Plans to redevelop the St. Albans VA site, by replacing its current buildings with modern structures and giving 25 acres to a developer to build low-density housing have been put on hold, with no progress made in the last year, according to a spokesman for the VA New York Harbor Health Care System.
That may be good news for community leaders and activists who are dead-set against the VA’s proposal.
“We are currently waiting for executive- level approval to choose a preferred developer and enter into negotiations to establish a more complete package in line with what the Department of Veterans Affairs wants — to replace the existing facility with a new nursing home, domiciliary and expanded out-patient facilities,” said Raymond Aalbue, public affairs officer for the VA New York Harbor Health Care System. “The goal is to provide the best quality care for veterans in Queens.”
Planning for the project began in 2000 when the secretary of Veterans Affairs announced that the agency would be conducting a study called the Capital Asset Realignment Enhanced Services or CARES. Officials looked at all the VA facilities in the United States, including those in the New York Harbor Health Care System, which includes sites in Brooklyn, Manhattan as well as St. Albans, to decide whether or not facilities could be closed or combined. In August 2006, they determined that all three were necessary and further concluded that the St. Albans site was in need of a makeover.
In May 2007, the VA issued a request for proposals and a number of developers submitted ideas. The next step is to choose one developer and enter into negotiations to determine which plan best suited the VA’s needs, but they have not gotten that far yet.
Ideally, according to the VA 25 acres of the 55-acre site would be leased to the selected developer to build low-density housing, transition housing for veterans and an assisted living facility. Other possible options would be to expand Roy Wilkins Park or to add a public school. The lease revenue would go to pay for reconstructing the VA facility, which would occur before any of the private building is done.
Some groups like the United Council For Veterans’ Rights, which held a rally outside the site on Nov. 7 contends that the land should be used for a full-service hospital, extended care facility for female veterans and housing and rehabilitation for homeless veterans rather than be privately developed. But the VA has long held the view that a hospital is not neccesary.
“All of our data shows that there will not be an increase in veterans in Queens,” Aalbue said. “We’re losing more World War II veterans and Korean War veterans than we have vets from Iraq and Afghanistan coming home.”
There are 71,000 veterans living in Queens, according to data gathered by the VA in 2007, but only approximately one-third of those utilize veterans’ facilities for healthcare.
“Some have jobs that provide healthcare and they would rather go there than to the VA,” Aalbue said, adding that the choice doesn’t reflect the quality of care. “We are providing the best possible care we can to veterans,” he said. “The VA gives excellent care.”
The Joint Commission, the nation’s predominant standard and accrediting body in healthcare, which evaluates and accredits more than 15,000 organizations in the U.S., gave the New York Harbor Health Care System a three-year accreditation, “which means we are doing the right job,” said Aalbue.
Some community leaders have expressed concern that private development of the site, especially creating apartments, would lead to an increase in traffic and put stress on the plumbing and street grids in the area.
“Hospital for VA — that’s it,” said Adjoa Gzifa, chairwoman of Community Board 12. “We don’t want any housing there — period. If there is going to be any housing put on that property, it should be for the veterans and their families only. We’ve said that at many, many meetings and we are not backing down from that.”
City Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) echoed Gzifa’s sentiments.
“We need a full-service hospital, especially with the loss of facilities like Mary Immaculate Hospital and St. John’s,” he said. “For them to expect veterans to travel from Nassau County to Manhattan or Brooklyn is just unconscionable. How do we attract young men to join the service when we cannot provide them with proper after-care?”
Aalbue said the VA is aware of the desire for a hospital. “From the beginning we have sought community input and their concerns are being taken into consideration,” said Aalbue. “We cannot say if that is causing the delay.”
The St. Albans facility contains 179 beds in its geriatric care facility and 50 beds in its domiciliary, which houses vets recovering from substance abuse and other issues. Social workers help them get back on their feet and obtain a job and an apartment. There is also an expanded out-patient facility.
Aalbue could not estimate when the project will begin progressing again. “We are in a holding pen more or less,” he said.