A federal appeals court on Monday ordered the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to halt construction of an amphitheater on its West Los Angeles campus.
A two-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the veterans agency should maintain the “status quo" while it appeals a lower court ruling striking down numerous leases, including those authorizing UCLA’s baseball stadium, a hotel laundry and television studio storage on the sprawling property.
The lower court had allowed the stadium and other uses to continue while the appeal is resolved. Lawyers for veterans with mental disabilities and brain trauma, in their court papers, accused the federal agency of using the stay to "double down on its illegal conduct" by building new permanent structures on the campus.
Mark Rosenbaum, head of Public Counsel’s Opportunity Under Law project, said the veterans agency moved “full speed ahead” with the amphitheater construction, trying to beat the lawyers to court to stop it.
“At the same time they say they don’t have anything for housing for veterans, they put the pedal to the metal,” said Rosenbaum, co-counsel with the ACLU of Southern California on the case.
The veterans affairs department deferred questions to the Department of Justice, which declined to comment.
Susan E. Shyshka, a veterans affairs administrator, filed an affidavit with the court saying the amphitheater was being developed by a nonprofit group called the Veteran Parks Conservancy for alternative therapies for veterans and their families, including tai chi and yoga. Consisting of a stage and grassy area, it is scheduled for completion next February.
Rosenbaum questioned why veterans would need a stage to do tai chi.
Advocates have long called for housing homeless veterans on the campus on Wilshire Boulevard, site of the largest veterans medical facility in the country. Los Angeles has the most homeless veterans in the U.S., 3,700, more than twice the number in New York City.
Efforts to get veterans housed at the West L.A. campus have a long history. The land was deeded in 1888 as a home for old soldiers. By the 1980s, most veterans had moved out, and deteriorating buildings stood empty.
The West Los Angeles campus is the largest undeveloped tract on the Westside, with huge swaths of lawn, lush trees and empty buildings. Over the years, neighbors have called for maintaining it as a park, and the veterans agency has called for large-scale residential and commercial development.
The veterans agency has one of the derelict buildings under renovation as therapeutic housing, which is designed to provide shelter and medical services for a year, with a possible 12-month extension. Advocates want permanent supportive housing, which has no move-out deadline. Rehabilitation of another building is on the drawing board.
Laura Lake, the co-president of the Coalition for Veterans Land, declined to comment specifically on Monday’s ruling but applauded the general aims of the “very important” lawsuit.
“This sacred land remains there to serve veterans, and to actively serve veterans,” Lake said. “We would love to see more housing -- more permanent supportive housing -- on the land.”