Dog park and other tenants fight to remain on VA land in West L.A.

Pet owners arrived at the Brentwood dog park one October morning to find that federal police had chained the gate shut.

It turned out that the park is operated by the city of Los Angeles, but the land is federal — part of the Veterans Affairs Department's West Los Angeles medical campus.

The next day, the chains came off, thanks to a Brentwood dog walker with a well-connected client, several park regulars said.

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But the incident called attention to sidelight effect of the VA's promise in January to overhaul the campus with a sweeping plan to build housing for homeless veterans.

Barrington Park, which includes the dog park, is now among a handful of tenants fighting to hang on to their leases as the VA begins to transform the 388-acre campus in the wealthy Westside neighborhood into a model veterans' village.

Though the land was deeded to the government in 1888 as a home for disabled soldiers, federal officials over the decades allowed buildings to sit empty while they parceled out land rights to dozens of commercial and nonprofit interests.

In 2013, nine leases were struck down by a federal judge who said they had nothing to do with medical care for veterans, and many advocates thought most tenants would be swept out.

But after a lobbying campaign in Los Angeles and Washington, UCLA and the VA reached a deal in January for Jackie Robinson Stadium — home to Bruins baseball — to stay on the property.

The city and the private Brentwood School are among the tenants negotiating with the VA to protect their turf. The VA had pledged to formulate "exit strategies" for leaseholders that were not "veteran-centric" — the dog park and ball fields among them.

"They've all lobbied up and lawyered up," Vincent Kane, special assistant to VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald, said of the leaseholders. "They saw the plan, they know the veterans want the land back, and they're talking now."

Even shopkeepers in the adjoining Brentwood Village are going "veteran-centric" — proposing to "rebrand" their customer and employee parking area as "veterans' parking lots."

"If this was supposed to show the VA had changed, they're moving in the wrong direction," said Sean Smith, a Navy veteran.

The VA says that only tenants that pay fair market rent and offer direct benefits to veterans and their families will be allowed to remain. Commercial tenants — including a hotel laundry service and a movie-set storage lot — have been ousted and other leaseholders have received exit notices.

The Brentwood School says it has offered veterans "ample" access to 20 acres of the campus where it built its state-of-the-art athletic complex, including a pool, weight room, ball fields, and basketball and tennis courts.

The school in a November letter also said it had paid $5 million in rent over 16 years and touted its "outstanding, supportive relationship ... [including] countless hours of direct service to veterans, as well as substantial physical improvement and pristine maintenance of land."

Kane said the school has started sharing its basketball courts with veterans, who held a tournament there last fall.

The Brentwood Village Chamber of Commerce has proposed that veterans run the parking lots and collect the receipts. The chamber's seven-point plan suggests the lots be used to train veterans in "booth/lot management, security, facilities maintenance, public affairs, crossing guard, concierge [services] and car washing/detailing."

Some veterans were not impressed.

"A few backdoor conversations and lending your gym to a few veterans in treatment does not make you a partner," veteran Jim Zenner said.

Many veterans believe the VA negotiated a good deal with UCLA.

"UCLA brings something sufficient to warrant their presence," said California American Legion Department Cmdr. Larry Van Kuran.

The university had leased 10 acres of the VA land, at bargain prices, for 35 years. Its $16.5-milion proposal includes raising its annual stadium rent payments to $300,000 from $60,000.

UCLA has also promised to launch campus legal and family support centers, to provide enhanced addiction and mental health services and to offer technical expertise in the campus building project.

"We believe this is a powerful partnership for veterans," UCLA spokesman Steve Ritea said.

Some veterans complained they were blindsided when UCLA released the terms before they had reviewed them.

Congress must pass a new leasing bill for the VA campus for any deals to become final. The VA says the bill will allow it to partner with nonprofit developers to finance and build the housing.

But some saw the bill as opening the door to more boondoggle leases.

The bill allows the VA "to favor the private interests of UCLA, the Brentwood School and other illegal tenants over the rights of veterans and … exploit veterans' land in a way that would not be possible" if the federal government paid for the housing directly, veteran John Aaron said.

Dog owners, for their part, feel they are pawns in a political fight not of their making.

"The park is being used as collateral for the injustices of the past," said Alex Davis, 28.

The Barrington ball fields opened in 1979 on a VA permit, city spokeswoman Rose Watson said. The dog park was added in 2002.

The city Recreation and Parks Department's lease with the VA expired in 1991, but the city continued to run facilities rent-free on a month-to-month basis, covering maintenance and operations costs.

Mayor Eric Garcetti, who supported keeping the dog park and ball fields, said resident access is "conditional" and could end if the VA has other plans.

"The West L.A. VA is here, first and foremost, to serve our veterans," Connie Llanos, the mayor's spokeswoman, said in a statement. "The mayor is also committed to ensuring that open space is put to good community use."

Kane said veterans could use the dog park to start a kennel, train therapy animals or learn the dog-walking business.

At the dog park one afternoon last month, most pet owners said they would welcome veterans to join them.

"I'm certainly not against vets," said Nick Miller, who came with his dog Heidi. "A lot of vets have dogs."

Some were optimistic a compromise could be reached.

"Parents are not going to go east of the 405 to watch their kids play ball, let's face it," Annie Nakamura said. "C'mon, it's Brentwood."

gale.holland@latimes.com

Twitter: @geholland

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A version of this article appeared in print on March 01, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Tenants fighting to stay on VA campus - Dog park and others seek to protect their turf" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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