Report: VA’s efforts to preserve historic buildings inadequate

Justine McdanielThe Philadelphia Inquirer

A group dedicated to preserving historic buildings said the Department of Veterans Affairs is unnecessarily demolishing structures built as early as the Civil War.

In a new report, the National Trust for Historic Preservation said that the VA’s process for deciding the future of its historic buildings doesn’t follow proper legal procedure. Among other things, the VA has failed to adequately consider alternatives to destruction and has significantly diminished the opportunity for public input, the report said.

The VA disposed of 898 of its buildings between 2004 and 2012 and plans to dispose of 535 more by 2017.

The VA declined to participate in the report. The department, which oversees a massive network of hospitals, clinics and other facilities nationwide, issued a statement saying it would review the National Trust’s recommendations.

“The Department of Veterans Affairs takes seriously its responsibility to care for historic buildings in its custody as we carry out our mission to provide the quality care and benefits veterans have earned and deserve,” the VA statement said.

The National Trust’s report said that changes in the VA’s attitude and procedures are necessary to ensure the preservation of historic sites.

The VA’s current approach “seems contrary to the VA’s legal obligations to take care of . . . and use these historic public assets,” said Leslie Barras, the author of the report and a Texas-based attorney and regulatory consultant.

There is no technical or financial reason not to maintain and use the buildings, Barras said.

She said the VA’s own cost guides show it is more cost-effective to renovate existing buildings, which were built at taxpayer expense.

The National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act both require the VA to analyze alternatives for any construction project, but the VA often selects its projects and sometimes even secures funding before reviewing the projects under these laws, the report said.

That leaves little opportunity for outside stakeholders to participate in the decision-making process, it said.

In Hot Springs, S.D., for example, the Battle Mountain Sanitarium is facing closure because the VA wants to lease a new medical center in Rapid City, S.D. The multimillion-dollar plan would close the building, which has been declared a National Historic Landmark; the stately pink sandstone building first opened in 1907.

The VA labeled the sanitarium “unsatisfactory” and rejected renovation as an alternative, the report said.

The report was based on VA documents and reports, as well as interviews with more than 50 people across the country.

The report concluded that VA management favors new construction, in part because of a misconception that veterans and employees prefer new buildings; the VA is also under pressure from the federal government to “consolidate” its building inventory.

“The (VA) internal culture seems biased against continuing to use these buildings to support the VA’s mission,” Barras said.

When securing funding from Congress, the VA consistently cites the need to draw in staff members and memorialize veterans with new construction. But measures of veteran and staff satisfaction show that other issues are more important to them, Barras said.

Half of the 2,008 historic buildings under VA management are unoccupied and risk deterioration. From there, many buildings go on the “unsatisfactory” list, which generally means they will be disposed of, the report said.

The report makes various recommendations aimed at establishing a pro-preservation approach among VA management and helping both the VA and outside stakeholders to work more effectively for better planning.

“The thing that really struck me is how much local pride these historic medical centers and buildings bring to people,” Barras said. “Local communities believe that these historic places are so much a part of the fabric of their local community that it would destroy much of . . . the community if they lost these buildings and campuses.”

By Justine McDaniel
McClatchy Washington Bureau