A proposal by the VA to dramatically increase fees at a parking lot used by Brentwood shoppers is prompting an outcry by merchants and complaints of favoritism in the use of surplus veterans hospital land.
Brentwood Village shop owners assert that a proposed 660% rate increase at the government-owned lot could force dozens of boutiques and stores near the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Barrington Avenue out of business.
At the same time, business leaders are questioning what they describe as a "sweetheart deal" between the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the exclusive Brentwood School for rental of a much larger government parcel next to the parking lot at a much cheaper rate.
The dispute has reignited controversy over the private school's use of federal land for a $4 1/2-million sports complex. Construction has begun on what will include a football stadium, covered basketball and volleyball courts, other fields and several school parking lots.
Use of the 430-acre VA grounds next to the San Diego Freeway at Wilshire Boulevard by outsiders has frequently drawn protests by veterans groups. Their complaints last year prompted members of a congressional committee to demand that the Brentwood School deal be rescinded.
More recently, veterans groups have alleged that the sports complex is being built in an area once used by the VA to bury biohazardous materials--including dead animals used in medical research.
VA officials say they have done nothing wrong in negotiating with the school and deny knowledge of any toxic waste buried at the sports field site.
Brentwood School is being charged $300,000 a year for a 20-acre section of VA land. Merchants contend that the new rent proposed last month by the VA for the shoppers' 2-acre parking lot will total as much as $700,000 annually.
Reacting to merchants' complaints, VA administrators said this week they plan to delay the scheduled Feb. 1 implementation of the new fees and draw up a revised proposal.
The public has used the 230-space parking lot on Barrington Place next to the Brentwood Post Office for three decades, with the VA receiving parking fees--which currently range from 50 cents per half-hour to $40 for a monthly employee pass. Shopkeepers pay to validate customers' parking tickets.
In announcing the fee increase, the VA disclosed it would be hiring a professional parking lot operator to replace VA job-training program workers who now run the lot.
Brentwood business groups responded with outrage to the fee increase.
"These are mom-and-pop shops. This would put a lot of them out of business," said Jon Byk, an advertising agency owner and head of the Brentwood Village Assn. of property owners group.
Hair stylist Jon Condon said his shop, which draws more than 500 customers a week, now pays $70 for a book of 100 hour-parking validations. The VA's plan would boost the price to $450 for every book he uses. "This is a real threat to shut down the entire Brentwood Village," Condon said.
Shopkeepers have circulated petitions and mounted a letter-writing campaign seeking help from federal lawmakers. They credit intervention by the offices of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) for prodding the VA to agree to delay the fee increase.
The merchants complain that the Brentwood School's deal with the VA has torpedoed a proposal approved by Los Angeles traffic engineers that would have allowed the redesign of the parking lot to make it safer.
As part of the new sports facility, the school has built a school bus turnaround area over the spot that merchants had planned for the parking lot's new exit.
"It's unfortunate that Brentwood School would get such a sweet deal from the VA, but when it comes to their neighbors across the street we're getting this handed to us," said Tim Byk, the son of Jon Byk and the president of the Brentwood Village Chamber of Commerce.
Anger over the school contract sparked complaints last year from several Los Angeles veterans groups to a congressional panel that oversees VA activities. Illinois Rep. Layne Evans, the ranking Democrat on the Committee on Veterans Affairs, urged that the Brentwood School contract "be severed immediately and the entire matter investigated."
Review Finds Lease Legal
An in-house VA review subsequently determined that the lease arrangement was legal, "although I think we'll end up with some changes" in the way future pacts are negotiated, committee staff member Bill Crandell said this week.
Local veterans, meantime, have raised questions over the safety of the Brentwood School ball field site. They alleged that when they sought 10 years ago to build an old soldiers' home there, a top VA official told them that the site was unsuitable because soil was contaminated by biohazardous wastes.