Sticker Shock: Veterans Cemetery cost pegged at $77 million
“The real surprise to all of us is that they didn’t even consider it,” veteran Bill Cook told Irvine City News soon after the April council meeting. “They didn’t vote. They didn’t second. They didn’t even consider a very generous offer that’s going to save someone millions of dollars.”
At the time of the council meeting, the amount of potential savings from moving the cemetery wasn’t known. What was known was that the current cemetery site would take a lot of demolition and construction before it could be the final resting place for veterans. According to Irvine city staff reports, the current site “contains more than 70 structures, including four hangars that comprise approximately 20,000 square feet each, a former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro control tower and offices, barracks, concrete runways, and asphalt roadways.”
Those structures would have to be removed, at a cost that at the time was being estimated by the California Department of Veterans Affairs, as part of the process of requesting Federal Veterans Cemetery Grant Funds.
In mid June, those cost estimates came in: $77 million for site preparation, demolition, environmental study and remediation, and construction.
Not to worry, the veterans and Irvine taxpayers were told: the federal government is here to help. Estimates as of June suggested that about 50 percent of the $77 million would be eligible for federal funding, or about $39 million. The balance, about $38 million, would have to come from state funds, the city of Irvine or private fundraising.
Then, in late July, the Department of Veterans Affairs weighed in, saying (more or less): “Did someone say $39 million? Well, how does $10 million sound?”
The Irvine City Council was informed of the new facts in a July 26 memo from the city manager that said that $10 million is the maximum grant expected from the federal government for the project.
Which leaves the proposed cemetery $67 million short. Unless the city reconsiders the earlier cemetery relocation proposal, made possible through a land swap offered by FivePoint, developer of the Great Park Neighborhoods. The 125 acres of land offered on the south side of the park has been used for agriculture and would not require the extensive (and expensive) demolition and remediation before construction of the cemetery could begin.
The proposed new site is near the El Toro Y, where the 405 and 5 freeways merge, offering visibility that the veterans group says honors the sacrifice of those who served their country.
The debate over the proposed cemetery swap was contentious, with some in the city claiming the new site offer was an attempt to kill the cemetery in its entirety.
What seems clear now is that a $67 million shortfall is much more likely to delay or kill the much-needed cemetery honoring veterans than would a city’s elected officials taking time to consider alternatives.
That is if the land swap is even still an option. If this city council doesn’t have the gumption to admit it was wrong and give FivePoint CEO Emile Haddad a call to see if the offer is still in the offing, then hopefully the next one will.