On the brink of shutting down a Los Angeles city park located on Veterans Affairs property, the agency has agreed Monday to meet first with Los Angeles city officials hoping to keep the park open.
The VA posted signs last week at Barrington Recreation Center, including its popular dog park, notifying users the park would be closed last Friday. But before doing so, the VA retreated and agreed to allow the facility to remain open until the new master plan for the VA's West LA campus is adopted.
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The draft was due the following week.
"This land belongs to veterans," said Bob Rosebrock, an Army veteran, activist and longtime VA critic who contends its response to the problem of homelessness among veterans has been inadequate.
Rosebrock calls for temporary shelter to be built on VA property as a stopgap measure until additional permanent housing can be built.
Opened decades ago atop land once used as a dump, Barrington Rec Center has athletic fields, and for 15 years, has been host to what is believed to be the city's largest and most-used dog park.
"I'm all for doing things for the VA," said Lisa Miller who walks her dog at the park. "But this is an important park."
How VA property came to be used for a city park is to be found in a decades-old policy of the VA that it only recently it has renounced: leasing VA land to outside interests, both public and commercial for uses not necessarily connected to the VA's mission of caring for veterans.
Uses have ranged from rental car parking, to hotel laundry services, to athletic fields. Brentwood School and UCLA's Jackie Robinson Stadium are among the tenants.
Two years ago, ruling on a suit brought by the ACLU on behalf of disabled veterans, US District Judge James Otero found that unless a use of VA property directly benefits veterans health care, it is not permissible, and invalidated nine leases, though the impact was stayed while the case was appealed. The leaseholders were allowed to remain, as was Barrington Rec Center, even though the city's lease had expired.
Last January, as part of an agreement to vacate the court ruling, Secretary Robert McDonald pledged the department of Veteran Affairs would develop a master plan that would carry out the intent of the original deed that the property be used only for the direct benefit of veterans.
Midyear, the VA notified a number of leaseholders that leases would be terminated, according to VA Special Assistant Vince Kane, speaking to NBCLA Monday via phone from Washington, D.C.
Kane said the city of LA was also notified it would have to close the park, unless it could do something to bring the park in line with the required direct benefit to veterans health care.
"We're looking for veterans to get the land they need," said Jay Handal, chair of the West LA-Sawtelle Neighborhood Council, at the same time expressing hope a way could be found to keep the park open and available to the community at large.
Mike Bonin, the LA City Councilman who represents the area, shares that hope.
When the posting of the VA signs signaled its intention to move forward with closing Barrington Rec Center, Bonin contacted Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and credited her with facilitating the meeting scheduled this week.
"I was disturbed to see the park closed last week, and I am grateful Senator Feinstein heard the community and stepped in to keep the park open while the City and the VA work together to re-envision a veterans-focused by publicly accessible park managed by the city," said Bonin in a
written statement. "I'm confident we can all work together to accomplish that."
Handal suggested a park model that would train and employ veterans, and generate income for the VA by charging fees. But special assistant Kane said raising money would not by itself meet the standard for direct benefit. "It has nothing to do with revenue," Kane said.
He expects the draft master plan will be submitted to Secretary Robert McDonald later this month, and after another round of public comment and response from the VA, a final version likely will be adopted before year's end.
Activist Rosebrock expressed frustration that the VA backed away from its announced intent to close the park last Friday. He accused the VA of knuckling under to pressure from the affluent community of Brentwood, and attempting to "appease" its interests, as thousands of veterans remain homeless in Los Angeles.
"It's time to take serious action," said Rosebrock.