Proposed soccer field may be connected to unlawful land leases by VA
Residents may see a new soccer field at Westwood Park if a plan pushed forward by Nikki Mark is approved by the city. The Department of Recreation and Parks commissioners will vote on the design of the field at its next public hearing Wednesday at Baldwin Hills Recreation Center.
(Niveda Tennety/Assistant Photo editor)
By Jintak Han
Oct. 31, 2019 9:55 a.m.
This post was updated Nov. 5 at 4:24 p.m.
A proposed second soccer field at Westwood Park is linked to a youth soccer club, which an Office of the Inspector General report found that the Veterans Affairs improperly leased federal land to.
Plans for Tommy’s Field, named after a local soccer player who died in 2018, has for months drawn controversy over the nature of the field since the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks held its first public hearing on it in May. Residents have expressed concern about the field benefiting one sport at the expense of other sports that share the space.
Records obtained by the Daily Bruin show that city officials knew that the plan to build the field stemmed from the Westside Breakers, a nonprofit girls’ soccer club, and its boys’ counterpart, FC Los Angeles, which are facing eviction from MacArthur Field in the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center for improperly leasing federal land. The two soccer clubs merged to become the Los Angeles Breakers Football Club in 2018.
In 2010, the Breakers and the VA struck a 16-month land-use agreement with the West LA VA to lease MacArthur Field, which the Breakers had used for soccer since 2003, according to a report from the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General.
A class action federal lawsuit, Valentini v. Shinseki, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of homeless veterans, found in 2013 that the VA unlawfully leased land out to external entities, including the Westside Breakers. Those contracts were voided as a result of the lawsuit. Following the decision, the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, which manages the West LA campus, agreed to create a draft master plan to better provide for homeless veterans in January 2015.
In compliance with the federal lawsuit, the VA first sent the Breakers a notice to vacate the premises April 8, 2015. Despite the lack of a lease, the Breakers never left the field and continue to use MacArthur Field without documentation today.
“What we still don’t understand is how the veterans benefit by evicting us in 45 days when there is no other immediate purpose for the land,” wrote Nikki Mark, Tommy’s mother and the FCLA president at the time, in an email to Alan Trinh, deputy director of the Veterans Integrated Service Network 22 Contracting Office, in response to the eviction notice.
However, the final agreement for Valentini v. Shinseki states the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System will develop an exit plan for noncompliant entities such as the Breakers to make room for construction of homeless veteran housing under the new draft master plan, which was released January 2016. A representative for the VA did not return a comment about the details of the exit plan.
A federal law, the West Los Angeles Leasing Act of 2016, further restricted the land lease standards to uses that would primarily benefit veterans. A 2018 Office of Inspector General report found the Breakers made monthly payments of approximately $55,832 in fiscal year 2016 and $41,874 in fiscal year 2017 to the VA to continue its undocumented usage of MacArthur Field under this law. There were no payments after June 2017, according to the report.
“This undocumented agreement does not comply with the (draft master plan) because the land use is not veteran focused and is solely for the benefit of the soccer club,” the OIG report concluded.
Multiple phases of the draft master plan are far behind schedule, with the housing units at MacArthur Field delayed by more than two years, according to the OIG report.
A spokesperson for the VA campus said in an email statement the VA is currently negotiating the terms of the Breakers’ exit from MacArthur Field but did not comment any further on the lease to the Breakers.
The lawsuit pushed Mark to search for an alternative to MacArthur Field.
“As I explained … our youth soccer club (FC Los Angeles) plays at MacArthur Field at the VA,” Mark wrote in October 2014 to Rob De Hart, recreation supervisor for Recreation and Parks, in an email chain titled “FCLA Field Follow-up.” “Due to the litigation over use of the VA land (also affecting Brentwood School and the UCLA Baseball Stadium) I am trying to help find viable options for these kids and families in the event we are told we must vacate the property.”
The parentheses in the quote above were directly copied from Mark’s email.
The VA renegotiated its agreement with the Brentwood School and UCLA in 2016 to focus more on services for veterans, but the VA’s planned redevelopment of MacArthur Field continued to threaten the Breakers.
“(The) club needs to start having backup field plans and relationships in the event the VA litigation ends up kicking the kids off the field,” Mark wrote in a separate email to the city in July 2014. “I figure we can minimize any potential backlash by starting to prepare now.”
Mark has since denied that her efforts in 2014 were on behalf of FCLA or the Breakers.
“I did so on behalf of this community,” Mark said. “I might have been a mom helping that organization, but I certainly did it for all those soccer clubs, not just the Breakers or FC Los Angeles but for all of the clubs, (American Youth Soccer Organization), everybody that plays on that field, to say to the city, ‘When you shut down this field, VA shuts down this field, there’s nowhere for these thousands of families who’ve been part of these organizations for decades to go play.’”
Mark added she was no longer affiliated with FCLA or the Breakers when her son passed away, and her proposal to name the field after Tommy came independently of any soccer clubs.
The plan for a new field
Mark first contacted the Department of Recreation and Parks about Westwood Park in December 2013, initially pursuing permits for a smaller synthetic turf field there. When the larger grass area became available a few months later, Mark tried to reserve it before suggesting building a new field altogether.
The park currently has eight tennis courts, two basketball courts and a fenced, nonregulation size synthetic soccer field all located around an open, grassy area.
Mark’s original proposal did not differ much from the current one, asking to raise a low fence, add lighting for evening practice and reseed the grass – the current plan calls for a synthetic field instead. By 2015, Mark had the support of Michael Shull, the general manager of Recreation and Parks, according to email records.
Although the department allocated $50,000 in November 2013 to landscaping, and the park master plan in the period included an open, marked field with a playing surface, Mark suggested the addition of a fence in October 2014.
“Now that the VA fields are off-limits to youth groups, we are getting requests from very politically-tied groups to use both the synthetic field and the multi-purpose field. FC Los Angeles (head: Nikki Mark) is at the forefront here,” De Hart wrote in an internal email dated March 2015. “This group actually has a proposal to upgrade this multi-purpose field.”
The parentheses in the quote above were directly copied from De Hart’s email.
De Hart said he did not remember making the comment about Mark and FCLA.
American Youth Soccer Organization Region 70, a branch of a nonprofit soccer club, contributed to building the smaller field, according to Mark. De Hart wrote that the multipurpose area in Westwood Park was used for sports only beginning March 2013 to make up for AYSO Region 70’s usage of the smaller field.
“(You) do know that AYSO did the same thing at Westwood and build a new synthetic field with lights with the (general manager’s) help – and it is exclusive,” Charles Singer, superintendent of recreation operations for the department, wrote about permits in an internal email two months before Tommy Mark died. “I’m not getting into the middle of this – Nikki is going to do her thing until someone tells her no and it’s not (going) to be me.”
A representative for the Department of Recreation and Parks denied AYSO Region 70 had exclusivity, but permit records show AYSO Region 70 booked the smaller field almost every day for months at a time while FCLA could only reserve the field sporadically. David Ambrose, the regional commissioner for AYSO Region 70, and Singer did not return a comment for this article. Mark said Tommy’s Field will not have any permit exclusivity.
Despite the years of planning, Recreation and Parks revealed in September that the field is vastly underfunded. The field is estimated to cost around $3.9 million, of which $1.2 million will be funded by the TM23 Foundation, a nonprofit founded by Mark to raise money for the field. The field was previously estimated in 2018 to cost less than $1.5 million.
The latest proposal calls for the removal of six tennis courts out of the eight currently in the park, then building two new tennis courts elsewhere, as well as moving both basketball courts into the parking garage to make room for natural grass at the park.
This would leave tennis players with four courts – two less than the original proposal in May.
Michelle Kramer, area coordinator for the Los Angeles branch of the United States Tennis Association, said the city never consulted the tennis community in making the decision, leaving her and other tennis players on their own in finding information.
Mark responded to the criticisms in an email statement saying the process has been public and widely covered by the media for many months.
“(W)e’re sorry they feel they were not informed about this project,” Mark wrote. “Our family has been transparent every step of the way and at least eleven public meetings later, have endured the same public process that everyone else has.”
The Department of Recreation and Parks will hold its next public hearing Wednesday at Baldwin Hills Recreation Center, at which the commissioners will vote on the design of the field.