Water tower could rain on VA's parade

The historical structure is complicating plans for a proposed veterans nursing home on the VA campus.

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WALLA WALLA - The biggest potential problem with siting a proposed veterans nursing home on the Jonathan M. Wainwright Veterans Affairs Medical Center campus may be 100 feet in the air.

The water tank, estimated to be more than 80 years old, is on the east end of the grounds and painted a deep robin's egg blue. The structure is not seismically safe or current with today's construction codes, noted Liz Jacks, principal planner for the Seattle office of architecture firm NBBJ, hired to design the nursing home.

She and other NBBJ staff were here Thursday to gather public comment and answer questions about the Walla Walla-based veterans nursing home that's been in the works for a number of years, moved to a back burner by the economy until federal funding recently came through .

If the state Department of Veterans Affairs can get the 2012 Legislature to kick in the final $10 million needed for the home, the architecture firm will have a green light to proceed. Walla Walla could possibly see a shovel in the ground by late summer, noted Gary Condra, chief financial officer and project lead for the state VA.

The tank, which serves the water needs of the Walla Walla VA campus, appears to be in the wrong place in the wrong era, however.

The tower's size and construction would mean nothing could be built within a 150-foot radius, he added. "We understand there is a historical component, but what does it mean to the community. Is it an icon?"

Audience member Don Schack, a local activist for veterans, shot back his reply: "More like eyesore."

At the meeting project officials explained much of the layout and care components of the "green house" concept planned for Walla Walla. The nursing home will actually be eight home-style buildings with 10 bedrooms each, adding to the state's present total of 592 beds for veterans. Room in the facilities would be open to all veterans who are eligible for VA services, as well as a limited number of spouses and Gold Star mothers - those whose son or daughter died in the line of duty in the armed forces - Condra said.

The project's schematic design continues to be in the early stages, but has evolved quite some distance from the early outlines, NBBJ staff told the group of about 30 in the theater building at the Walla Walla VA.

From now until move-in date will be two to three years, Condra said.

Part of that comes from wanting "all the bells and whistles," Jacks explained. The series of homes will be person- and home-based - "This is about living, not spending your life warehoused."

Project participants have come to realize that safe and accessible outdoor space is just as important as indoor space, she told listeners, as well as the need to balance privacy with the need to socialize.

Each home, with its own entry, will have a kitchen and the majority of staff will be "universal workers," able to whip up a meal and mop a floor as easily as take blood pressure readings.

It's an epic departure from such facilities seen in most communities, Jacks said. "In traditional nursing homes, there are 120 beds, often double rooms, and controlled by staff. And they don't want patients in the kitchen."

This concept is just the opposite, she said. There is no hierarchy in the home, staff is not more important than residents and all decisions are guided by those living in the house. "And the kitchen is accessible 24/7."

A separate community center is also part of the plan, a place for veterans to have larger family gatherings or hold meetings. The ideal - and only - spot to achieve that vision on the VA campus is in the area dominated by the water tower. Keeping the homes at one level takes up a big footprint, said Kim Selby, senior associate with nbbj. The view offered by the vantage point would contribute immeasurably to enjoyment of the homes.

Some of the hoops yet to be jumped include consultation with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation to look at the social and cultural impact of the proposal, Condra said.

With some in the audience expressing concern that the new buildings would be "jammed in" that section of the VA campus, the importance of dealing with the water tower becomes even more apparent, project leaders said Friday morning.

There is no "plan B," Condra said. "There's not really another good location to put that size of footprint."

Jacks has no doubt the function of the water tower can be duplicated and the tank itself can continue to be valuable. "There are many ways we could use that piece of history," she said. "We could recreate that iconic image of that in a wonderful way. In a beautiful way."

Without its removal, however, "We could not accommodate our project," she added.

"It would require two-story buildings without the same access and much more money."

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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