VA Hosp. plan not done: Meeks

By Ivan Pereira

Speaking as a guest at the Brinkerhoff Action Association's meeting at Saint Benedict the Moor Church in Jamaica, the congressman dispelled claims that plans to develop part of the 55-acre site were finalized and he had signed off on it.Meeks repeatedly told the audience, which included several veterans and their families, that he would never act on any decision about the 34-year-old facility without discussing it first with the community.”I thought it was important that we had this town hall meeting so that nothing is left unsaid… and you understand where I stand,” he said.In August 2006, R. James Nicholson, the former secretary of the Veteran's Affairs Department in Washington, announced that the center, which has 180 beds in its community living center and 50 beds in its domiciliary, would be demolished and replaced with a state-of-the-art facility. Under the plan, 30 acres of the site would be used for the new care center, which would have 10 fewer domiciliary beds, and 25 acres would be leased to a private developer.During a protest outside the facility March 29, some veterans said they had heard that the congressman approved of plans for the facility without informing the public or the special community task force he had created to address the reconstruction.Meeks denied the rumor. He told the audience that he learned that the VA had issued a Request for Proposals for the site when Greater Allen AME church asked him last month for a letter of approval for plans the church had drawn up for the lease. The congressman said he did write the letter on behalf of the church's plan, which he said included housing, a new magnet high school and an assisted living facility, because he thought it met the needs of both the community and veterans.”Many of the things in the RFP are things the community has asked for,” he said.Meeks said he did make a provision in the letter that he was concerned about some of the proposal's initiatives that called for the housing complex, which he said would give first preference to vets and their families, to include 4,000 units and possibly be built as a high-rise.”It will change the shape of the community, and I won't let it happen,” he said.Meeks said Greater Allen, run by the Rev. Floyd Flake, Meeks' congressional predecessor, made its proposal for the units because the VA was leasing the land at an above-market rate of $10 million an acre. Meeks said he would like to see 1,500 units and a low-rise building.Ray Aalbue, a spokesman for VA, confirmed that the agency did issue an RFP for the St. Albans project in October and that the deadline for proposals by developers ended on March 17. He declined to comment on the details of the RFP or how many developers submitted proposals, but he did say that the VA based the request on previous input from veterans and the community.”I can say that the VA has really reached out over the past few years to the local community,” Aalbue said. “The things that they brought up to us in the time frame were considered.”Meeks said he only knew some of the details of plans by Greater Allen and by a Queens-based developer called the Briarwood Group, but feared that developers from outside the area could be considered for the project and urged residents to help him bring their concerns to Washington.”We are going to need to be mobilized and ready to go,” he told the audience.Reach reporter Ivan Pereira by e-mail at ipereira@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

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