Local veterans and concerned residents continue to protest plans to re-develop the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) facility in St. Albans, but according to sources in the Department, the process is continuing.
At the last demonstration, several dozen demonstrators gathered outside the main gate at 179-00 Linden Boulevard on Sunday, April 19. They claimed that “thousands of units of housing for non-veterans” would be built on the 55-acre campus.
Not so, said VA spokesperson Ray Aalbue, who pointed to the 2007 Request For Proposals (RFP) on the project. “Everything I’ve heard has demonstrated concern during the process, for the community and the veterans.”
Indeed, the entire process of reviewing the vast holdings of the VA began with a Government Accounting Office study into the nation’s largest healthcare system, which at the time had 5,600 buildings on 32,000 acres of land.
The result was a 1999 VA grand plan called “Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced-Services” or CARES.
After a 2002 pilot study and another two year national study, the final decision on facilities within 74 “VA markets” came in May of 2004.
One of the earliest determinations was that the population of veterans in the New York area was declining, as older vets died or moved away, and demographics meant an increasing percentage of veterans were not from the area.
St. Albans was originally Navy property; after World War II the Navy built a hospital there. In 1974, it was transferred to the then-Veterans Administration.
The facility is part of the VA’s New York Harbor Healthcare System, which includes a full-service VA hospital and campus on East 23rd Street in Manhattan, a facility in Bay Ridge Brooklyn and various outpatient clinics and “Vet centers” in the other boroughs, with the exception of the Bronx.
Under the CARES plan, St. Albans would trade-off a 75-year property lease for a new comprehensive ambulatory care clinic, 180 bed nursing home, 40 bed “domiciliary”, chapel, commissary and attendant facilities, all specified in the RFP.
The highly-detailed list of specifications also requires that such donated items as the stained glass window and altar of the St. Albans chapel be preserved, as must the flagpoles and granite monuments in front of the existing main building.
The RFP even requires that “The successful Offeror must establish and maintain positive relations and communications with State and local governmental authorities and the local communities during negotiations with VA and any of its representatives.”
While the eventual developer “must integrate development activities with cultural resources and historical and environmental policy management requirements in support of the St. Albans campus mission and operations,” other aspects are mere suggestions.
The RFP only calls providing veterans with preferred or priority access to retirement housing “desirable.”
“Senior services,” for vets and non-veterans, such as space for medical offices other than the VA facility, “retail, and/or other uses typically used by seniors,” are designated as “of interest to the VA,” although “community gardens and walking paths” qualify.
In somewhat more strongly worded advice from the VA, bidders were “encouraged to propose providing a large number of affordable and transitional housing units for veterans.”
Remaining community desires are declared to be “Acceptable uses” and listed under “Other Considerations” however.
The VA, “encourages Offerors (while keeping VA apprised) to discuss the City’s interest in [a Magnet High School on 5 acres of land] directly with City representatives.”
To address calls for more parkland, the RFP suggests an “out parcel” slightly larger than a football field, that currently contains a water tower and pump house as a location for a “community garden.”
The bid submission date was last March 17, and the VA is in negotiations with the as-yet-unnamed developer, according to Aalbue.
He pointed out that the existing facility is over 50 years old, and that the “best way to get a state-of-the-art facility for veterans is through the ‘Enhanced Use Lease (ESL) process.”
Under the terms of the RFP, the Project will be subject to all applicable Federal, State, and local environmental laws, codes, ordinances, and regulations.
Although the property is currently under exclusive federal jurisdiction, under ESL, “VA plans to retrocede such jurisdiction to the State of New York.” This means that a recent down-zoning of the area will apply, according to Aalbue.