Bill Boyarsky
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Reprieve for UCLA baseball stadium?

The best place to watch baseball in Los Angeles is not Dodger Stadium. It’s Jackie Robinson Stadium, the small, elegant home of the UCLA baseball Bruins.

bill-300.jpgUnfortunately for the university, the ballpark occupies 10 acres of the 387-acre Veterans Administration health facility in West Los Angeles, land reserved for housing and treating veterans. Los Angeles has more homeless vets than any other city, most if not all suffering from mental illness, substance abuse and other ailments resulting from service in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, other wars.

Only the ignorant or the heartless would deny them the medical care, counseling, housing and other help. But the bumbling, bureaucratic VA instead leased part of the property to companies and institutions that had nothing to do with veterans. Despite the property-rich West L.A. location, the VA leased land, at bargain prices, to UCLA for baseball, to Brentwood School for an athletic complex, to an oil drilling company, to a hotel laundry and to a car rental firm and a charter bus company for vehicle storage. In addition, 10 acres were given to a conservation organization for a park.

A class action suit filed on behalf of four homeless vets demanded that the VA kick out these interlopers, whose leases violated the terms of the 1888 deed giving the property to the federal government as a home for veterans. The VA fought the suit as did UCLA. Acting like a dog, or a Bruin, in the manger, UCLA, in an unbelievably insensitive reference to homelessness, told the court that losing the stadium, "would render UCLA's championship-winning team homeless by the start of its next season."

Fiery Bobby Shriver, then a Santa Monica city councilman, went after the university. A top legal team, featuring the ACLU and prominent Los Angeles lawyer Ron Olson, working pro bono, represented the vets. The Bruins and the other leaseholders were routed in court when a federal judge struck down the leases in 2013.

With the Veterans Administration buried in patient treatment scandals, President Barack Obama appointed a new Veterans Administration secretary, Robert A. McDonald and told him to do something about the homeless veterans. McDonald met with Olson and they settled the case.

They each signed an agreement which requires that the VA site will give full care to veterans, “particularly homeless veterans, including underserved populations, such as female veterans, aging veterans, and those who are severely physically or mentally disabled,” Housing will be provided. As for UCLA and the other lessees, the settlement calls for an “exit strategy” for those who don’t have anything to do with veterans.

UCLA, in an admirable about face, has embraced the settlement.

I talked to Norm Abrams, a former acting chancellor and longtime UCLA law professor, who was asked by Chancellor Gene Block to take charge of the university’s efforts to comply with the settlement. He said the university could provide legal services for veterans, support the housing moves and build a social service center, where vets and their families could come for a variety of services.

As for Jackie Robinson Stadium, UCLA hopes it can continue to play there. Abrams said, “now we pay an under market rent… We certainly recognize the necessity and obligation to pay a fair market rent.” He said the stadium could be much more useful to the veterans than it is now. He noted that the VA wants public events, beyond Bruin baseball, there. And it could be home to a vets' baseball league or a place for veteran’s families.

“I am reasonably sure we can reach an agreement with the VA without much difficulty,” he said. "I do see with the new secretary an energy we hope to match…historically it was not (there). The litigation was a catalyst for us and for the VA and we hope we are in a post litigation phase.”

Another well-known UCLA law school faculty member, Gary Blasi, who was working with the homeless veterans, told me that “It’s not crazy that there be a sports facility on the VA site…My view is that there are a lot of ways the UCLA and the VA could collaborate, but it has to be honest and open and real."

That could be good news for Jackie Robinson Stadium patrons. The best ballpark in L.A. is just a 10-minute drive from my house. I could even walk. We baseball fans would miss the place if it’s gone.

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