Facility serving returning veterans receives OK from VA, Old Town Academy
By Anthony King | SDUN Editor
The Aspire Center, a Veterans Affairs (VA) Health Center proposed for Old Town, received final approval from the City Council on July 24, after hours of testimony from local community members and former military personnel. The $30 million facility, which will take over the building formerly used by the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, will serve as a treatment center for young veterans, some dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Located at 2121 San Diego Ave., the building is across from the Old Town Academy, a charter school with approximately 250 students. When the Aspire Center was first proposed late 2011, representatives from the Academy voiced their concern for student safety, ultimately saying they faced closure due to threats from parents to remove their children from the school.
In late June, the Council postponed a vote on the permit so the VA could address security concerns of Old Town Academy parents and administrators. The Uptown Planners group, serving as a recommendation body for projects in the Uptown community, previously voted against the center.
At the July 24 council meeting, however, representatives from both the VA and the Academy came together, announcing the formation of a neighborhood advisory committee to monitor the center. The committee was one of three additional conditions, which also include no on-street parking and the addition of a reflective coating, or tinted windows, on a portion of the center.
The task force will be made up of a business representative nominated by the Old Town Chamber of Commerce, the Western Slopes Community Organization and three residents, as well as two parents and one administrator from the charter school. Additionally, one member each from an Uptown mental health agency, the Aspire staff, the Uptown Planners and the San Diego Police Department will be represented on the committee.
Jeff Gering, director and CEO of the VA San Diego Health Care System said he was “ultimately accountable” for the center and spoke of the collaboration between the VA and the Old Town Academy to address security issues surrounding the building.
“There’s been ongoing dialogue between the VA and Old Town Academy. I feel these negotiations have been in good faith for both parties. We have come to agreement on all the salient issues and found a way forward,” he said, calling the day of the vote “momentous.”
There were over 40 speakers at the two-hour council meeting, with seven voicing opposition to the project.
Leo Wilson, former chair of the Uptown Planners group, urged the community to bring projects deemed controversial – like the Aspire Center – to community groups earlier, giving them more time to prepare.
“Obviously this has been a nightmare for somebody who chaired Uptown Planners for six months,” Wilson said, calling it “very emotional.” Wilson was chair when representatives of the VA and Old Town Academy opposed each other on the project at the April 2 Uptown Planners meeting.
“Notify your community planning groups early when these types of projects come forward. If we had learned about this several months earlier, when it was coming to fruition, we might have avoided this whole nasty situation,” Wilson said.
Connie Jennings of Mission Hills was one person who spoke in favor of the center. “We cannot nor should we, as a community, choose between those to whom we owe our present and those to whom we have entrusted our future,” she said. “I welcome the VA to my neighborhood.”
Also speaking for the project were several veterans, including Sean Sala, Uptown resident and representative of Servicemembers United, an organization working toward LGBT equality in the military. Sala told about a friend and fellow veteran who returned to San Diego, living homeless for a year.
“He didn’t have an Aspire Center, [yet] he needs an Aspire Center,” Sala said. “He should be welcomed at every single school to speak. He should not be pushed into a room and forgotten.”
District Three Councilmember Todd Gloria, whose district will include the Aspire Center and Old Town Academy later this year, spoke in favor of the project, saying it would be a “great success” should it move forward. The Council then voted 7-0 in favor of approval.
“This Councilmember does not believe that veterans are violent people. They are not criminals. They are not to be feared,” Gloria said. “Certainly many people talk about supporting our troops. This action today, this is what supporting our troops looks like.”
The Aspire Center is scheduled to open early 2013.