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Tuesday, October 22, 2002

Proposition C: Veterans suffer at hands of opera crowd

By Rebecca Silverberg

This is a bit of a switch for me – no quips, no zingers – instead a serious issue before the voters on November 5, one that isn’t getting much attention: Proposition C, the $122,755,000 Veterans Building Bond.

When I called the Chronicle editorial staff to ask for an interview for the veterans opposing Prop C, I was told they were only considering the “big” ballot measures, but they would be happy to read over our literature if we brought it by.

I guess compared to the Hetch Hetchy and BART billion dollar bonds, one hundred twenty-two million is pittance. I can accept that, but I can’t accept what Prop C would do to San Francisco’s veterans. A couple of months ago I got a call from my father-in-law’s cousin Merv Silberberg (his branch of the family spells it correctly) asking if I would come to a meeting at the Veterans Building. Merv is past president of the Air Force Association, Golden Gate Chapter.

I sat there listening to an angry group of men and women, all veterans, saying that their building was being stolen from them. (Stealing a building from veterans seemed pretty farfetched, even in this town.) They piled a bunch of documents in front of me, including a thick 1921 trust agreement, and told me to read for myself.

What I discovered was that the Veterans Building had already been stolen from them!

When the Opera Guild, as it was called in those days, failed twice to get the voters to approve a bond for an opera house, they turned to the returning World War I veterans and asked for their help. The veterans used their popularity to get a bond passed that would build both an Opera House and a Veterans Building. A 1921 trust agreement outlined the provisions for constructing and governing the two buildings.

When the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue opened in 1933, the Veterans occupied 85% of the building. What we call the Herbst Theater was the Veterans Theater, and the Green Room was the Veterans Library and Lounge.

The veterans now occupy only 35% of the building, and the plans attached to Proposition C will reduce their space to 20%, as well as completely remove them from their offices on the first floor of the building.

The 1921 trust says that veterans groups are to be represented on the War Memorial Board of Trustees, the governing body for both the Veterans Building and the Opera House.

The current eleven-person board, appointed by the mayor, is comprised of members of the opera and performing arts crowd – not one veterans group is represented.

A veteran representative hasn’t been appointed to the Board of Trustees since Jack Shelley was mayor.

Now that you have the background, let’s examine Proposition C.

It is billed as a seismic retrofit bond, but if you turn to page 46 of the Voters Guide and read the actual language of the ordinance supporting the bond, you won’t find the words “seismic” or “retrofit” except in reference to the title of the ordinance.

That’s because the Veterans Building doesn’t need a $122,755,000 seismic retrofit. The steel-framed building is rated a seismic Level 3, the same as the Health Department (101 Grove), the Hall of Justice (850 Bryant), and many other of the city’s public buildings.

The trustees allege that the Veterans Building was “severely compromised” in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and thus it is seismically unsafe. So unsafe that the mayor and Board of Supervisors were located in the building for almost three years during the City Hall renovation!

In 1989 plaster fell off the walls in the stairwells (the Herbst Theater was completely undamaged) and some marble floor tiles buckled. According to the city’s own engineering studies, in another earthquake of the same magnitude as Loma Prieta, the same thing will happen – plaster will fall. The building’s seismic stability isn’t any different now than it was before 1989.

In 1991 voters approved a $322,000,000 bond for seismic retrofit of various public buildings. $40,940,000 was allocated to the Veterans Building. Well,  guess what? (Okay, so I can’t write without being facetious.) Less than $2  million was spent on the Veterans Building; the remaining $38,698,167 was  spent on the Opera House. Now that’s perfectly logical because (there I go  again) opera patrons are more valuable than Veterans.

So why Prop C?

Because the trustees want to turn the building into a performing arts facility and they want the taxpayers to pay for it – again.

The plans submitted to the Board of Supervisors, but not to the voters, by  the trustees show the Herbst Theater “bumped out” in the back, new ticket  offices on the first floor, a performing arts café, museum gallery, rehearsal  hall, and dressing rooms. Since the plans are not part of the bond itself,  the trustees can do anything they want with the money after they get it. There is absolutely no accountability. Voters are expected to just give the  trustees a check for $122,755,000. Anyone for gilt chandeliers?

The same plans assign the veterans to two side aisles of the second floor.  When the veterans complained about the space being inadequate for their needs in their own building, they were told by the trustees, “You will be allocated as much space as you need.” Yes, as much space as determined by the trustees who want to turn your building into an Opera Annex!

Now, in case you’re not all that sympathetic to veterans, try this one. Only  half of the $122,755,000 bond is for seismic retrofit of the building. The  rest is for the improvements mentioned above. There was no attempt by the  trustees to fundraise, no historic or preservation grants sought, no series  sales, nothing. These are the same trustees who do such a smashing job  fundraising for the opera and the symphony. But this time they are going to  let you, the taxpayer, pay for the price of their pleasures.

If you’re experiencing a sense of déjà vu, you’re not alone. Remember the  Main Library, where there’s plenty of room for parties, but not enough room  for books?

If Prop C passes, there won’t be room for veterans in the Veterans  Building either.

Either vote NO on C in support of the veterans’ right to their building or  vote NO on C in support of your right as a taxpayer.

At the risk of being a name-dropper, these are just a few of the Veterans  working to defeat Prop C:

Michael Blecker, Executive Director, Swords to Plowshares
Thomas R. Brown III, Admiral, USN (Ret)
Veronika Cauley, Veterans Affairs Commission
Paul Cox (USMC), Vietnam Veteran, Commander, American Legion Post 315
Robert Frank, Colonel USAF (Ret), Commander, American Legion Post 333
Joel Harms, Commander, American Legion Police/Fire Post 456
Charles Liteky, US Army Chaplain (Ret), Medal of Honor Recipient
James V. Long, Veterans for Peace (D11 Inner Siberian)
Jerome Sapiro, Judge Advocate, American Legion Post 333
Mervyn I. Silberberg, Past President, Golden Gate Chapter, Air Force Assn.
Richard Suarez, Trustee, 1st Marine Division, No. Cal.
Arch Wilson, Judge Adjutant, American Legion Post 448
Bud Wilson, Veterans Affairs Commission

Rebecca Silverberg (SFRebecca@aol.com) is a regular columnist for the San Francisco Sentinel, where this article first appeared.