Report: VA fails to protect historic buildings
By Carson Walker
SIOUX FALLS — A preservation group’s study of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ properties found that the agency often ignores federal law regarding historic buildings and wastes taxpayer money by erecting new facilities instead of fixing up the old ones, some of which date to the Civil War.
One example cited in the report, to be released today, is the plan to close the 105-year-old Battle Mountain Sanitarium at Hot Springs, in far southwestern South Dakota, and build a new facility 60 miles north in Rapid City. Another threatened historic property is the Milwaukee National Soldiers Home in Wisconsin, where buildings are deteriorating after sitting empty and unmaintained for years, the report said.
“The VA does not appear to do a good job of looking at ways to continue to use these historic assets for their purposes,” said Leslie Barras, an Orange, Texas, attorney hired to compile the report for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “If a building is 50 years or older, it is no longer useful and, therefore, they have to abandon that building and build something new.”
Specifically, the VA does not always comply with the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, the report said. Both laws require the agency to involve veterans, local, tribal, preservation and other groups before deciding the fate of historic buildings.
The VA said in a statement that it must balance its main mission of providing modern facilities for veterans with its responsibility to preserve historic places.
“The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) 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. VA has received a copy of the report produced by the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) and we will review its current recommendations,” the VA said.
The agency declined to talk about the preservation group’s report beyond its statement released Wednesday.
David Brown, chief preservation officer at National Trust, said the VA agreed to some improvements at the Milwaukee home, but only after prodding.
The Milwaukee and Hot Springs sites are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and are National Historic Landmarks — “the cream of the crop,” Brown said.
“These are great historic buildings, but they also serve effectively in many places for 21st century health care,” said Brown. But he said he thinks the VA sees the buildings “as liabilities they’d like to move away from.”
But Barras said it’s usually 20 to 30 percent more expensive to build than remodel, largely because of the need to acquire land, hook up utilities and buy new equipment.
“Consistently, across the board, the VA’s own cost guidelines show that it is more cost effective to renovate existing buildings than it is to build new buildings,” she said.
The preservation group said the VA would not respond to its request for information while compiling the report, so it relied on budget entries.
The VA said it plans to get rid of 535 buildings in the next four years, many of which are likely to be historic because of their age, the report said.
Other cities with medical centers that the preservation group says have been demolished, are proposed for demolition or whose fate is uncertain are: Pittsburgh; Louisville, Ky.; Lexington, Ky.; Denver; Livermore, Calif.; and Detroit.
Barras said veterans from the Hot Springs area want the center there to stay open because of its proximity to their homes and the setting in the Black Hills, which is ideal for physical and emotional rehabilitation after military service.
If Congress approves a VA lease in Rapid City, the agency said it could start to close the Hot Springs center, so the future of the land and buildings would be unclear, the report said.