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Neighbors demand a voice in St. Albans VA revamp

"That concerns me," Rene Hill of the Addisleigh Park Civic Association said during a public meeting held last Thursday to receive an update on the hospital. "That doesn't show any interest from the start."While specific plans to revamp the hospital, known as the St. Albans Primary and Extended Care Center, have not yet been drawn up and construction is still far off, area residents said they want to make their voices heard early in the process. The hospital is run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and its VA NY Harbor Healthcare System, and it was the secretary of the department who chose the members of the advisory panel. The group includes city and state experts on veterans affairs and Mark McMillian, the borough president's liaison for former soldiers, but no one from the neighborhoods and community facilities that surround the 62-acre site. While those critical of the composition said they trusted McMillian, they asked that one of their own be put on the panel. And while John Donnellan Jr., director of the VA NY Harbor Healthcare System, told those at the meeting that the panel was charged with collecting community input, residents and their leaders said they wanted to take part inor the decision-making.."There needs to be someone who is directly related and lives there to be on the panel," said Gloria Black, chairwoman of the area's Community Board 12.After the meeting, Patrick Jenkins, the district manager for U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-St. Albans), said the southeast Queens leader had written a letter to recently appointed VA Secretary R. James Nicholson requesting that a representative from the congressman's office be added to the panel. Jenkins said while there were too many civic associations and neighborhood groups for each to have someone on the panel, the congressman would look out for the interests of his constituents.While Meeks' letter only went out last week, "we expect a quick turnaround," Jenkins said. "They've been responsive to the congressman in the past." He noted, however, that his was a high-profile Democratic office making a request to a Republican cabinet appointee.The secretary does not intend to add more panel members, a spokeswoman for Nicholson said Friday.Rough plans to renovate the St. Albans hospital began five years ago as part of a national effort to improve the Veterans Department's aging facilities, many of them more than 50 years old. While the Thursday meeting was informal discussion, the panel will begin holding official public hearings in mid-April. After the community is heard from, a consulting firm will draft several proposals and send them to the panel for its assessment. The VA secretary will then be presented with the plan in February, and construction will not likely begin until at least 2010.The old facility will likely be demolished, but not before the new hospital is constructed. While the VA Department does not yet know where the buildings will go, the site currently has eight to 12 open acres now and may end up with room for private uses. Donnellan assured residents that nuclear medical waste dumped by the Navy years ago had been cleaned up.While residents said the proper care of veterans was the top priority, they said they wanted to ensure the land was not used for financial gain by developers put rather put to use for the community."What concerns us most is what will be done with the acreage once the buildings are constructed," said Marie Ryland, president of the Addisleigh Park Civic Association, noting that any construction should be "aesthetically compatible" with the neighborhood.Speakers at the meeting, which was attended by about 75 people, suggested adding more land to adjacent Roy Wilkins Park, creating senior housing so older residents could stay in the community, starting a jobs center, building a high school, erecting a museum and library focused on the area's history, establishing a post office, making assisted living units for veterans and designing a short golf course in deference to the previous use of the grounds. Residents said they do not want more group homes or high-density developments.Former St. Albans City Councilman Archie Spigner said the community rallied in the early 1970s when the hospital sought to sell off extra land, with a jail and a farm for quarantined animals seized from JFK Airport among the proposals. Instead, residents succeeded in getting Roy Wilkins Park created."There's a history," he said.Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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