Proposition C: Veterans suffer at hands of
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
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
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 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
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
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 –
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
Thomas R. Brown III, Admiral, USN (Ret)
Veronika Cauley, Veterans Affairs Commission
Paul Cox (USMC), Vietnam Veteran, Commander, American Legion
Robert Frank, Colonel USAF (Ret), Commander, American Legion
Joel Harms, Commander, American Legion Police/Fire Post 456
Charles Liteky, US Army Chaplain (Ret), Medal of Honor
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
Richard Suarez, Trustee, 1st Marine Division, No.
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.