Members of the United Coalition of Veterans and Community Rights gathered on the corner of Linden Boulevard and 179th Street in St. Albans Saturday in protest of the commercial development of the St. Albans VA Hospital. Passionate veterans and community enthusiasts chanted and held picket signs in front of the historic hospital in hopes to sway the VA’s plans to demolish it and build rental units along with a new medical facility they deem inadequate. The rally held was just the latest in an ongoing battle between the VA, veterans and their supporters.
Protesters stood outside the main entrance of the hospital on the warm sunny afternoon and their message was very clear: full service hospital. “Meet us here at this spot,” exclaimed state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans) through the megaphone as he spoke to those who came together that day in support of saving the hospital. “Let’s make sure we break ground on the new full service hospital for St. Albans and our veterans”. Prior to the rally, Smith had written a letter to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki expressing his opposition to the VA’s plan.
“Our veterans go overseas. We consider them to be heroes when they’re over there. They should be heroes when they come back here” said Smith, the Senate president. “The only way they’re going to know that they’re a hero, is if they have a full service hospital.”
Demonstrators responded with applause, cheers, and chants of “No way, VA” and “Hey, hey, ho, ho, the VA’s plans have got to go.” Others stood in the audience holding signs reading “Respect Our Votes” and “Just Say No to 4,000 Rental Units.”
The crowd really got riled up when a group of veterans on Harley Davidson motorcycles arrived to the rally revving their engines and chanting in support of the cause. Demonstrators were very receptive, greeting them with handshakes and snapping pictures.
Planning for the project dates back to 2000, when the VA announced that it would be reworking capital assets. In 2007, the VA released a Request for Proposals that invited real estate developers to submit proposals to redevelop the St. Albans VA Campus. The VA began negotiations with St. Albans Village, LLC in June 2010, which would get a long term lease to 25 of the site’s 55 acres in exchange for building the new government facilities. The housing would go on that portion. The VA was unavailable for immediate comment on the rally.
Among those in attendance leading the fight against those plans was Pat Toro Jr., president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter #32 in Queens. “The VA came out and said they’re doing this CARES thing [and asked us] ‘What do you want?’” Toro said. “We told them what we wanted. We wanted a full-fledged hospital.”
Toro, a Vietnam veteran, stated that the VA fooled them into thinking that their demands would be met. “They said, ‘We would take everything into account.’ They held these hearings and gave us nothing.”
Not only were demonstrators against the VA’s plans for building rental housing on the hospital’s land, but also the improvement of the current facilities as well. Toro stated that the UCVCR had demanded from the VA a women’s domiciliary as one of the improvements for the hospital. One veteran who echoed Toro’s sentiments was Ardeane Green-Cook. “We need people that are more attentive to the females,” said Green-Cook, who also served in Vietnam. “There are women coming back from Iraq, Iran, everywhere, and they are not getting the services that they need.”
Rallies are planned every Saturday at the same location.