A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

October/November 1998

The West L.A. Land Grab: The Saga Continues

In December 1991, thanks to VVA member Glenn Rogers, who uncovered almost all the facts, The VVA Veteran chronicled an attempt by affluent Los Angeles homeowners to protect their property values by turning a chunk of land belonging to a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital into a memorial park. Under the guise of the "Veterans Park Preserve," as they call themselves, the Brentwood Homeowners Association claimed that their efforts were meant to honor veterans. To a limited extent that was true, but scrutiny of their plans to develop the West L.A. VA Medical Center land revealed that the prime beneficiaries were the homeowners themselves.

Since then, VVA has consistently and successfully opposed the VPP. Last winter, however, VA Deputy Secretary Herschel Gober allowed the group to go ahead with a plan to "beautify" a 1.1-mile stretch of Wilshire Boulevard, which runs directly through the West L.A. VAMC property. Gober personally assured WA member Al Biemesser that the VPP wanted nothing more than to enhance the look of the thoroughfare, an enhancement that Gober said would benefit everyone, veterans included. VPP even offered to pick up the tab.

But Biemesser and VVA Government Relations Acting Director Bill Warfield later learned that the so-called beautification plan was actually the first move in a larger gambit to achieve VPP's original goal—turning some forty-five acres of the VAMC property fronting the Brentwood neighborhood into a recreational park. Again, VPP claimed the move was in honor of veterans. In reality, though, it is a real-estate-value protection plan.

Biemesser and Warfield sat down with The VVA Veteran contributing writer Bill Triplett to explain the latest developments in an increasingly alarming situation.


VVA: What's the background to all this?
Al Biemesser: If we go back and read the original land-grant deed, we have 300 acres of land donated by a family "to establish and permanently maintain a national home for disabled volunteer soldiers on a site to be selected by its board of managers." That was done in March 1888.

VVA: Essentially it was a donation of private property to the government to be used specifically for disabled veterans.
AB: Yes, or an old soldiers' home, something to that effect.

VVA: A home of some sort was indeed built on the property?
AB: Many years ago, yes. But we had an earthquake in 1971, and part of the building collapsed and killed a number of veterans in the home. They moved the veterans out of that home and into other ones throughout the state of California. The home was demolished, and no replacement has been built.

VVA: What's the status of the land now? Does anything currently stand on it?
AB: I don't believe anything now stands on the [forty-five acres VPP wants to develop]. The land butts up against the east and south sides of the Brentwood neighborhood, and that's where the problem lies. The homes there are worth millions of dollars.

VVA: What exactly does VPP want to put on the property? A national memorial to veterans and some recreational facilities?
AB: They're asking for one thing at a time. In one of their documents, VPP announced they had signed an agreement with the federal government to "beautify" a 1.1-mile stretch of Wilshire Boulevard. So that's very honorable-sounding, and when they signed this agreem with Herschel Gober, he assured us the only thing they wanted to do was to beautify that land. Okay, we gave in. We said, "Go ahead and beautify Wilshire Boulevard," but none of it has begun yet. We don't know where they're going to get the money to do that.

That was less than eight months ago. But one of VPP's recent flyers announced that "Memorial Park is alive and well." This is their original, larger, plan to develop forty-five acres of the West L.A. VAMC land. They want to build picnic groves. They want ballfields. They want walkways and nice open areas for recreation, which they say is all for veterans.

VVA: Why is that a bad thing? Why is VVA opposed?
AB: It sounds really nice that they're willing to build all these things, but we want an old soldiers' home built on this property, which is why it was originally deeded to the government. Right now we're building veterans' homes in remote areas. Yet in Los Angeles County we have the largest single population of war veterans in the United States.

Now here's the clincher: The memorial park and the beautification of Wilshire Boulevard aren't bad, but they are just toeholds. Because once VPP gets those things, they're going to go for other things: a garden, tennis courts, all sorts of things that are written in their master plan.

VVA: And this would expand beyond the forty-five acres they're currently asking for?
AB: Absolutely. The forty-five acres have nothing to do with the other things.

VVA: What do the people behind VPP really want?
AB: The real motive is that these people do not want to see veterans in their front yards. The [VA] land is valued at approximately $5 million per acre. Do they want to see anything at all built on it? There are very few parks and open areas in that neighborhood, and they would love to be able to use federal land to build recreation areas. The part of the land that would have all the recreational facilities borders against their homes and the Brentwood School. It all sounds nice, "in honor of veterans" and everything, but how do tennis courts benefit disabled veterans? They also want to build a women's softball diamond. We do have women veterans, but do we have enough to form a women's softball league?

VVA: So under this plan to make a park and open recreation facilities, they're in reality trying to develop the land in a way that makes token acknowledgment that this is veterans' property, but it's to protect their property values.
AB: Exactly right.

VVA: Is the Veterans Park Preserve exclusively an organization of Brentwood homeowners?
AB: They have in the recent past added some veterans to the organization, because in the state of California you cannot designate an organization as "veterans" without veterans on the board and executive committee. The president of the Brentwood Homeowners' Association is also the executive director of VPP.

VVA: But VPP does have veterans on its board now.
AB: Yes. What's interesting though is that the president of VPP is William Belding, formerly a Navy SEAL. Belding has political clout, but he doesn't even live in Brentwood. He lives in Venice Beach.

VVA: So his presence on VPP—
AB: Adds credibility to the organization. I'm certain that's the reason he's there.

VVA: Has VPP gotten the official endorsement of any national veterans organizations?
Bill Warfield: One. Amvets, but only the national office. The local Amvets office in Los Angeles opposes VPP.
AB: What VPP essentially has done is go to the national offices of Amvets, the American Legion, the VFW, and whatnot and say, "Hey, this is what we want to do," and it sounds real nice and honorable.

VVA: How far along are VPP's plans right now?
AB: Right now they're seeking political support.
BW: Not long ago Rep. Henry Waxman [D-Calif., whose district includes Brentwood] submitted a request to [VA appropriations subcommittee chairman] Rep. Jerry Lewis [R-Calif.] to insert a provision in the [VA] FY 1999 appropriations bill that would legislate this land for VPP's purposes. Lewis originally agreed to help Waxman because he may not have known much about the full situation. When Al made us aware of this effort, we were able to make some quick telephone calls and write to the [House] authorizing committee chairman Bob Stump [R-Ariz.] and the ranking member. Lane Evans [D-Ill.], and alert them.

Immediately both Stump and Evans sent a letter to [House Appropriations Committee] chairman Bob Livingston [R-La.] and to Jerry Lewis objecting to the provision on the grounds that it violated House rules. They recommended that it be deleted from the bill and to hold hearings on the subject. They also asked for the VA to submit a plan, detailed on the land use, which would explain how it would be used consistent with the intended agreement.

Lewis' own staffer had not checked into VPP very thoroughly. But then I called her, and she expressed surprise that there was any objection to the plan. After I told her the entire story, she became a little bit alarmed. She then told Mr. Lewis that there was a problem, and they agreed to withdraw the provision from the House version of the bill.

Sen. Barbara Boxer [D-Calif.] had intended with Sen. Dianne Feinstein [D-Calif] to sponsor a comparable version in the Senate, but then Sen. Boxer withdrew her effort based upon our concerns.

VVA: Do you feel VPP will try again to get language inserted into congressional legislation?
BW: I believe they will.
AB: They may realize that trying to hide it inside a budget bill was a one-shot deal, and they failed. That's difficult, and if you fail once you may not get another shot. I think they're going to try to get an agreement with [VA Secretary] Togo West or Herschel Gober, like they did with the 1.1 mile of beautification.

VVA: Can they end-run congressional legislation?
AB: Absolutely.
BW: The authorizing committee in Congress hopefully would say no, but it is possible. If they enter into an agreement through a memorandum of understanding with the VA Secretary, it could happen. The only way we could stop it in that case would be through litigation.

VVA: Has VVA had any discussion with Gober or West about the situation?
BW: We have not, although we did send to West's office a copy of our letters to Congress. I think his executive assistant is aware of the situation.
AB: When Mr. Gober said that all VPP wants is to beautify Wilshire Boulevard and nothing else, I said, "Well, the first time you dance with the devil it's a little difficult. But every time after that it gets a lot easier." I think we were dancing with the devil when we agreed to let them do Wilshire Boulevard. He said, "I understand what you're saying, but trust me."

VVA: Veterans have heard those words a lot, haven't they?
AB: Exactly. I took him at his word, but I also felt I needed to take it with a grain of
salt. I'm sure he believes that they don't want anything more. But when I look at their flyer that came out last June, and it says, "Memorial Park is alive and well," I don't know. We had managed to stop this memorial park until Herschel Gober signed the beautification agreement. At that point, once the agreement was signed for the parkway, we lost a lot of strength. They feel they've got a foot in the door.

VVA: What has VVA done to see that a soldiers' home, as stipulated in the original deed, gets rebuilt on the property?
AB: I spoke to the VA-VISN-22 director, Smith Jenkins, and he said, "We'll have to look into that, but you're talking about federal land, and this would be a state home." So they're saying it could be a little difficult. But that would be consistent with the original agreement.

VVA: Al, you posted your concerns about this entire situation in a note on the Internet. What response did you get?
AB: It created quite a stir among veterans. I'm still receiving e-mail about it. They feel disgusted and betrayed—again. They're feeling the government is giving away something we have a right to.

VVA: Has anyone from VVA had any contact with VPP?
AB: No. That's the next step. I think we should express our concerns directly to them, set up a meeting to tell them why we think that what they're doing is wrong, and just see what they have to say.

VVA: What can WA members do?
AB: I think we need to write every member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee. They need to be fully informed about the situation. It might be a good idea to write VPP as well, just to let them know what we think. Their address is Veterans Park Preserve, 11520 San Vincente Boulevard, #103, Los Angeles, CA, 90049. Phone is 310-820-5366. Fax is 310-820-1486. E-mail is vetprk@aol.com
BW: We're also going to follow up on a commitment that was made to us by House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Stump's staff director, that they intend to hold a hearing on this issue and insist that the VA provide testimony. When that will happen, we're not sure, but they tell us it certainly will.
AB: We don't know if we'll be successful in stopping this, but just because we don't know doesn't mean we can't try.
 

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