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Saturday, Feb 4, 2023

Sepulveda VA Government Giveaway of Veteran’s Land

By Dennis DeYoung On May 20 the North Hills West Neighborhood Council hosted a Veterans Summit to discuss the latest developments in a long battle between the community and the VA regarding converting two vacant buildings on the 160 acre Sepulveda campus to apartments. Over 160 people attended and the overwhelming sentiment was against the development. Many in attendance were veterans who feel adamant that giving any entity a 75 year lease with little or no accountability represents a giveaway of land that is sacred to veterans. Citing a lack of jurisdiction over federally owned property, the city of Los Angeles last month declined to issue a variance to approve the development. Although that may sound like a nail in the coffin for the development, the project developer (ACOF) and operator (New Directions) are considering appealing the decision. According to Peggy Burgess, stakeholder member of the North Hills Neighborhood Council Land Use Committee, “The zoning decision was a minor victory, but the war rages on”. Councilman Greig Smith has written letters to the agencies where he lambasted the officials for failing to obtain local support, especially from veterans’ groups. “As a veteran myself and father of a young man currently serving active duty in the United States Navy, and as a patriot, I take the matter of caring for our veterans extremely seriously,” said Smith, whose district includes the VA. “… Unless you can modify the agreements as such, and obtain local support, I urge you not to appeal the (zoning administrator’s) decision.” The developers recently were able to modify state and federal laws and receive U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department approval to restrict the leases to veterans. However, during the meeting a speaker made it clear that the terms of the lease clearly permit the operator to rent apartments to non-veterans if they elect to do so. Also, under the VA’s Asset Management Plan which governs the leases, and public law, the Secretary, Dept. of Veterans Affairs have the ability to sell or simply transfer (gift) all rights, title and interest in the land to the Lessees at any time during the 75 years. Furthermore, the leases can also be reassigned and the property may be mortgaged for any amount. Another concern looking down the road is that if the zoning variance somehow gets approved and the project goes forward, it will open up not only the 7 acres in question, but the entire 160 acres for further private sector development of all size and scope. None of which will likely benefit our veterans. They will lose not only their land, but their medical center forever. I calculate that the proposed cost of this development works out to $272,000 per studio apartment. It is estimated that the cost to build similar apartments from would be about $100,000 per unit. The buildings are already there and are in good shape. In fact, they are currently used on a regular basis for filming which provides much needed jobs here in the Valley and significant revenue to the VA (estimated to be over $5 million per year). Clearly, this income should be kept here locally for the benefit of the Sepulveda VA and not transferred to Washington or the “VA Asset Management Dept”. I would hope that Congressman Brad Sherman, Rep. Henry Waxman and Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky (whose representatives were suspiciously absent at the meeting) and others look at this development very carefully and take into consideration the lack of support from veterans and the community. This is not just a NIMBY issue, although I am sure that if I still lived in the neighborhood I would be concerned that hundreds of homeless people will be moving in next door. I was born and raised a few blocks from the VA and with the Little League fields and par 3 golf course, the VA is a welcomed member of the community even for non-veterans. With huge deficits at all levels of governments, spending $40 million on a project that benefits at most 147 people does not appear to be a good return on our collective investment. Not to mention the funds necessary to keep the project going, regardless of demand. At the meeting I asked Toni Reinis, Executive Director of New Directions, Inc. why her organization requested such a long lease period. She indicated that the 75 year lease was necessary for her organization to obtain funding. I would suggest that the VA start over and this time perform an open and transparent RFP bidding process. I believe it is common sense that the VA should include a reasonable lease period as a prerequisite and that process may result in other agencies willing to accept a 5 or 10 year lease and provide the accountability to which taxpayers are entitled. Only time will tell how this project will proceed. The simple fact remains that these buildings were designed and built as medical buildings and should remain as such. The veterans in the area and surrounding communities desperately want their hospital rebuilt and the Sepulveda VA restored as a full service medical center, starting with Buildings 4 and 5. Whether or not the apartments are for veterans has never been the primary concern of the community. The question we all need to ask is, “what is the highest and best use of the land and which serves the greater good ?”. Those apartments will house only 147 people permanently; however if the buildings are re-commissioned as medical buildings, they will house 300-350 veterans undergoing treatment at any given time. The Valley has nearly 2 million residents and there is now and will be in the future a significant demand for this facility as a medical facility. Stay tuned. Dennis DeYoung is President of the Northridge West Neighborhood Council

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