When a federal judge ruled last year that the Department of Veterans Affairs had abused its authority by leasing land on its expansive campus in West Los Angeles, he didn't order the VA to kick out its tenants immediately. But it's surprising to learn that one of those tenants on an invalidated lease is now building an outdoor amphitheater on the grounds.
The lawsuit that led to the ruling was filed by several public interest law groups on behalf of homeless and severely mentally disabled veterans. It contended that the VA had illegally leased land to organizations and businesses that were not specifically providing healthcare resources for veterans — as Congress requires of any land-sharing agreement with the VA. In August 2013, U.S. District Judge James Otero agreed and voided the leases, but stayed enforcement pending an appeal. Mediation efforts between the parties recently broke down, and appeals are planned.
One of those leases is held by the Veterans Park Conservancy, a nonprofit, privately funded group that has worked since the late 1980s on preserving and enhancing the VA grounds. In 2007, the VA leased the conservancy 16 acres. Among other things, the conservancy created the Historic Women Veterans Rose Garden on that land.
Now the conservancy has broken ground to build the Hollywood Canteen Amphitheater, an outdoor pavilion that, according to its website, will be an entertainment venue as well as a space for “alternative wellness therapies” such as tai chi, painting and yoga for veterans and their families. That may sound well-intentioned, but lawyers for the homeless veterans see it as a violation of Otero's ruling and have asked him to issue a restraining order stopping the construction.
Otero should make sure that it stops now. It's one thing to allow UCLA — a leaseholder — to keep playing baseball in Jackie Robinson Stadium pending the outcome of the appeals. It's another thing to bring in a construction crew, move dirt and start laying what appears to be a foundation. The purpose of Otero's stay should be to maintain the status quo on the leased land — not to ramp up usage. And if the amphitheater is built now, it will just be that much more difficult to evict the tenants later, if it comes to that.
The best outcome in this case would be a mediated settlement between the parties in which the VA lays out plans to provide more permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless veterans, and in the course of that discussion, other uses of the property might be considered too. But no matter how it's resolved, during the appeals process the VA should not be using the stay of enforcement as permission to allow construction by a tenant holding a voided lease. Otero should issue a restraining order to stop construction immediately.
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