Veterans Affairs may complete a new veterans’ cemetery at Alameda Point by 2024, but the timing of the veterans’ outpatient clinic is unclear.
After years of setbacks, the Department of Veterans of Affairs has announced it aims to complete construction of a national cemetery columbarium on the northwest end of Alameda Point by 2024. If that construction schedule holds true, the columbarium will open more than a quarter of a century after the Navy shuttered operations at Naval Air Station Alameda.
But construction of a 158,000-square-foot outpatient clinic, which the VA also plans to build at the Point, remains unfunded, fueling concerns the clinic will never be built, because President Trump wants to privatize veteran health care.
Whatever the outcome of the clinic, the VA will begin work on the columbarium later this year, starting with trenching utilities on Navy Way and West Redline Way, building a road that will lead across the former base to the VA’s construction site at the northwest end of the Point, then continue on to the shoreline of the bay, thereby providing public access to open space. Thanks to concerns about the impacts of sea level rise, the project also involves raising soil levels by 3 to 5 feet and creating on-site wetlands.
The VA’s proposed columbarium is a series of wall-like structures. Each wall contains thousands of niches, each designed to hold the ashes of a deceased veteran. According to updates the VA shares with the city staff, 30,000 niches will be constructed in the first phase of columbarium, but up to 300,000 niches can be phased in over the next 100 years.
The columbarium will be constructed on a 112-acre parcel of land that served as runways when the Navy occupied the base. This parcel is surrounded by 511 acres of federally owned land that is to remain undeveloped and reserved for the conservation of a colony of endangered California least terns, which have nested on runways at the Point since 1976.
The VA’s columbarium update followed Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s December 2019 announcement that she secured $26 million in the FY 2020 Military Construction-Veterans Affairs Appropriations Bill. The monies, Lee said, will go “to continue progress building a state-of-the-art VA Outpatient Clinic and National Cemetery at Alameda Point.” Lee also noted that the VA’s proposed outpatient facility is intended “to serve over 100,000 veterans,” and is critical to ensure veterans “receive the care they need and deserve.”
In a December 2018 presentation to the Alameda City Council, VA officials said their purpose at the Point is to create a “one VA presence” that improves veterans’ access to benefits, cemetery, and health services — in part by situating all those services in one location. But despite a pressing need for improved access to veteran health care in Northern California, no monies have been set aside for constructing the VA’s proposed medical facility, at least not as press time. But with Trump set to release his FY 2021 budget in mid-February, Sarah Henry, the city’s public information officer, said the staff will be briefed on the status of the VA’s proposed medical facility after Trump’s budget release.
Regardless of that budget outcome, Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft said the city supports the VA’s medical facility proposal. “The need is there for the clinic,” Ashcraft said. “Alameda is a former Navy and current Coast Guard city. We have vets who want to come back and live here when they get discharged.”
U.S. census data show Sacramento County has the most veterans of any Northern California county (approximately 90,000), followed by Santa Clara, Alameda, and Contra Costa counties, with about 60,000 veterans living in each county. But despite these large numbers, Bay Area veterans face a paucity of choice when it comes to accessing health care and securing cemetery space. As Ashcraft observed, “Sacramento Valley is the closest national cemetery.”
Ashcraft said Tom Howard, chief of Staff of the National Cemetery Administration and Henry L. Huntley, senior advisor to the executive director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, gave her a warm welcome in January, when she visited the VA headquarters in Washington, D.C., in between attending the annual U.S. Conferences of Mayors.
Ashcraft said the VA hopes the city arranges for representatives from the National Cemetery Administration to speak at community meetings or veterans’ town halls about how to make arrangements for interment at Alameda’s new national cemetery. “That outreach will likely take place a year or two before the columbarium opens,” Ashcraft said.
Ashcraft’s D.C. visit came a year after Larry Janes, capital asset manager for the VA’s Sierra Pacific Network of the Veteran Health Administration, and Bill Ulibarri, director of project delivery of the VA Construction and Facilities Management in the Western Region, appeared before the council to explain ongoing delays at the Point: The delays, they said, resulted from a 2016 congressional ruling that allows the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to manage VA projects that cost more than $100 million. The ruling came after costs at a VA’s hospital in Aurora, Colorado, spiraled. The total cost of VA’s planned development at the Point is an estimated $240 million.
Debbie Potter, who has worked on the reuse of Alameda Point for years and has been the city’s community development director since 2013, said the city is supportive of the VA’s project, but the situation can be frustrating.
“It’s the VA’s project, so we don’t really have control of it, and it’s on federally-owned land,” Potter said. “The frustration comes when we have no control other than the ability to request quarterly reports, talk to people in D.C., and be cheerleaders.”
Potter confirmed that $108 million in total has been awarded to cover all the VA’s Phase 1 work at the Point. This includes on-site work for geotechnical mitigation, constructing the columbarium, undergrounding off-site utilities and the creation of wetlands. She also confirmed that, to date, no federal appropriations have been made for constructing the outpatient clinic, which has an estimated cost of $147 million.
For now, the VA is focused on completing backbone infrastructure at the Point, Potter said. “That’s all the horizontal improvements that will soon be buried underground and are needed before vertical infrastructure can be built,” she said. “They are looking to award contract to commence construction of offsite work by October 2020, and complete offsite utilities by December 2021,” she added, noting that the Army Corps of Engineers is working on geotechnical studies for structures on the VA site. “The Army Corps did a peer review and wanted to tighten up the seismic work,” Potter said.
So, what about for the status of the project’s wetland mitigation plan?
“My understanding is that the VA plans to award a contract for the wetlands mitigation work in August 2020,” Potter said. “So all permits should be secured by that date. They can’t go out to bid without their permits.”
Potter confirmed that, as the VA project moves forward, Alameda’s wildly popular antiques fair will have to relocate. “But we will keep them as long as possible,” she said, noting the fair brings the city $500,000, each year, in lease revenue.
As for Ashcraft, she credits both Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Congresswoman Lee for helping secure the columbarium funding that, in turn, could pave the way toward outpatient clinic construction.
Noting that the challenges veterans face are often interrelated and best addressed holistically, Ashcraft said. “There are a lot of moving parts, for sure, but obviously we are closer now then we have ever been to addressing these issues.”