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The West Los Angeles VA Would Prefer You Didn’t Look Into Its Corrupt Land Deals, Thanks

The new expansion of Jackie Robinson Stadium is the latest example of Veterans Affairs allegedly prioritizing profit over veterans.

A rendering of the Branca Family Field, which will be built on grounds belonging to Los Angeles veterans. (Source: UCLA)

On February 10, a brief piece in the LA Times announced “several planned improvements” to UCLA’s Jackie Robinson Stadium, including an entirely new practice field named for mid-20th century Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca.

It sounds boring, and the parties who negotiated the land deal are betting on your thinking so.

The expansion to Jackie Robinson Stadium is part of a long history of corruption within the West LA VA Campus, and the latest attempt to quietly privatize and profit from the 388-acre site federally intended specifically for the enrichment of veteran’s lives. (Disneyland is only 100 acres, for scale). This land and its surroundings are also built on Tongva Land — a fact that is rarely acknowledged by the WLA VA or UCLA. The VA administration and those renting on the property commercially have been under increased scrutiny in the past decade for brokering land deals representing millions of dollars in commercial gain, with little-to-no reinvestment in the veteran community. In the case of Branca Field, key players for the VA and UCLA did not want to disclose the new land agreement at all.

“Advocates who are a little testy out there are gonna get up in arms when they see there’s another ball field being built,” said Executive Director of Community Engagement and Reintegration Services Robert McKenrick in a meeting with VA and legal associates on January 29, leaked to KNOCK.LA by a whistleblower. McKenrick described a negotiation made with UCLA to allow the new baseball field to be built in exchange for the VA regaining parking spaces for exclusive use, which the university had previously used for overflow parking at baseball games.

“That being said, there’s a FOIA request out there and the response to the FOIA request is going out in a week or two,” he continued, explaining that the requester was a “UCLA news media guy.” He told his team that they would need to work with UCLA to announce the field before this FOIA request could be independently reported on, “this will get out ahead of us if we don’t get moving on it quickly.”

Robert McKenrick speaks in front of the socially distanced encampment inside the WLA VA walls in April 2020. In January 2021, he warned his team to not let Branco Field plans “get out ahead of us.” (Source: Facebook)

McKenrick mentions in the recording that UCLA’s PR department intended to frame the expansion to the Stadium without mentioning the VA’s connection to the land, and describes UCLA’s forthcoming press release as what would eventually be published in the LA Times. The piece makes no mention of the VA or UCLA’s troubles with Jackie Robinson Stadium’s land use, and focuses instead on Branca Field’ historical naming, the efforts to fundraise for the field, and the university’s enthusiasm for the expansion.

The reasons for obscuring Branca Field’s place on VA land are clear — the field was constructed for exclusive university use on land where around 40 unhoused veterans currently live in a tent city called Veteran’s Row outside the campus walls, awaiting services and protesting the VA’s inaction. The nearly 400-acre campus has current operating land deals with UCLA, the Brentwood School, and significant construction related to the Purple Line Metro extension project. These leases exist alongside normal veterans’ facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic, where a program allowing unhoused veterans to camp outside of VA buildings and receive meals and services has been running since last spring.

At the West LA VA campus, this is business as usual.

While Brentwood is known as an affluent white neighborhood, most famous as the place OJ Simpson murdered his ex-wife Nicole Brown (allegedly, but come on, it’s 2021), it originated as a plot of federal land intended to benefit the lives of American veterans. The West LA VA campus has been operational since being donated by Arcadia Bandini de Stearns Baker in 1887, undergoing several reinventions — first, as the Sawtelle Veterans Home in the late 1800s, then into the James W. Wadsworth Hospital in the 1920s, and last rebuilt and renamed as the West Los Angeles VA Soldiers Home in 1977. Through all of these updates, however, its primary purpose has remained ostensibly the same: to benefit the veteran community.

In the 1970s, the site began to run quite differently — while the location housed 5,000 veterans during the Korean War (during the same years Branca was pitching for the Dodgers, incidentally), the West LA VA campus began to deny housing to veterans in favor of negotiating large commercial leases just two decades later, with the understanding that the profits would be reinvested into the veteran community.

By all accounts, that did not happen. While the campus profited from private business, capacity and facilities were rarely updated in the ensuing decades.

Sawtelle Veteran’s Home circa 1900 (Source: Los Angeles Public Library)

In the new millenium, the West LA VA leased out its land at a steadily increasing and sometimes illegal rate, reaching a fever pitch in 2011 when a group of unhoused veterans successfully sued the VA with the ACLU for renting land for commercial gain while unhoused veterans were refused service. Contracts with UCLA, the Brentwood School, a laundry facility for Marriott Hotels, and a warehouse where 20th Century Fox stored movie and television sets were singled out as leased land that did not include any applicable use for the benefit of veterans. In spite of many of the current leases not reaching the standard of the land’s intended use, these deals were brokered by WLA VA top brass, and NPR estimated in 2012 that the campus had taken in somewhere between $28 and $40 million in commercial gain.

This failure to provide services to the veteran’s community made the land deals illegal, and a judge ruled in favor of the veterans and the ACLU in 2013. In theory, this meant the end of Jackie Robinson Stadium’s days on the VA campus, and a number of commercial renters were removed, including the set storage from Fox, laundry facilities for the Marriott and a parrot sanctuary. By 2015, VA Secretary Bob McDonald announced a “Master Plan to Revitalize the West LA VA Campus,” which included both an ambitious promise to build 1,200 housing units for unhoused veterans and renovate run-down facilities, and found a way to allow Jackie Robinson Stadium, other UCLA facilities, and the Brentwood School athletic facilities to continue to use VA land.

The 40-year history of Jackie Robinson Stadium is a perfect example of how land deals at the West LA VA have mutated over time. The Stadium was built and dedicated on VA campus land in 1981 with clearly outlined uses for veterans in the area. While UCLA’s Bruins baseball team received priority for field use (pending the approval of a schedule by the VA), the American Legion received second preference to use the field for events and the American Legion Baseball League, ensuring that the field would be available to benefit the lives of local veterans. By the early 2010s, this agreement was terminated, and the stadium was reserved strictly for private use, freezing veterans out of using their own land.

KNOCK.LA spoke to Julio Yniguez, a Purple Heart Korean War veteran who served as the 24th District Commissioner for the American Legion Baseball League when Jackie Robinson Field first opened in 1981, and experienced numerous freeze-outs and setbacks as the years went on.

A press clipping from Jackie Robinson Stadium’s opening in 1981. (Source: LA Times)

“When the field first opened, we brought in the water lines, we brought in the new grass and did the upkeep,” Yniguez said of the American Legion’s involvement in the field. “Then all of a sudden, one year I got the notice that it was now UCLA’s baseball diamond and they were gonna do a lot of remodeling. They tore the field up, added bleachers, did everything to make it the field that it is now.”

Per Yniguez, this process began around the late 1980s, and UCLA started to deny the American Legion Baseball League access to the field following the renovations, with no intervention from the WLA VA in support of the American Legion. This began a years-long battle for a veteran’s baseball team to regain access to use a field on VA land.

“I called UCLA almost on a daily basis to see what we can do to get our field back,” Yniguez told KNOCK.LA, saying that he called UCLA’s facilities nearly every day for over four years to get the Baseball League access to Jackie Robinson Stadium again, while games took place at different, smaller fields. “They eventually let us back, but UCLA wanted us to pay $500 to use lights for our games, and we couldn’t afford that.” Years of negotiation brought the price down, but the American Legion Baseball League never regained the level of access to the field (which, again, belongs to veterans) they had had in the 1980s.

Without the American Legion Baseball League’s presence or access to Jackie Robinson field, both UCLA and the VA have violated the grounds justifying the stadium’s existence to begin with — “a welcoming and vibrant community for Veterans of the greater LA area, and help end Veterans homelessness in LA.”

In 2008, the De­part­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Un­der Sec­ret­ary for Health Mi­chael J. Kuss­man recommended against renewing the Jackie Robinson Stadium lease, saying it had “no im­pact” or “dir­ect be­ne­fit” to “vet­er­an care.” Still, the lease was re-upped in 2011, survived the ACLU lawsuit after appealing, and had its lease reconfirmed in 2016, currently standing to remain on VA grounds through 2026.

In exchange for not being evicted, Jackie Robinson Stadium’s agreement with the West LA VA now includes free admission to games for veterans, $300,000 annual rent, and an initial commitment to pay for three new veteran resource centers, which opened in late 2017. Other buildings included in the school’s $16.5 million contract with the West LA VA are, per sources, used exclusively for UCLA’s medical and legal schools.

Branca Field’s announcement isn’t the first time that UCLA and the VA have attempted to make their land agreements obscured or completely inaccessible to the public — their most recent 10-year lease, executed in 2016, details that “this Lease shall not be recorded,” and that correspondence relating to it should be considered confidential.

In 2018, former VA Contract Officer Ralph Tillman, who had overseen VA land agreements between UCLA and the VA going back to 2001, was convicted and imprisoned for taking cash bribes regarding VA land use. Just last year, the Jackie Robinson Stadium drew widespread criticism after the LAPD used it as a field jail for protestors arrested during the George Floyd protest in West LA last summer.

Veteran’s Row, 2020. (Source: Kitchen 260)

Meanwhile, veterans being refused service remain outside the massive walls of the campus. KNOCK.LA spoke with Iraq War Army veteran, activist, and Veteran’s Row resident Josh Pettit about the WLA VA’s use of land, and how it provides disabled veterans in need of VA services little-to-no option for permanent housing.

“There’s no ifs, ands, or buts,” Pettit says. “It’d be nice if somehow the revenue would be able to get turned over to a different committee, a committee of people that actually were interested in this land.”

Pettit is a lifelong UCLA Bruins fan, attending games at the Rose Bowl with his father as a kid, but objects to the VA’s willingness to put the private business of UCLA and the Brentwood School ahead of veterans who are repeatedly denied consistent service. Veteran’s advocates and those living on Veteran’s Row plan to continue to fight McKenrick’s and other top WLA VA officials’ plans to use their land.

“You’re putting [land deals] in front of veterans? That is insane to me,” he continues. “That’s all you need to know, right there. That’s not on the stadium, that’s on the people running the VA.”

As construction and expansion of much-needed veteran’s programs continue to stall, exclude, and create fundamental mistrust between unhoused veterans and the West LA VA, seemingly innocuous commercial expansions are anything but. The VA has three Disneylands worth of land at its disposal — it’s time to start using it for the people to whom it belongs.

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KNOCK.LA and its writers unfortunately still live under capitalism — but not for long, if we have anything to say! Thanks to readers like you, KNOCK.LA is able to keep you informed on local politics and uplift marginalized voices in LA. Join us in fighting the good fight and donate to KNOCK.LA’s Patreon. If you enjoyed this piece, support Jamie with a tip to @juniorhighLA on Venmo to support re-opening a nonprofit intersectional art space closed due to COVID.