VA wants a single developer to oversee bulk of housing construction on West LA campus

The West LA VA houses the largest VA Medical Center in the country. The 388-acre campus sits between Brentwood and Westwood, along the 405 Freeway.
The West LA VA houses the largest VA Medical Center in the country. The 388-acre campus sits between Brentwood and Westwood, along the 405 Freeway.
Libby Denkmann/KPCC

The VA has signaled a major shift in strategy for overhauling its sprawling West L.A. campus that could rev up the pace of building over a thousand units of veteran housing.

The agency is looking for a ‘Principal Developer’ to oversee the renovation and construction of hundreds of housing units on the North side of its 388-acre grounds located between Westwood and Brentwood. 

The search was announced in a notice for public hearing released Friday. 

The first renovation project named in the announcement is the 51,000 square foot Building 207, which formerly housed a Salvation Army program offering short-term transitional housing for veterans with mental health conditions. The VA terminated the lease last year, citing concerns with the program’s level of care. 

The Principal Developer will be responsible for a range of housing projects, but also infrastructure and amenities to create the feeling of a coherent neighborhood, said Heidi Marston, director of Community Engagement and Reintegration with the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center

“The goal is for our campus to really flow and feel like a community, and not like a campus that’s built one building at a time,” Marston said. “It’s more than just roads. What are the things we need to make it thrive?” 

Development at the West L.A. VA has been sluggish since a 2015 settlement by then-VA Secretary Bob McDonald that pledged 1,200 new units of permanent supportive housing for the campus. Just 54 veterans have moved into new housing since the legal agreement, into a renovated Building 209 planned well before the settlement. 

The agency is partnering with third-party developers through a tool called Enhanced Use Leases (EULs), which allow developers to use the land virtually rent-free if they finance, build and operate the housing at no cost to the federal government. 

So far, the march toward 1,200 units of housing is being accomplished in small steps. A developer was recently chosen for the next two renovation projects, expected to be home to 110 more veterans by early 2020. Those projects will get a boost from City of Los Angeles funding through its voter-approved HHH bond measure. 

But the incremental progress hasn’t been fast enough for many veterans advocates. Now the hunt is on for a single developer to tackle the project on a larger scale—more like 900 units under one central planner.

“The VA had a plan, but no real strategy for implementing it,” said Jesse Creed, Executive Director of Vets Advocacy, a non-profit formed out of the VA's legal settlement with homeless and disabled veterans. “A principal developer strategy is frankly the only strategy that makes sense to deliver the full ambition of the plan.”

“Generally principal developers can get work done faster than the federal government could and also more efficiently,” Marston said.

Southern California has the largest homeless veteran population in the nation, and the last official count by Los Angeles County showed veteran homelessness jumped by 57% between 2016 and 2017. The urgency to bring more housing online is also spurring local VA leadership to look at alternatives like car camping to shelter veterans while construction of permanent housing is underway.

The new Executive Director of the Draft Master Plan to overhaul the VA campus recently told KPCC the agency is exploring using temporary structures like industrial tents and safe parking programs to get veterans off the streets faster.

Marston said the scale and scope of the housing goals in West L.A. are unlike anything the VA has tried elsewhere in the country.  The Principal Developer will be selected through the federal government’s competitive procurement process, and more details will be available at the hearing on April 26th.