Oakland Park residents wary as decision looms on location of new veteran’s program

By Buddy Nevins,

Site of proposed VA treatment center on East Oakland Park Boulevard

A unique proposed treatment program for veterans has run into a firefight in Oakland Park as upset residents fear their neighborhood will be overrun with drunks, drug addicts and mental patients.

Community pressure last month helped prod the city’s Planning and Zoning Board to reject the building that would house the project.

The fate of the pilot program by the Veteran Administration – one of only four in the nation — is now in the hands of city commissioners.

Commissioners are scheduled to decide Sept. 7 whether to overturn the Planning and Zoning Board ruling and approve the redevelopment of a long vacant building on East Oakland Park Boulevard to accommodate the VA program.  The project is supported by congressmen and veterans and opposed by the city’s own planners and community groups.

Home owners are worried, said Oakland Park Commissioner Shari McCartney.

“Everybody’s concern is we’ll have one-legged veterans like in that Tom Cruise movie wheeling their wheel chairs up and down the street swigging out of a bottle,” McCartney said. “Whether there is any truth to that or not, that’s their concern.”

“This would abut homes,” Mayor Suzanne Boisvenue added. “We would prefer something that children and families could visit.”

The profit-seeking developer for the VA project, John Sabty of WSSA LLC in Flint, Michigan, bristles when he hears the criticism.

“I’ve seen letters that call the veterans undesirables and vagrants,” Sabty said. “But when you want your borders protected are they undesirables and vagrants?  When they serve overseas? When they protect our airports?”

Sabty specializes in developing and managing federal government buildings, including a new facility for the Department of Homeland Security near Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. He has repeatedly assured the city that undesirables will not be using the new treatment facility.

“If they have severe mental problems or substance abuse issues, this won’t be the facility for them,” he said. “The VA has other places for that.”

The project information from WSSA on file in city hall states: “This facility is not a homeless shelter, walk up center, soup kitchen, assisted living facility, drug rehab center, group home, jail transition center, or hospital.  This is a drug and alcohol free facility.”

The file also contains letters of support for the project from two politicians who usually never see eye-to-eye – U. S. Rep. Allen West, the Plantation Republican and a Tea Party favorite, and liberal U. S. Rep. Ted Deutsch, D-Boca Raton.  Both represent parts of North Broward, with West’s district covering the Oakland Park site.

Unique VA Program

The new experimental VA program is “designed to efficiently integrate the veterans back into the community, assisting them with the transition from typical military ‘dependent’ living to self-sufficient independent living,” WSSA attorney Bonnie Miskek of Boca Raton told the P & Z Board.

A maximum of 40 veterans would live in single rooms in the facility for three months and be enrolled in the program.

The program teaches life skills through vocational and education programs. The new multi-step transitional program is being tried only in Denver, San Diego, Philadelphia and Oakland Park.

“The veteran community needs this,” said Bill Kling, the World War II Navy veteran who is chairman of the Broward County Veterans Council.

The program is designed to save taxpayers money, relieving the government of having to develop, own and operate its own building. WSSA will take over those tasks. The VA will only be on the hook for a 10-year lease.

Sabty touts the tax money the project would provide — over $100,000 annually in local real estate taxes.  The property today pays no property taxes because it is owned by the Archdiocese of Miami.

Building Formerly a Women’s Shelter

The 50,000-square foot building at 1299 E. Oakland Park Blvd was constructed in the 1970s as the Player’s Club, a private sports and entertainment complex, complete with a bar and motel.  After the Player’s Club folded in the mid-1980s, the archdiocese bought the property and proposed using it to feed the homeless.

The city fought the homeless plan and the Archdiocese sued. The case was settled and the Archdiocese was allowed to operate a shelter for abused mothers and children on the site for a decade.  When the shelter closed around two years ago, the property was left vacant and has remained so.

Because the property hasn’t been used, its approvals to operate certain community facilities expired.  WSSA has to gain new city approval to operate a treatment center.

While the shelter was operating, city hall began developing a master plan for a new mixed-use downtown of restaurants, stores, office buildings and condos.  A master plan was eventually approved in 2004. Now city hall staffers believe the VA facility “would be incompatible and out of the character envisioned” for the new downtown Oakland Park, according to Justin Proffitt, the city’s senior planner.

Mayor Boisvenue said Oakland Park has been plagued with too many incompatible buildings alongside one another.   To remedy the incompatibility, she said, “We spent $20 million the last 11 years trying to create a new downtown.”

Sadby believes his VA Project would fit into any new downtown, saying it would boost the employment and activity. For a start, he is spending up to $3 million to renovate the building

“This is a powerhouse economic generator,” Sabty said. “It’s immediate new taxes. It’s immediate new construction jobs. It’s 30 to 40 full time employees earning $30,000-$100,000-a-year.  Those people will eat in the coffee shop, shop in Oakland Park, buy gas in the gas station. It’s a way to plant seed money in the downtown.”

But most of all, Sabty said his project would give South Florida an opportunity to show appreciation to veterans. “When it comes time to give back, we should be there,” he said.




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Latest comments

  • Vet says–Great location!! Much needed!!

  • I remember the hullabaloo when the women’s shelter wanted to move in. Residents said that boyfriends, exes and others would loiter in the area and create a crime problem, trying to see their children, girlfriends, etc. None of those things came to pass. The archdiocese did a lot of good. If I remember correctly, the Koenig family, owners of City Furniture, donated most, if not all of the furniture needed for the women’s shelter to open.

    Those who have served our country receive a lot of benefits, but none of the
    benefits can possibly repay them for for their service. The horrors of war haunt many of them throughout their lives. KILLING…our troops are trained to protect each other by KILLING the enemy. Most of our vets were brought up with the Ten Commandments, the teachings of Buddha, and other religions which all said…”Thou shalt not kill.” Our military requirements changed their actions, if not their beliefs.

    We OWE our veterans. Oakland Park needs to seriously consider the message that they might send by rejecting this project. The area where this project will be located is on the very fringe of a neighborhood, and much closer to commercial property. It is in an area with public transportation, (important for those with, or seeking, jobs) and near the major Oakland Park/Dixie Highway intersection…for north/south and east/west buses.

    I’m with Bill Kling. Let’s get the economic boost in Broward and also participate in an innovative program to assist those who have always assisted us.

  • Supporting our Veterans is not the issue here. Alternative sites withing Oakland Park are available for this project, but would not be as profitable for Mr. Sabty and his associates. The building in question is in a special zoning district which requires a commercial project which would draw people into downtown. Oakland Park has spent $20 million revamping the downtown area and has legal commistments it must meet or repay grant dollars used to so so. Approving this project in this zoning district could ultimately cost Oakland Park millions of dollars. Mr. Sabty and his associates are the only ones who would profit by not choosing an alternative site for this very worthwhile project. All the lobbying and political pressure in the world can’t change the facts.

  • I’m with Bill Kling. Let’s participate in an innovative program to assist those who have always assisted us, our Military Veterans. Assisting those in need is the backbone of our great Country & the Military Vets are backbone that’s kept our Country great! So there was a plan for improving Oakland Park set up in 2004, that’s 7 years ago, just sayin’……..
    Wonder if those who oppose understand the need?


    These people have served our county so that you could voice your opinions.

    Show them the support they deserve, and give them the place to get the assistance they need.

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