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January/February 2019

Welcome Change at the West LA VA

Traversing Los Angeles on the famously congested 405 freeway, there’s usually ample time to take in the serene, sobering sight of the city’s National Cemetery. Flanking the road through the Westwood neighborhood, it memorializes more than 85,000 veterans in endless rows of immaculate white headstones and a Spanish Revival-style columbarium.

But largely out of sight on the opposite side of the 405, much of the remaining 388 acres of the same plot of VA land—bestowed to the U.S. government by wealthy landowners in 1888 “to be permanently maintained as a National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers”—has slipped into a contrasting state of disrepair over the past half-century. Its roads are crumbling, its lawns dying, and many of its buildings are visibly derelict.

The West Los Angeles VA was once a thriving little town unto itself, complete with a post office, trolley station, and 150 cultivated acres. It was the catalyst for the development of what would become the surrounding, highly desirable Brentwood and Westwood neighborhoods in the early 20th century. Its veteran population peaked at five thousand shortly after the Korean War.

But by the time the Vietnam War ended, the property’s administrators had turned their backs on its original land grant deed and no longer housed veterans. It remained home to the VA’s West Los Angeles Medical Center and an array of veteran-related research, service, and housing services—including a 400-bed, CalVet-run veterans home and a 154-bed transitional and emergency housing facility operated by the nonprofit New Directions for Veterans—but no longer accepted veterans as permanent residents.

All this began to change in 2011, however, after the ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit against then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki on behalf of homeless veterans with severe disabilities alleging mismanagement of the West LA VA campus. Central to the grievances expressed in the suit, in which Vietnam Veterans of America was a major plaintiff, was the VA’s practice of leasing portions of the West LA property to outside commercial interests—everything from nearby UCLA and the posh Brentwood School, to a hotel laundry service and even a parrot sanctuary—which seemed to have little or no connection to veterans’ welfare.

When we detailed this increasingly involved spat in the March/April 2014 issue of The VVA Veteran, a federal judge had just struck down all third-party leases on the property, but several stakeholders were appealing his decision. On the ground there was status quo, while veterans and their advocates—most visibly a group calling itself the Old Veterans Guard, which began weekly rallies at the property’s Great Lawn Gate in 2008—continued to push for change. Many questioned where the millions of dollars generated by the decades of leasing had gone (documents obtained by National Public Radio in 2012 showed that such rentals had brought in at least $28 million), and expressed distrust toward West LA VA administrators, lessees on the property, and Brentwood community and homeowners associations. In the five years since, the situation at WLA VA has—behind the scenes and, to a limited extent, on the ground—been transformed. And all, it appears, to the benefit of veterans.

Veterans and Community Oversight and Engagement Board members and staff during their January 9-10, 2019, quarterly meeting.

The Settlement

VA Secretary Bob McDonald, who succeeded Shinseki following the latter’s 2014 resignation in the wake of the Veterans Health Administration scandal, settled with the suit’s veteran plaintiffs in 2015, pledging that the sprawling West LA property would be redeveloped for the express purpose of providing veteran care. A Draft Master Plan was drawn up with the overarching goal of providing customer-oriented care and support to disabled and elderly veterans, and to female veterans with children.

“If I remember correctly, that [negotiated settlement] was in about February of that year, and the first Draft Master Plan was issued in October,” recalled Kyle Orlemann, the AVVA liaison for South Bay Chapter 53 in Torrance, California, and a member of the Veterans Affairs Commission in the nearby city of Hawthorne. “To get that amount of work done in that short amount of time was phenomenal. It was lightning-speed.”

While pre-settlement relations between veteran activists and advocates on one side and WLA VA administrators and lessees on the other were pervaded by the former’s perceptions of the latter’s lack of transparency, there’s now an atmosphere of openness, dialogue, and a collective striving toward broadly similar goals.

“Since the new Medical Center Director of VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System Ann Brown has been in, coming up on three years now, the changes she has made and the leadership team that she’s put into place have been utterly superb,” said Orlemann, who has attended most of the town hall and smaller group meetings related to the future of the WLA VA campus since 2014. “We have total access to them; we’re able to attend meetings; we can ask questions; we can email; we get answers back. They’ve been absolutely forthcoming.”

Formally published in January 2016, the Draft Master Plan is self-described as “a framework that will assist VA determine and implement the most effective use of the campus for veterans, particularly homeless veterans, including underserved populations such as female veterans, aging veterans, and those who are severely physically or mentally disabled.” A group called Veterans Community Oversight Engagement Board was created in 2017, chaired by retired USAF Lt. Gen. John D. Hopper, to oversee implementation of the Master Plan and report directly to the VA Secretary and to Congress.

Heidi Marston, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, Director Ann Brown, and VA Secretary Robert Wilkie tour the campus.

While LA’s veteran homeless population has declined of late (most recently by 18 percent, according to the city’s annual point-in-time homeless count released in June), there are still nearly four thousand homeless ex-service members on its streets—more than in any other U.S. city. Among the primary considerations of the Draft Master Plan for the WLA VA campus are the provision of permanent supportive housing for homeless veterans on the site, and the need for appropriate levels of bridge and emergency housing and short-term treatment services on the campus.

The vision includes veteran housing neighborhoods distributed throughout the site and a Reintegration Zone focused on providing opportunities for education and employment training, plus a centrally located Town Center. A Medical District south of Wilshire Blvd, including the repurposed and expanded existing hospital, plus facilities for visitors and additional supportive housing options is also outlined by the Master Plan, as are Neighborhood Centers located throughout the campus and accessible, programmed open spaces and recreation areas.

All of these entirely worthy goals cannot be achieved overnight. Following decades of neglect and bureaucratic impasse, there are endless environmental impact studies to be completed and infrastructure issues—including roads, plumbing, and underground electrical systems—to be addressed before major renovations of existing buildings can begin or ground broken on new ones. Some of these structures, such as the Old Soldiers Home Chapel, built in 1900 (and currently described by the VA as being in “an advanced state of deterioration”), enjoy Historic Places status, adding further layers of complication to their restoration.

To streamline this epic task, in November the VA announced the formation of the West L.A. Veterans Collective—a partnership of Century Housing Corporation (which previously redeveloped part of the defunct Long Beach Naval Shipyard into the Century Villages at Cabrillo), US Vets (America’s largest nonprofit provider of comprehensive services to homeless and at-risk military veterans), and local property developers Thomas Safran & Associates—as Principal Developer for the WLA VA campus. The city of LA’s decision to contribute some of the $1.2 billion of Proposition HHH bonds approved by voters late in 2016—intended to fund housing for homeless people and those at risk of becoming homeless in the city—should also help move matters forward.

The lawsuit settlement also spawned the West Los Angeles Leasing Act of 2016, which allows the VA to enter into certain leases at the West LA VA campus and to make certain improvements to the enhanced-use lease authority of the Department. (An enhanced-use lease is a way of funding construction or renovations on federal property by allowing a private developer to lease underutilized property, with the developer paying rent in the form of cash or in-kind services.) According to the terms of the Act, these must “principally benefit veterans and their families, including veterans that are severely disabled, women, aging, or homeless” and “may consist of activities relating to the medical, clinical, therapeutic, dietary, rehabilitative, legal, mental, spiritual, physical, recreational, and counseling needs of veterans and their families.”

A resulting federal audit released in October declared more than 60 percent of leases on the campus to be illegal or improper. In response, the VA agreed to terminate or renegotiate land-use agreements with the city of Los Angeles, the Westside Soccer Club, and the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles. The parrot sanctuary is gone, as is a car rental facility, bus storage area, and half of a leased dog park, according to Orlemann. A Salvation Army program and a Red Cross facility were also deemed incongruous to the intentions of the Draft Master Plan.

Renegotiated lease agreements require lessees to provide services that are overtly to the benefit of veterans. For example, an oil well on the property was allowed to stay in return for operators Maverick Natural Resources funding on-campus veterans’ transportation. The private Brentwood School, which has long leased twenty-two acres of West LA VA land for its athletic complex, announced a “revitalized partnership” with the VA that includes the establishment of the Veteran Center for Recreation and Education, plus 120 summer scholarship spaces for the children of veteran families.

UCLA was allowed to continue operating its baseball stadium on West LA VA land in return for $300,000 annual rent (up from just $60,000/year before the settlement) plus the cost of three new veteran resource centers, which opened late last year. Veterans can also attend UCLA baseball games for free.

Crucially, whereas revenue from similar leases on federal properties elsewhere goes to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, money from leases at the WLA VA is now, according to the Leasing Act, “credited to the applicable Department [of Veterans Affairs] medical facilities account exclusively for the renovation and maintenance of the land and facilities at the Campus.”

Ribbon-cutting ceremony for Building 209, which houses fifty-four veterans.

Leasing Questions

In the past, the opacity of accounting related to West LA VA leases was a major issue for veterans and their advocates. It wasn’t clear if lessees were paying fair market prices for these, and even less apparent where the funds were being spent. Looking at the mostly crumbling northern portion of the campus, it was hard to believe that all the revenue was being channeled into its upkeep and improvement. For while even the most hardened critics of previous VA administrations acknowledged that not every inch of the vast campus—which is nearly four times the size of Disneyland—could be used directly for veterans’ care and therefore didn’t object in principle to select leases that were in some way beneficial to veterans, the (estimated) numbers simply didn’t seem to add up.

Veteran activists I interviewed for my 2014 article hinted darkly at corruption being a factor in the proliferation of WLA VA third-party leases, and the apparent lack of funds from them actually being used on the campus. Wisely, they didn’t mention names, numbers or sources, and so their unsubstantiated claims were not included in that article—but subsequent events have validated their suspicions.

In August David Richard Scott, a Santa Monica parking lot mogul, received a seventy-month federal prison sentence for defrauding the VA out of more than $13 million by under-reporting revenues from lots his company, Westside Services, leased on the WLA campus. To facilitate this monumental scam, Scott paid a VA contract officer named Ralph Tillman $286,000 in hush money. In September, Tillman was sentenced to five months in prison. There are moves afoot to ensure that the $12.6 million in restitution still owed by Scott goes to WLA VA rather than to Treasury.

With so much oversight and openness under the current VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System administration, Orlemann characterizes the chances of such corruption reoccurring as decidedly “slim.”

Walking the WLA VA campus today, a casual observer might notice a few differences from five years ago. Building 209 has been completely renovated, and houses fifty-four veterans. A new Welcome Center, which operates round the clock, has been opened in Building 257. UCLA opened its Veteran Family Wellness Center and Veterans Legal Clinic as part of its renegotiated lease in 2017. The VA designated ten safe parking spaces on the campus for veterans who are living in their vehicles.

But once all the planning is in place, which should move much more swiftly under the coordination of the new Principal Developer, and the bureaucratic red tape successfully navigated, change on the ground should

be rapid, said Orlemann, whose husband Jerry served with the Army Security Agency in Vietnam from 1970-72 and has received medical care at the West Los Angeles Medical Center since 2003.

“There are a number of buildings almost identical to each other on this campus,” she pointed out. “So once you do all of the architectural and the engineering work on one of those buildings, you replicate it in other buildings.”

The first phase of a new columbarium, which will ultimately include 90,000 niches, should open this year. It will be connected by an underpass beneath the 405 to the existing Los Angeles National Cemetery, which has been closed to new interments for over a decade, with the nearest alternative being some seventy-five miles away.

While the Draft Master Plan’s initial deadline for 490 units of permanent veterans’ housing on the WLA property by March 2019 has had to be revised, 1,200 will eventually be built. A developer and service provider already have been selected for Buildings 205 and 208, with these expected to open to residents in 2020. The LA Metro light rail Purple Line Extension should reach the VA campus by 2026, providing invaluable access to the campus facilities for veterans without vehicles—and much easier access to all, considering L.A.’s legendary traffic.

Specifics aside, perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the current situation at the West Los Angeles VA is the collective will, from all stakeholders, to move toward a common goal through open dialogue, transparency, and a willingness to acknowledge and address past mistakes.

“I was in a number of meetings with [then-Secretary McDonald], because he actually came here, walked the campus, saw the problems, saw exactly what needed to be done,” Orlemann recalled. “He wasn’t sitting in Washington, D.C., thinking theoretically. He had his feet on the ground, and that makes a big difference.”

There are still dissenting voices. While some veterans have criticized what they perceive as the sluggish pace of developments on the ground, the Brentwood Homeowners Association has conversely accused the VA of trying to bypass environmental studies in its haste to redevelop the West LA site. Yet, overall, a diverse array of vested parties—veterans, veterans service organizations, the VA, commercial interests, and Brentwood stakeholders—that were often at each others’ throats prior to the settlement of the 2011 lawsuit are now, in general terms at least, on the same page.

“Everybody’s pushing forward. It is, I think, a very concerted effort,” concluded Jerry Orlemann, who is Southern District Director for VVA’s California State Council and a board member of Chapter 53. “I’m happy with it. I see the progress reports [and] I think they’re on line.”





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