sanctuary. It's also a crucial medical and social services hub for local veterans.
Meet the West L.A. VA.
This valuable real estate belongs to the federal government, and the campus is home to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System (VAGLAHS) -- including a VA hospital.
But despite its lush surroundings, driving onto the VA campus feels like stepping back in time. Some roads are crumbling or poorly marked, and it's tough for a newcomer to navigate. Many buildings are visibly decaying or empty.
There's a plan to change all this. After a long legal battle, a proposed overhaul includes building veteran housing and bringing facilities into the 21st century. But it's been slow to roll out and it's threatened by bureaucratic red tape and neighborhood NIMBY concerns.
Here's what's happened so far, and what's next.
WHAT, EXACTLY, IS THE WEST LA VA?
It's the keystone of VAGLAHS -- one of the largest VA medical facilities in the U.S.
VAGLAHS has 1.4 million veterans in its service area and includes the West Los Angeles Medical Center on the VA campus in Brentwood, plus two ambulatory care centers (one clinic in downtown L.A., another in the San Fernando Valley), and 8 community care clinics in 5 counties, from San Luis Obispo to Gardena. In fiscal year 2017, VAGLAHS served 88,137 unique veterans.
HOW BIG IS THE CAMPUS?
It's a massive 388 acres.
WHO SET UP SHOP THERE?
In addition to the hospital, research, and other medical services, a number of housing and supportive service organizations are on site to serve the veteran population of SoCal.
California's Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet) has a 400-bed veterans home on the campus, offering assisted living for elderly veterans and a skilled nursing facility for veterans requiring long-term care.
The non-profit New Directions for Veterans operates a 154-bed transitional and emergency housing facility for homeless veterans.
You'll also stumble across a number of unexpected things on the land -- like the aforementioned UCLA baseball stadium, and a dog park. More on that in a minute.
WHERE IS THIS?
If you drive through West L.A., chances are you'll see the VA campus. It's just West of the 405, stretching from its Southern boundary, Ohio Ave, northward almost to Sunset Boulevard. The 114-acre Los Angeles National Cemetery is right across the freeway. The hospital and most medical services are on the South campus, below Wilshire Boulevard.
WAIT. HOW BIG IS IT AGAIN?
Big. Very big. 388 acres. Disneyland is 100 acres (with the new Star Wars rides) so you get the idea.
HOW LONG HAS IT BEEN HERE?
Since 1888, when the land was gifted to the federal government for the housing and care of disabled volunteer soldiers after the Civil War.
Landowners Arcadia Bandini de Stearns Baker and U.S. Senator John Percival Jones signed the deed to establish a National Home for Disabled Veterans.
Arcadia Bandini de Stearns Baker was the wealthiest woman in Southern California in her day and an important mover-and-shaker in the history of Los Angeles. Her husband co-founded Santa Monica. More on that here.
SO IT ONCE HOUSED VETERANS?
Yup, for decades, through World War II and beyond. After the Korean War, it housed more than 5,000 veterans. But starting in the 1970s, the VA stopped housing veterans on the land, and started leasing it out to commercial businesses instead.
WHAT KIND OF BUSINESSES?
A whole bunch of random stuff: a Marriott hotel laundry facility, Enterprise Rent-a-Car, storage for television sets, and parking for 194 buses by a private transportation company.
Other organizations also rented space. For example, there's a parrot sanctuary and therapy clinic on the grounds (the facility brings together combat veterans and abandoned birds -- it's open to veterans on weekdays, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.).
UCLA's Jackie Robinson baseball stadium sits on the campus, as do the athletic facilities for the private Brentwood School (where former CA Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's kids attended).
THIS DOESN'T SEEM TO MAKE MUCH SENSE
Well, it made dollar sense - millions were made from the leases, which the VA said was going to services for the veterans.
But Los Angeles was grappling with a growing homelessness crisis, which included thousands of veterans sleeping on the street.
In 2011, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the VA Secretary and the director of the VAGLAHS on behalf of disabled and homeless veterans.
The suit alleged the VA was misusing the campus by renting almost a third of it out to private companies and violating the original 1888 deed, which called for the land to be used as a permanent home for U.S. soldiers. Descendants of Baker and Jones even joined the legal action.
WHAT HAPPENED AFTER THE LAWSUIT?
In 2013, a judge ruled in their favor. Nine leases on the campus were deemed illegal, including the agreement allowing UCLA to operate its Jackie Robinson stadium on VA land, and the lease of 22 acres for Brentwood School's athletic facilities.
Then-VA Secretary Bob McDonald settled with the veteran plaintiffs in 2015, pledging the agency would draft a plan to redevelop the sprawling grounds with veteran care as its guiding star. The goal was to help vulnerable populations of disabled or elderly veterans, as well as female veterans with children.
SO... THERE IS A PLAN FOR THAT NOW?
After a lot of input from veterans, a blueprint was adopted in 2016, known as the Draft Master Plan.
It promised radical change across the campus including 1,200 units of permanent supportive housing for veterans, a new 450,000 square foot hospital tower, and the construction of a community 'town center' for veterans.
In late 2016, Congress returned leasing authority to the VA so the agency could once again enter into agreements with third party developers and service providers to move ahead with the Draft Master Plan, including building housing.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE BUSINESS THAT WERE LEASING LAND?
Bye. Third party leases that did not meet the goal of veteran care -- like private bus storage -- faced ejection from the land.
The VA even terminated a Salvation Army program offering short-term transitional housing for veterans with mental health conditions, citing concerns about the program's level of care. The Red Cross was also told its land use agreement was not a good fit for the Draft Master Plan.
Some organizations that could show support for veterans were allowed to stay, like Brentwood School, a Breitburn Energy oil well, a city park including a dog run and the parrot sanctuary. That requirement is backed up by audits and an annual report to congress.
HOW ABOUT UCLA'S BASEBALL STADIUM?
UCLA is still playing ball at the VA, after the school committed to a 10-year $16.5 million deal on the campus. It includes $300,000 annual rent for Jackie Robinson Stadium and the cost of three new veteran resource centers. These centers opened November 2017, and focus on mental health and addiction treatment, family wellness, and legal advice. Veterans can see UCLA baseball games for free.
WASN'T THERE ALSO A BIG BRIBERY SCANDAL ON CAMPUS?
Parking lot operator Richard Scott of Westside Services was indicted for bribing a VA official and bilking the agency out of more than $13 million in parking fees over 15 years.
He agreed to plead guilty to cooking the books (technically conspiracy and wire fraud) in May.
The official he bribed, VA contracting officer Ralph Tillman, also pleaded guilty and cooperated with investigators. He'll be sentenced in August.
QUITE A TANGLED HISTORY! WHEN WILL THE DRAFT MASTER PLAN START MAKING A DIFFERENCE?
Things are changing... very, very slowly.
The plan is ambitious, and there are major questions about who will pay for it, and how quickly more than a thousand units of housing will materialize.
Advocates say there's optimism about new leadership in charge of implementing the Draft Master Plan, the possibility of hiring one developer for a big swath of the housing and town center, and the decision by the City of L.A. to chip in some of the $1.2 billion in voter-approved Proposition HHH bond money could help speed up housing efforts.
A small amount of permanent housing has already begun to welcome residents on the West L.A. VA campus.
54 veterans moved into the newly refurbished Building 209 last June. It's the first permanent supportive housing the VA has built on the campus and it features stable residences with wraparound social and mental health services.
Critics pointed out, however, that plans to renovate Building 209 were announced in 2007 -- well before the Draft Master Plan.
As an emergency measure, the VA has started exploring temporary housing to get veterans off the street while developers work to fund and construct more housing. In April, the agency opened 10 parking stalls for homeless veterans who sleep in their cars to have a bathroom and a secure place to park overnight.
1,200 UNITS OF HOUSING FOR HOMELESS VETERANS SOUNDS GREAT. BUT...WHEN?
Last summer, a veterans advocacy group released a report card blasting the VA for delays in building housing. Vets Advocacy said timelines set forth in the original Master Plan were being extended with little to no explanation.
"[C]hange at the West L.A. VA campus is moving too slowly, and the pace of change is slowing as well," the report said.
The group said the original promise of the Draft Master Plan called for 490 units of permanent supportive housing opening within 30 months of congress giving leasing authority back to the VA -- a deadline of March 2019, which the VA has since revised.
The agency emphasizes much of that construction is waiting on the completion of environmental assessments of the campus, with an eye to state and federal regulations.
The blueprint is being studied for potential impacts to traffic and pollution, and to make sure the changes comply with historic preservation laws. The VA will hold another round of public comment on the environmental report in late 2018, and it is expected to be completed in summer 2019.
Meanwhile, two renovation projects are going forward. A developer and service provider have been chosen for the refurbishment of Buildings 205 and 208, which are slated to offer over 110 units of permanent supportive housing. The VA said those projects should break ground this summer, and open to veteran residents in early 2020.
YIIIKES. BUILDING 50-TO-100 UNITS OF HOUSING AT A TIME WILL TAKE FOREVER, NO?
The project so far is on pace to take decades to finish.
The VA admits they need to move faster to fulfill the promise of the Draft Master Plan to remake the sprawling West L.A. VA campus.
In April, it signaled a major shift in strategy that could rev up the pace of building over a thousand units of veteran housing.
The agency is looking for a 'Principal Developer' to oversee the renovation and construction of hundreds of housing units on the North side of the campus.
The first renovation project named in the announcement is the 51,000 square foot Building 207, which formerly housed the Salvation Army transitional housing program.
The Principal Developer will be responsible for a range of housing projects, but also infrastructure and amenities to create the feeling of a coherent neighborhood, said Heidi Marston, director of Community Engagement and Reintegration with the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center
"The goal is for our campus to really flow and feel like a community, and not like a campus that's built one building at a time," Marston said. "It's more than just roads. What are the things we need to make it thrive?"
Now the hunt is on for a single developer to tackle the project on a larger scale--more like 900 units under one central planner.
"The VA had a plan, but no real strategy for implementing it," said Jesse Creed, Executive Director of Vets Advocacy, a non-profit formed out of the VA's legal settlement with homeless and disabled veterans. "A principal developer strategy is frankly the only strategy that makes sense to deliver the full ambition of the plan."
"Generally principal developers can get work done faster than the federal government could and also more efficiently," Marston said.
The Principal Developer will be selected through the federal government's competitive procurement process.
LEVEL WITH ME, HOW MUCH DOES THIS COST? AND WHO IS PAYING FOR IT?
The VA won't yet put a dollar amount on the cost of the entire Master Plan.
Most steps in the Draft Master Plan related to the medical side of the campus, including construction of the medical tower, building repairs, road work, and various infrastructure projects, will rely on funding through the traditional VA budgeting process, which must be appropriated by Congress.
Housing will be built through a public-private partnership mechanism known as Enhanced Use Leases (EULs). Under this arrangement, the VA identifies underutilized land and chooses a third party developer to finance, build or renovate, and operate the buildings, at no cost to the federal government.
Advocates, elected leaders, and the VA also hope to leverage state and local funding, which generally moves more quickly than congressional appropriations.
Dollars from an L.A. County voter-approved sales tax hike known as Measure H are already in action on the West L.A. VA campus, subsidizing wraparound services for the small number of veterans living there.
Earlier this year, the City Council gave final approval to use nearly $24 million of Proposition HHH funding to help with the cost of renovating Buildings 205 and 208 on campus. A development group called Veteran Housing Partners will refurbish the buildings, and the non-profit Step up on Second has been tapped to provide social and mental health services to veteran residents, as it currently does for the 54 veterans living in nearby Building 209.
IS ANYONE OPPOSED TO THE CHANGES?
There has been some grumbling.
In April, the Brentwood Homeowners Association sent a letter to the VA accusing the agency of trying to bypass required environmental studies. The President of the BHA said in a statement that his group wants swift action to house veterans and reduce homelessness, but does not support speeding past legally mandated studies on the impact the project will have on traffic and parking in the surrounding communities.
Rearranging the campus to make way for development has also resulted in an eviction notice for a longtime PTSD clinic that serves over 1,000 veterans on the campus: the POST program (PTSD Outpatient Services Team) in Building 256.
The VA says it's consolidating mental health services in one place, on the South side of campus. The agency argues the move will improve patient care and increase access to treatment for a wide range of veterans.
But veterans who receive care in Building 256 say they've been told many of their programs are being discontinued, including long-running weekly PTSD support groups.
Steven Goldstein, veteran patient at the POST program in Bldg 256, worries for the future of group PTSD therapy at the VA. “group therapy works... the administration hasn’t been truthful...we’ve been told we’d move to 401, when actually the objective was to disband the program” pic.twitter.com/bWLL2pqgMc— Libby Denkmann (@libdenk) June 14, 2018
At a VA town hall earlier this year, a co-founder of the clinic, Jim Dwyer, told administrators that moving PTSD services to Building 401 on the South side of campus "will ultimately destroy our program."
Navy veteran Richard Aprahamian spoke during the public comment period of a June 14 Veteran Community Oversight & Engagement Board meeting on the VA campus. He predicted, if the VA doesn't find an alternative location for the POST program to continue serving veterans, "you're going to see a lot more guys back on the streets, needle in their arm or dead."
Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it here on KPCC.
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