Veterans Want Back in to Veteran’s Building: By MATTHEW ARTZ

Friday October 01, 2004

On a typical day Berkeley’s Veterans’ Memorial Building has plenty of veterans inside; they just aren’t where one would expect to find them. 

The door marked “Disabled Veterans of America, Post 25”, just to the right past the front entrance, actually ope ns into the janitor’s closet. As for the door marked American Legion, Post 7, that’s now the entrance to the men’s room. 

Most of the veterans who frequent the building at 1931 Center St. do so to use the numerous city services which operate inside. The b asement is home to a men’s shelter and the Veterans’ Hall on the first floor houses the nonprofit Options Recovery Services. 

Now some local veterans’ organizations—angry over the perceived commandeering of the building by social service agencies—want a s tronger voice in what they say is rightfully theirs.  

“They’ve been made to feel like squatters in a place dedicated to them,” said Mark Chandler of the Alameda County Veterans Affairs Commission. 

Acting on the requests of Berkeley veterans’ groups, Cha ndler has lobbied Mayor Tom Bates, Rep. Barbara Lee and city officials to rehabilitate the seismically unsafe building and restore access to it for both veterans and the community. 

Currently, Chandler said, in the cavernous building the Disabled American Veterans and the American Legion have been relegated to a six-foot by nine-foot meeting room, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars have left for Albany where the veterans’ building has been renovated. 

A seismic upgrade that could open up more of the Berkele y building to public use, however, seems unlikely. The project would cost an estimated $12 million, according a 2002 city manager’s report and with the city already facing a $7.5 million shortfall next year, there is little political support for a bond me asure. 

Currently the second floor of the building is off-limits to the public. The first floor and basement remain open because they have direct exits to egress in the case of an emergency. 

Since the building is on the National Register of Historic Plac es as part of a historic district, Chandler asked Rep. Lee to seek federal funding to upgrade it. 

Ed Harper, adjutant of the Berkeley’s Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Post 25, said his group, which meets once a month, didn’t have designs on taking over space from the social services, but wanted the city to make a concerted effort to restore the building and include them in the building’s management, as required by agreement. 

“What we need is respect that we exist and this is a veterans’ building,” he said. 

One token of respect the city can show, said Chandler, would be to restore veteran access in the evenings to Veterans Hall, where for years veterans held gatherings, but now is essentially an office space for Options.  

“You can’t do anything in th ere anymore,” he said. 

The ornate first floor auditorium had previously been used by a variety of civic groups for formal gatherings, said Ken Cardwell of the Berkeley Historical Society, which is also based in the veterans’ building and like other nonpr ofit tenants doesn’t pay rent to the city.  

Berkeley’s veterans’ building was completed in 1928, around the same time other veterans’ buildings sprung up in Alameda County thanks to a state law allowing counties to set aside taxes revenue to construct buildings “in memory of veterans.” 

The county maintained eight veterans’ buildings, including the one in Berkeley, until the late 1980s when budgetary constraints forced it to transfer most of them to the host cities.  

Berkeley veterans’ groups, fearful they would lose special privileges, fought the transfers. 

As far back as 1980, Councilmembers Gilda Feller and Florence McDonald proposed wresting control of the building from the county to house nonprofits. The building, they wrote in a proposal to the council, was only used two evenings a week for veterans’ meetings and rentals to other groups at the discretion of the Veterans Commission. 

Ultimately, Berkeley veterans negotiated a deal with the city when Berkeley finally took control in 1988, a year b efore the Loma Prieta earthquake. 

The veterans’ groups were given exclusive use of the second floor, one office on the first floor, the right to use other portions of the building on the same conditions as other members of the public, and a guarantee tha t their input “shall be sought by the city manager in developing building uses and improvements.” 

However, Chandler said, the commission designed to guarantee veterans’ input was disbanded and the city closed access to the second floor shortly after the earthquake. 

In 1992, the homeless shelter moved into the basement and a few years ago Options took over Veterans Hall. 

Chandler said his group has fought other cities to preserve the rights of veterans, and after reaching a settlement to transform a po rtion of the veterans’ building in Oakland into a senior center, he said, “Berkeley is the only one we have a problem with right now.” 

If the veterans and other civic groups have gotten squeezed out of Veterans’ Hall, city officials and representatives o f the non-profits insist it wasn’t by design. 

“It never even occurred to me that people couldn’t use [the hall] for general purposes anymore,” said Marci Jordan, who runs the homeless shelter and sits on the board of Options Recovery Services. 

Since Opt ions received permission about three years ago from former City Manager Weldon Rucker to move from the basement to the first floor, the group has erected cubicles along the sides of Veterans Hall and on the main stage, making it difficult for civic groups to use the venue for events.