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Lafayette, Walnut Creek and Contra Costa County Join Forces to Construct a Veterans’ Memorial Building

The San Francisco Bay Area cities of Lafayette and Walnut Creek, together with Contra Costa County, recently cooperated to build an elegant new Veterans’ Memorial Building. This $7.8 million development is one of the most significant projects for veterans completed in Northern California during the past 50 years.

After WWI and II, America’s war heroes were often honored by their communities with buildings whose purpose was to host meetings of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and social gatherings for returning veterans. Scattered throughout the nation, these veterans’ halls are often centrally located, but most are now antiquated and poorly maintained and don’t meet the physical needs of aging and sometimes infirm veterans. However, because the buildings continue to serve as important gathering places for veterans and symbols of respect for their service to the nation, cities and counties rarely convert the buildings to another use or otherwise redevelop the sites.
Buildings Deteriorate as Revenues Decline
This was the case in Lafayette and Walnut Creek. These cities, located next to each other in Contra Costa County, both had old veterans’ halls located on prime parcels in their downtowns. The buildings were dilapidated and in disrepair, with uneven floors, leaky roofs and seismic hazards.
For many years, veterans in both communities complained loudly about these deficiencies and sought financial assistance from Contra Costa County, which owns the buildings. Given its many competing fiscal priorities, however, the county was rarely able to provide more than the minimum amount necessary to keep the buildings open. There simply was not enough money for the needed maintenance or upgrades. As the facilities aged, income earned by the veterans from building rentals also declined as fewer groups wanted to use them.
These deficient buildings and their financial pressures were a source of persistent political and financial challenges for county supervisors, city council members and local government administrators, with no obvious efficient solution. Meanwhile, the old halls sat on parcels that were critically important to both cities’ long-term redevelopment efforts.
Walnut Creek’s extensive planning and urban redevelopment efforts over the past two decades had been extremely successful. Yet as the city changed for the better, the aging Walnut Creek Veterans’ Hall looked increasingly out of place in the polished metropolitan area.
In Lafayette, the community lobbied for a new library. The old library was 42 years old, and space was so tight that librarians were forced to discard an old book when a new one arrived. After a decade of public study, community leaders released findings indicating that, because it was so centrally located, the ideal site for the new library was the parcel upon which the old Lafayette Veterans’ Hall stood.
The solution arrived slowly. But the story is ultimately one of remarkable cooperation among multiple veterans’ organizations, two cities and the county.
Finding Common Ground
In Lafayette, hundreds of active advocates for a new library were excited about the prospect of building their facility on the Veterans’ Hall site. They presented their case to the Lafayette City Council, which in turn dispatched two of its members and the city manager to meet with local veterans to determine whether a deal could be struck.
After some initial resistance related to longstanding affection for the old hall, the veterans agreed that the building was seriously deficient and proposed that if the city — through its redevelopment agency — built them a new hall equal to the old one, they would abandon the old building and let the land be used for the new library.
This concept was immediately embraced by the county administrator and the Contra Costa County supervisor who represents Lafayette and Walnut Creek. They reasoned that if Lafayette built a new veterans’ facility, it would relieve the county from the cost of ongoing and increasing maintenance efforts associated with the old hall. Much time was spent considering alternative sites for a new Veterans’ Memorial Building and analyzing its financial feasibility. Unfortunately, these studies indicated that the new building — with land and all soft costs included — would cost more than $7 million. This was beyond the reach of the Lafayette redevelopment agency’s budget, and it appeared for a time that the concept would founder.
However, given the high level of public interest and the veterans’ willingness to relocate, negotiators continued to meet and discuss alternate sources of funding that might be brought to the project. Because the old halls were located just five miles from each other, it seemed logical to approach Walnut Creek about its interest in sharing costs to combine the two dilapidated facilities into one single, modern, elegant project.
Walnut Creek council members and the city manager were immediately interested in the idea but expressed concern about the politics of relocating their veterans into a facility outside the city limits. The city manager spent hours meeting with the city’s veterans and learned that the alternative of moving to a brand new, modern facility just a few miles away was ultimately more attractive to Walnut Creek’s veterans than remaining in their run-down building.
Working Out the Details
Negotiators worked for months to hammer out a cost-splitting arrangement for the new facility. In January 2004, Contra Costa County and the cities of Lafayette and Walnut Creek announced plans to construct a new 9,100-square-foot Veterans’ Memorial Building in Lafayette. With two large meeting rooms that can be combined to seat 400 people and a fully equipped commercial grade kitchen, the building was designed to generate sufficient revenue to pay for its ongoing upkeep, thus alleviating the deferred maintenance funding shortfalls that befell the older buildings.
The new building was formally dedicated on May 30, 2005, and can be used by any veterans’ organization.
Contact: Steven Falk, city manager, City of Lafayette; phone: (925) 284-1968; e-mail: sfalk@lovelafayette.org.
The cities of Lafayette and Walnut Creek and Contra Costa County won an Award for Excellence in the Effective Advocacy, Intergovernmental Relations and Regional Cooperation category of the 2005 California Cities Helen Putnam Award for Excellence program. For more information about the awards program, visit www.cacities.org/helenputnam.
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