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Homeless in Westwood 

A shelter for vets sounds better than more car-dependent business

Wednesday, May 10 2006
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IT’S NOT UNUSUAL to hear neighborhood leaders on the Westside vent their frustration about the evils of new development — the size, the scale, the unbearable traffic problems. And it wasn’t exactly a surprise to see the region’s politicians denounce a plan by the federal government to auction 10 acres of U.S. Army Reserve property just south of Wilshire Boulevard.

But last week’s rally by homeowners, veterans and their elected representatives offered an intriguing new take on the typical fight to stop a mall, condo or office park. Standing on Federal Avenue, residents of Brentwood, Westwood and West Los Angeles suggested that the 10 acres up for auction — land that has piqued the interest of wealthy developers — might serve a higher public purpose: providing homeless veterans with shelter and a full complement of social services.

That’s right — traffic has gotten so bad that even homeless facilities are starting to look good to Angelenos, including some who live in the highest-income ZIP codes of the city.

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“Whether it’s Santa Monica or West L.A., the homeless are all around us,” said David Vahedi, a board member with the Westside Neighborhood Council. “They’re here. They need services. We can’t leave our humanity at the door, and it would seem to me to make a lot more sense to bring them into a facility where A, they can be protected from the elements, and B, where they can start to get some services.”

The 10-acre Army Reserve facility sits just south of Wilshire Boulevard on Federal Avenue, a three-building campus that includes a cafeteria, barracks and training grounds. The site is part of a larger stretch of federally owned property where the Department of Justice is weighing plans for a massive new FBI building.

The federal government hired Dallas-based Staubach Co. to carry out the online auction, which would run from June 12 to June 23 and grant ownership of the site to a developer who offers the highest bid and will renovate three far-off Army Reserve campuses — one in Bell, a second in Riverside County and a third in San Diego County. Neighborhood activists say such a deal would flout the wishes of the land’s original donors, who gave it to the federal government in the 1880s as a place for war veterans.

Tony Morales, a principal with Staubach Co., said roughly 40 representatives of development firms showed up at a briefing on the auction, which occurred the same day as the neighborhood rally. While Morales said veterans will play a role in the decision, he argued that the federal government also has national security to think about.

“Veterans are incredibly important for our process, to get them on board and let them know that there will be a sensible development there,” he said. “But the U.S. Army Reserve has made a decision, based on the rights they have, to add to national security and renovate some of the facilities they have for better training of the troops.”

ONE VETERAN WHO HAS NOT jumped on board is Francisco Juarez, president of Citizens for Veterans’ Rights. The Santa Monica resident said the Army Reserve property should be transferred back to the Veterans Administration, which could in turn convert it into a 500-bed facility for homeless vets. Juarez plans to meet Friday with representatives of New Directions, a social services agency that operates a program for homeless and mentally ill veterans on the north side of Wilshire, to discuss ways that it could operate a similar facility on the 10-acre site.

Juarez said a “friendly, community-planned homeless facility” would do far less to change the ambiance of the neighborhood than a mall or office tower, and he is hoping that others will feel the same.

“I was surprised to hear the residents of Brentwood, not so much the Brentwood community but the Brentwood homeowners, were supporting the idea,” said Juarez. “Because over the years there’s been a turf battle for property that is righteously veterans’ but is in the backyard of Brentwood homeowners.”

Laura Lake, a Westwood activist with two decades of development fights under her belt, said she too would support the operation of a homeless veterans’ facility on the Army Reserve property if it does not involve the “warehousing” of veterans. Like Juarez, Lake pointed to New Directions, which has drawn high praise for its work in helping homeless vets deal with substance abuse and start new lives.

“I think if it’s structured like New Directions, I would support it,” said Lake, who serves as co-chair of the Federal Building Coalition, which opposes the planned FBI facility.

Still, Brentwood Community Council co-chair Wendy-Sue Rosen wasn’t prepared to support a specific project for the Army Reserve site, saying all of the federal lands should be reviewed simultaneously. “In general, as a concept, do we support New Directions?” she said. “Yes, they’re a good neighbor. We support that program and we are good partners. But as for being on that parcel, I can’t speak to that. We have not taken a position, and we would really like to see this master land-use plan process so we can address all of this property as a whole.”

Suggestions for a homeless veterans’ facility have come as little surprise to Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who argued that Brentwood and New Directions already coexist peacefully — contradicting stereotypes of NIMBY Westside homeowners. Yaroslavsky said the federal government will face an environmental lawsuit if they attempt to proceed with the auction, while would-be developers will have to contend with restrictive county zoning.

Despite all the talk of homeless veterans, Yaroslavsky said his first priority is scuttling the auction itself. “That property is very deep,” he said. “There are three major buildings on or near the property, and it easily lends itself to expanded services of all kinds to veterans, or homeless veterans. But the point is that none of that is possible if they sell it off for biotech firms or hotels or movie theaters.”

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