The City Council’s Committee on Veterans as well as the full council last week unanimously passed a resolution supporting the desire of many lawmakers and veterans advocates that a full-service hospital be built at the St. Albans VA site rather than giving a portion of the land to a private developer.
The St. Albans project has been a source of controversy for years, with the VA believing that replacing the existing facilities with a new nursing home, psychosocial rehabilitation domiciliary and expanded outpatient facilities is the way to go, despite consistent opposition from many veterans.
Queens is home to one of the largest concentrations of veteran populations in the country, according to City Councilman James Sanders Jr. (D-Laurelton), a primary sponsor of the resolution, but there has never been a full service VA hospital in the borough to offer specialized and emergency care to these patriots. They have had to travel to Brooklyn or Long Island for care.
“An ideal site has been right here in Queens all along,” Sanders said, “a site that every veteran has paid for with blood and that so many have paid for with their lives.”
Resolution 422-A calls upon the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to completely renovate and utilize the existing St. Albans Community Living Center to provide a full-service VA hospital with an emergency room, a primary and extended care facility for female veterans and a comprehensive treatment facility with domiciliary for homeless veterans.
When asked if the resolution has caused the VA to change its position on the development of the site, Jennifer Sammartino, a spokeswoman for the VA said Monday, “The VA continues to evaluate development plans for the St. Albans campus. It is an ongoing process.”
Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Jamaica), who represents the area where the site is located and is backing the vets in their fight, said Monday that the resolution should “send a clear message that the VA won’t clear the ULURP process and pass the City Council,” adding that the agency “cannot keep forcing the issue against the wishes of the veterans and community members.”
As far as the VA changing its mind, Meeks said “they have been mum pretty much, but the process is at a standstill right now,” but added, “I want something in writing from the VA that the process has stopped.”
Andrea Scarborough, a member of the United Coalition for Veterans Rights and the wife of Assemblyman Bill Scarborough (D-Jamaica), expressed similar sentiments.
“Much of the site is underutilized,” Scarborough said. “A lot of the rooms are vacant or are being used for storage. They could be doing so much more to help our veterans.”
She noted that the VA site is zoned R3-2, which allows for 500 low-density residential homes. But the developer is seeking to build 1,400 units —three- to five-story buildings that mix commercial and residential uses.
The builder, St. Albans Village, has told vet advocates it will follow all city and state laws regarding the project, according to Scarborough, in which case it will have to get approval from the City Council to override the zoning, if the plans remain unchanged.
Asked whether the process has been halted, Sammartino would only say, “The project continues to be evaluated by the secretary’s office in Washington.”
Nicky McHugh, a spokeswoman for St. Albans Village, gave virtually the same statement as the VA, saying the development is being “evaluated,” but would not elaborate.
In March, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) agreed to arrange a meeting between various area veterans’ groups and community members and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. Two had been scheduled but both fell through — the first because Shinseki wanted to have the meeting without the advocates present and the second because Schumer’s office could not get proper confirmation of the date, according to Scarborough, although she would not elaborate.