If the Master Plan’s Gone, a Better Use for the Great Park would be Service for Veterans

1. The Master Plan is Not Looking So Well Today

I and many others haven’t really focused too much on alternative possibilities for the Great Park because the initial plan seemed pretty good — and, really, we can leave some things for future generations to develop and enjoy.  (That’s especially true if it gives us time to, you know, clean up all of the toxic waste.)  Furthermore, Larry Agran, Beth Krom, and others put a lot of work into it — that’s a vast understatement — and they don’t want to think that it’s going away because Larry Agran lost one election thanks to a flood of anonymous contributions from (or laundered through) the east.

But the fact that one election could undo so much explains why, at least in substantial part, we have to move on from the Master Plan.  I think that it was a really good idea, and unlike some I don’t blame the former Council majority for its failure.  I think that convincing people that such minimal progress for such a long time — beleaguered by slow cooperation in abatement by the Armed Services, undercut by changes in state government policies and general economic rack and ruin, while seemingly too much was spent on PR just to have a chance of hanging on to public support — is simply an almost impossible task for even the most deft politicians.

But face the facts: tomorrow, as it stands, changes will be made that will begin the process of gutting the Master Plan, with the only question being “how much?”, and more such gutting is liable to come in the future.  It’s time to think about other possibilities.

Here’s mine.

2. My Own View — a Park That’s Great for Veterans

The best plan that I’ve heard for the Great Park is one that was evidently floated at Los Amigos not so long ago.  (Similar suggestions may have preceded it; I just don’t happen to know of them.)  That is that a substantial portion of the Great Park should be devoted to a Veterans’ Cemetery.  If the Great Park can’t be the western equivalent of Central Park, then maybe it can be the equivalent of Arlington National Cemetery.

As is stands, OC has no Veterans’ Cemetery.  As the Voice of OC noted last year, the nearest one is in Riverside.  People from around here have to go a long way to get there.  A substantial portion of the Great Park could — and should — be devoted to that purpose.  With that as a primary function, that could mean plenty of parkland would be available around it, as well, for people to come and enjoy.  It also opens up new pots of money for others to pay for planning and development.

That idea, I’m told, is currently out there.  But I’m going to go way beyond it.

Near the Veteran’s Cemetery — and I don’t suggest this for convenience, but for consolidation of purpose and theme — we could seek to create a new V.A. Hospital as well.  We have the Congressional clout — especially when you see how well it might work out in practice.  And THAT would get the toxic cleanups and construction into high gear.  (You’re welcome, Building Trades!)

Down to details.  Here’s the current complement of VA Hospitals in California:

       Fresno: VA Central California Health Care System
       Loma Linda: VA Loma Linda Healthcare System
       Long Beach: VA Long Beach Healthcare System
       Los Angeles: VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System (GLA)
       Mather: VA Northern California Health Care System
       Palo Alto: VA Palo Alto Health Care System
       San Diego: VA San Diego Healthcare System
       San Francisco: San Francisco VA Medical Center

Northern California has four VA Medical Centers.  Loma Linda is inland.  Along the coast, we have one in Westwood, one in Long Beach, and then nothing until San Diego.  A VA Medical Center in this central, freeway accessible site in Irvine — especially given the possibility of collaboration with the excellent medical school at UCI — could be ideal for serving all but southwestern Orange County (which is close to Long Beach), northern San Diego County, eastern LA’s San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys, and Riverside.

(Talk about your “job creators,” by the way!  Tell me again how the government doesn’t create jobs?)

Why could this plan be especially excellent for medical care?  Here, take a look at the map (showing the proximity of the Great Park to the center of Orange County):

Great Park Location

That the Great Park is central is immediately apparent. Seeing that it’s a great place for a hospital make take a few minutes. But that’s not even the best selling point.

What makes the Great Park location improbably wonderful for medical care is one of the things that I hate most about Orange County: it’s underused toll roads.

You see the 73 marked on the map.  To its right, the 133 heads north from Laguna Beach right into the Great Park.  North from there, it hits the 241 — which goes south east to RSM and Los Flores, and up to the 91 — where it meets yet more toll lanes.  Not far from there, you have the 261 spur into Tustin.  And if your experience is like mine, you’ll agree these roads are mostly empty — not ideal for routine use, but excellent for occasional and emergency use.  Underused roads are perfect for ambulances.  Perfect perfect even for urgent (and even reimbursed) rides for even routine medical care, where reimbursing tolls would be the cheapest thing on the bill.

And there’s one other consideration favoring a VA Medical facility in Irvine that isn’t even on the map!  It could take away some of the business — especially the long-term resident business — of one of the other VA Hospitals listed above — the one in pricey Westwood.

That’s right — financially, the government might want to pay us to set up a VA Hospital in Irvine so that it can downsize the Hospital in Westwood and sell off some land that is as expensive as the land in undeveloped Irvine is relatively cheap.  I need you to read a story or two — starting right here with this NPR report from 2012.

Most Los Angeles residents only know the Veterans Affairs medical center in West Los Angeles as something they glimpse from their cars when they’re on traffic-choked Wilshire Boulevard. From the road it looks like a park, but within the grounds is the largest medical facility in the VA’s health care system.

The campus is also one of the most fought-over pieces of property in Los Angeles. The nearly 400 acres are in the middle of a densely populated and affluent part of the city. Given its location, the land has been coveted for commercial development. It’s also been targeted as a perfect place to provide housing for some of the city’s 8,000 homeless veterans.

The VA has had plans to create housing for disabled homeless vets for years. But so far, those plans have gone nowhere. Meanwhile, government documents show that the VA has made millions of dollars renting out chunks of the property to private enterprises.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking?  “A perfect place to provide housing for … homeless veterans?”

I’m going to quote a little more and just hope that NPR won’t sue the blog over it.

[Vet Floyd] Summers says he wanted to live right here on the West L.A. campus — and he has, for brief periods of time. The VA and some nonprofits offer transitional housing and emergency shelter. But Summers says nothing has worked out.

“I been trying to get housing for such a long time that sometime I wonder if anybody’s hearing me or not,” says Summers.

Summers is one of 11 veterans with severe mental disabilities who are suing the VA. They’re represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and a handful of prominent Los Angeles law firms. Mark Rosenbaum, the legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, says they want permanent supportive housing on the West L.A. campus for mentally disabled veterans like Summers, so that they have “housing that has access to medical and psychiatric services. It’s common sense.”

Rosenbaum says his clients’ severe mental disabilities make it next to impossible for them to access the treatment to which they’re legally entitled.

“You can’t get medical and psychiatric services if you’re living in Skid Row and you’re part of a cycle of homelessness.”

It turns out that the Westwood Facility has been making a lot of money off its property through some shady-seeming rental agreements — and it’s not even clear where the money from that has gone.

On a drive through the [Westwood VA] campus, [a guide] points out the stadium where the UCLA baseball team plays, the 20-acre athletic complex for an exclusive private school, the laundry facility for Marriott Hotels, and the place where 20th Century Fox stores sets. On the far side of the property were parking lots full of rental cars and school buses.

The West Los Angeles VA has made more than a dozen of these long-term rental deals. Most of them have nothing to do with services for veterans.

That’s led Rep. Henry Waxman to conclude that “the West L.A. VA was in business for itself.” The VA campus is in Waxman’s district. He and Sen. Dianne Feinstein have been trying to protect the property from commercialization for years. During the Bush administration, there were proposals to use the land for condos, office towers, a shopping mall. At the time, Waxman went to talk to then-VA Secretary Jim Nicholson.

“He told me when I went to meet with him that he was a real estate developer, and this was prime real estate, and we could make a lot of money by commercializing it, selling it off and letting people build whatever they wanted to build,” recalls Waxman. “And then he said that money could be used for veterans.”

Waxman and Feinstein got legislation passed making it illegal to sell or even lease the property. But that didn’t put an end to the rental agreements. That’s because legally, the West Los Angeles VA hasn’t been leasing the property; they’ve been sharing it.

This isn’t a new problem, by the way:  you can see from this article that they were already trying to sell off a quarter of the property back in 1986 — until Congress quashed the effort.  And here’s an article showing veterans demanding long-term housing for the area — housing that, for all I care, the city or federal government could contract with FivePoint to build.

So yes — there is some real good motivation available to move a lot of the Westwood VA’s operations to a spot better suited for them.  I submit that the Great Park would be the perfect choice — for all of the reasons expressed above.

Yes, it’s another hour away for people from LA, Santa Barbara, and Bakersfield to go — but I wouldn’t propose closing down the Westwood facility entirely.  But lots of care — psychiatric, rehabilitative — requires long-term residential treatment.  And, frankly, families that come out the stay with them might very much enjoy the restful and rural environment of the Great Park over one of the most bustling areas of Southern California.

Could UCI replace UCLA as the university close to “the largest medical facility in the VA’s health care system”?  (UCLA probably wouldn’t even mind!  That Westwood land is valuable for them, too!)

Meanwhile — JUST PUT ASIDE THAT MASTER PLAN FOR A MOMENT! — if we began viewing the site of the Great Park as containing a Veterans’ Cemetery and a major — perhaps even the largest — VA Medical Center, does that suggest a theme that might be very appropriate for flag-waving Orange County?

Are there other Veterans’-related museums, exhibits, attractions that might populate the Great Park area with those two major facilities as an anchor?  Might we see the expertise of Laguna Woods used to create a military retirees-based equivalent of their own community?  Can you think of anything more “Orange County” than that?

(And yes, then I suppose we could have a golf course — but maybe a smaller one.  And as a bonus: Veterans’ services wouldn’t create a gigantic burden of traffic; the community there could be largely self-contained.)

I don’t know how good this idea is; I don’t know if it’s feasible; I don’t know if it’s been considered and rejected before.

But I do know one thing: as of right now, you have a little bit over one day to consider it.

3.  The Artificial Deadline

If you like this idea, great.  You can enjoy it right until the City Council accepts the proposal from FivePoint tomorrow.  After that — and before any interceding election — any such big plan for the area, plans for it to be something other than “just another” housing development with some greenery and a golf course may have ended.  At a minimum, the plans would become more expensive as FivePoint suddenly has a superior bargaining position.

I don’t think that Councilmembers Agran and Krom have been in much of a mood to think about major changes to the Great Park Master Plan.  (I don’t know that for a fact; it’s just my impression and my inference.)  But I do have the sense that the bottom line is that they want to do something big, something special, something different — and something compatible with the natural beauty of the area.

If they’re now amenable to looking around, then they could land on this proposal of mine — or it could be a better proposal from someone else.  The only think in their way is the need for attract one of the Republicans on the City Council to their side before the deadline expires.

Or, actually, there is another way.

That deadline — it’s artificial.  It can be negotiated away.  (FivePoint would probably be smart to extend it if the answer otherwise looked like a “no.”)  So that should probably be the first order of business for tomorrow — extend the deadline so that other creative ideas, where other entities with big gobs of money (like, say, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs) can get involved in the process and come up with something that would leave everyone better off.

It would be stupid to forego such a plan due simply to an artificial — and easily suspended — deadline.

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)