New VA Program Divides Oakland Park

A unique proposed treatment program for veterans has run into a firefight in Oakland Park as upset residents fear their neighborhood will be overrun with drunks, drug addicts and mental patients.

Community pressure helped prod the city’s Planning and Zoning Board to reject the building that would house the project. The fate of the pilot program by the Veterans Administration — one of only four in the nation — is now in the hands of city commissioners.

They are set to vote Wednesday whether to overturn the Planning and Zoning Board ruling and approve the redevelopment of a long vacant building on East Oakland Park Boulevard to accommodate the VA program. The project is supported by congressmen and veterans and opposed by the city’s own planners and community groups.

Home owners are worried, said Oakland Park Commissioner Shari McCartney.

“Everybody’s concern is we’ll have one-legged veterans like in that Tom Cruise movie wheeling their wheel chairs up and down the street swigging out of a bottle,” McCartney said. “Whether there is any truth to that or not, that’s their concern.”

The profit-seeking developer for the VA project, John Sabty of WSSA LLC in Flint, Michigan, bristles when he hears the criticism.

“I’ve seen letters that call the veterans undesirables and vagrants,” Sabty said. “But when you want your borders protected are they undesirables and vagrants? When they serve overseas? When they protect our airports?”

Sabty specializes in developing and managing federal government buildings. He has repeatedly assured the city that undesirables will not be using the new treatment facility. “If they have severe mental problems or substance abuse issues, this won’t be the facility for them,” he said. “The VA has other places for that.”

The project information from WSSA on file in City Hall states: “This facility is not a homeless shelter, walk up center, soup kitchen, assisted living facility, drug rehab center, group home, jail transition center or hospital. This is a drug and alcohol free facility.”

The file also contains letters of support for the project from two politicians who usually never see eye-to-eye — U.S. Rep. Allen West, the Plantation Republican and a Tea Party favorite, and U.S. Rep. Ted Deutsch, D-Boca Raton, a liberal.

The new experimental VA program is “designed to efficiently integrate the veterans back into the community, assisting them with the transition from typical military ‘dependent’ living to self-sufficient independent living,” WSSA attorney Bonnie Miskek of Boca Raton told the Planning and Zoning Board.

A maximum of 40 veterans would live in single rooms in the facility for three months and be enrolled in the program. The program teaches life skills through vocational and education programs. The new multi-step transitional program is being tried only in Denver, San Diego, Philadelphia and Oakland Park. “The veteran community needs this,” said Bill Kling, the World War II Navy veteran who is chairman of the Broward County Veterans Council.

The program is designed to save taxpayers money, relieving the government of having to develop, own and operate its own building. WSSA will take over those tasks. The VA will only be on the hook for a 10-year lease.

Sabty touts the tax money the project would provide — more than $100,000 annually in local real estate taxes. The property today pays no property taxes because it is owned by the Archdiocese of Miami.

The 50,000-square foot building at 1299 E. Oakland Park Blvd. was constructed in the 1970s as the Player’s Club, a private sports and entertainment complex, complete with a bar and motel. After the Player’s Club folded in the mid-1980s, the archdiocese bought the property and proposed using it to feed the homeless.

The city fought the homeless plan and the Archdiocese sued. The case was settled and the Archdiocese was allowed to operate a shelter for abused mothers and children on the site for a decade. When the shelter closed around two years ago, the property was left vacant and has remained so.

Because the property hasn’t been used, its approvals to operate certain community facilities expired. WSSA has to gain new city approval to operate a treatment center.

While the shelter was operating, city hall began developing a master plan for a new mixed-use downtown of restaurants, stores, office buildings and condos. A master plan was eventually approved in 2004. Now city hall staffers believe the VA facility “would be incompatible and out of the character envisioned” for the new downtown Oakland Park, according to Justin Proffitt, the city’s senior planner.

Mayor Suzanne Boisvenue said Oakland Park has been plagued with too many incompatible buildings alongside one another. To remedy the incompatibility, she said, “We spent $20 million the last 11 years trying to create a new downtown. “For the vacant property, Boisvenue added, “We would prefer something that children and families could visit.”

Sabty believes his VA Project would fit into any new downtown, saying it would boost the employment and activity. For a start, he is spending up to $3 million to renovate the building. “This is a powerhouse economic generator,” Sabty said. “It’s immediate new taxes. It’s immediate new construction jobs. It’s 30 to 40 full-time employees earning $30,000 to $100,000 a year. Those people will eat in the coffee shop, shop in Oakland Park, buy gas in the gas station. It’s a way to plant seed money in the downtown.”

But most of all, Sabty said his project would give South Florida an opportunity to show appreciation to veterans. “When it comes time to give back, we should be there,” he said.

Source:  Miami Herald