When the Department of Veterans Affairs agreed in January 2015 to transform its sprawling West Los Angeles grounds from a patchwork of aging buildings and sterile medical facilities into an inviting campus with housing for homeless veterans, everyone knew it wouldn’t happen overnight. And the VA lived down to expectations at first, moving slowly to launch the lengthy environmental study required before it can start building the 1,200 units of housing and amenities called for in the campus’ draft master plan.
Now, however, the VA is showing much needed urgency: It plans to hire a principal developer, a kind of uber-contractor who will expedite implementation of the master plan and work out how to stage the development of the hundreds of units of housing along with shops and a town center. Once the environmental study is completed, the principal developer would have the authority to hire other developers to work on various pieces of this vast project.
So naturally, some people are complaining that the VA is going too fast. The Brentwood Homeowners Assn., which represents many of the VA campus’ neighbors to the north and west, contends that the VA is proceeding illegally and imprudently in hiring a developer before the extensive environmental study is completed. Indeed, the study isn’t expected to be finalized until July 2019. What if the completed study necessitates a change in the master plan? What if it shows that the planned construction work and new housing would significantly increase traffic on the already traffic-choked streets of Brentwood?
These are legitimate questions, and VA officials should answer them. The VA should also commit to taking whatever steps the environmental study recommends to lessen the impact of the project on the neighborhood. But that doesn’t mean the VA can’t or shouldn’t hire a principal developer soon. None of the planned construction can start before the environmental study is finished. What a principal developer can do now is look at different ideas and strategies, help the VA understand its options, and hit the ground running when the environmental study is done. VA officials estimate that hiring a principal developer now will allow them to house veterans in new buildings 18 to 24 months faster than if they wait.
There were 4,800 veterans desperate for housing in L.A. County last year — more than anywhere else in the country. We must speed the glacial pace of the housing process. Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Councilman Mike Bonin (whose district includes Brentwood), U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) have all voiced their support for the VA hiring a principal developer.
The homeowners association, in a letter to the VA, insists it supports housing for homeless veterans on the campus. And in response, a VA official promises that there will be plenty of opportunities after the environmental study is done for neighbors to voice their concerns about traffic, the environmental study and other issues. So for the moment, let’s take everybody at their word. And let’s get a principal developer on board.