Life After Wartime

Life After Wartime

Covering 388 acres of prime real estate, the West Los Angeles Veterans Administration campus could, in its crudest configuration, give every one of the 4,500 homeless veterans in Los Angeles County 1/12 of an acre to him- or herself. As it happens, decades of neglect, mismanagement, and confusion over the institution’s mission have given most needy veterans not so much as a bed.

While the campus, which was deeded to a precursor to the Veterans Administration in 1888, includes a thriving hospital, countless other buildings lie dormant and crumbling. Some of property has even been leased to outside users, including a private school and UCLA, to supplement the facility’s $900 million annual budget. One of the more egregious insults to the bequest came in the mid-1990s when the VA explored the prospect of turning over some property to high-rise commercial development.

“It’s been fairly well documented that in the past the administration at that facility was not necessarily as focused on the veterans’ needs as they needed to be,” said Vince Kaine, special assistant on homelessness to VA Secretary Robert McDonald.

In a lawsuit filed in 2011, plaintiffs, including the ACLU, veterans rights groups, and the descendants of the property’s original owners, contended that the VA was under- and misusing the property. In 2013, a federal court found that the 1888 covenant requires all campus land to directly serve veterans.

“The lawsuit was a catalyst to get things refocused on the veterans,” said Kaine.

The VA retained the Los Angeles office of HOK to draft a preliminary master plan to optimize the use of all 388 acres, with a particular focus on serving homeless veterans. Begun early this year and completed in October for a 45-day public comment period, the initial master planning process followed what Kaine described as a “very aggressive timeline.”

The rectangular campus is oriented north-south, with roughly one-quarter of the property lying south of Wilshire Boulevard. The draft master plan envisions four zones to be developed with decreasing intensity, starting with the southernmost healthcare zone. North of Wilshire, the plan envisions zones for coordinated care, housing, and recreation and partnerships.

In addition to the development of a 450,000-square-foot replacement hospital, the plan recommends the development of roughly two-dozen new structures in the other three zones. It outlines design concepts and calls for “neighborhoods” consisting of dormitories, open space, and supportive services. A “greenway” would run the entire length of the campus.

The final plan is likely to incorporate both new construction and rehabilitation of existing buildings. Reminiscent of a drab college campus, the VA currently consists of mostly beige institutional structures surrounded by generous buffer zones, including parking lots and roadways. Many of them are vacant and substandard. The campus also includes century-old historic structures, including a former trolley depot and a Victorian chapel.

“The focus of the master plan is to maintain the campus’s low-density environment,” said HOK’s Cynthia Keeffe, project lead and the firm’s regional leader of healthcare. “We respected the historic campus and the open space.”

Kaine said that the plan is not intended to present an architectural vision for the campus just yet. The VA is seeking more input from the community before it gets into the details of design.

Despite its scope, the plan has drawn criticism for what some consider an inordinately modest vision for serving homeless veterans. It calls for fulfilling an “immediate need” for 700-900 beds, prioritized for high-risk homeless populations, including elderly, female, and disabled veterans. The plan includes long-term capacity for up to 2,500 units of permanent and supportive housing but also calls for homeless veterans to be housed, with VA assistance, throughout the community.

“The whole point is to look at not only what is the capacity on the campus but what is the need,” said Kaine. The campus can’t do all the housing.”

Councilmember Mike Bonin noted that exorbitant rental costs in the area and low vacancy rates make this vision unrealistic.

“[The area is] not able in any one location to absorb the volume of new residential units necessary to achieve an end to veteran homelessness,” Bonin wrote in a letter to the VA.  “I urge the VA to…adopt an even more ambitious plan.”

Though the campus is surrounded by the City of Los Angeles, the city has no formal control over its operation or development. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is, however, extending the Purple Line subway, with a proposed terminus at the VA campus. Bonin also noted that the 889-page draft makes no mention of the subway.