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Veterans Benefits Administration lauds GSA for new office space to serve Veterans

GSA and VBA Staff at ribbon cutting for new VBA space. From left: Ted Saibeni
GSA and VBA Staff at February 22, 2018 ribbon cutting for new VBA space. From left: Ted Saibeni, Max Evans, Mary Yates, Kristen Yee, Ryan Sewell, Michael Hollowell, Christopher Melary, Mark Lahaie.

Giant scissors, red ribbon, and cake await a small crowd who’ve gathered in a nondescript, Class-A office building in Lakewood, Washington.

The Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) Chief of Support Services, Mary Yates, excitedly walks through their new Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment office talking proudly of the private spaces where Veterans will receive assistance.

With her on the impromptu tour is General Services Administration’s Public Buildings Services Acting Regional Commissioner, Lisa Pearson, who looks impressed with the new space.

The two walked through the new space last month during a ribbon cutting ceremony celebrating the opening of this new space concept for VBA.

The office is new and inviting for Veterans who are preparing to leave service and enter the public workforce. The private offices that Yates boasts about are a far cry from the cramped office space at their former location.  

For some Veterans, leaving service and entering the workforce can be daunting, and giving these men and women the right space that allows for a productive counseling environment to help make the transition was vital to Pritz Navaratnasingam, Director of the VBA’s Seattle Regional Office.

“We wanted an office that looks professional and offers Veterans a place for private conversations with our counselors. All of these help promote a positive outcome,” Navaratnasingam said.

When the decision was made to bring in a federal partner to help secure new space a year ago he and Yates made the call to GSA’s Northwest/Arctic Region for help.

It was one of the best decisions they’ve made in terms of finding a partner who could assist them in trying something different—counseling offices that were private and created a safe environment for staff.

“From the very beginning GSA really listened to our needs,” Yates said. “As we tried to paint the picture of what we wanted they (GSA) were right there keeping our needs and the taxpayer in mind.”

The Puget Sound region is one of the fastest growing areas for the VA in the country. That means service needs are high at almost every level, including those wanting to leave service and stay in the Seattle area to live.

This VBA office will serve more than 1,600 Veterans offering help in employment and vocational training. To meet the growing demand, allow for future expansion, and offer Veterans the private space they deserve, Navaratnasingam and his team developed a new template.

GSA Project Manager Max Evans said the challenges started with the initial plan for the space.

“We were asked to insert a brand new template for VBA into an already existing space. This meant lots of coordination with VBA and the landlord throughout the project.”

Ted Saibeni, lease contracting officer for GSA’s Northwest/Arctic Region said the timeline of getting into a new space for VBA was two months from the time the contract was awarded to taking occupancy—a challenging prospect for anyone.

“We were a little nervous to deliver on time but we developed a level of trust with all our partners on this project to make it happen," Saibeni said.

As a result of that trust, VBA opted to have GSA provide a full list of services; everything from design and construction management to furniture design, furniture purchase, and coordinating and moving into the new space.

GSA led the way, finding the space and offering careful coordination with the landlord, contractor, and VBA. This also meant the delicate balance of meeting the needs of the VBA and staying within their budget. GSA provided cost analysis on different elements of the project to show where VBA could save money and still meet their mission.

The end result is a project that VBA is not only happy with, but that may well serve as a national model for future vocational rehabilitation and employment offices.

“This is the template we’ll use in Spokane and it will result in future partnerships with GSA,” Navaratnasingam said.

For GSA, each leasing experience is unique and an opportunity to learn. Along with a short timeline, GSA partnered with VBA, and the landlord to ensure the VBA’s innovative floor-plan model could be made into reality. Through this teaming, the group transformed an empty shell office suite into a professional space, filled with natural lighting. The end result is a new work space for VBA employees as well as private interview offices and a job lab that will benefit the men and women who have served our country.

“The people who will work in this space have passion about their work and they want to provide great services for our Veterans,” said Jennifer Trimble, supervisory project manager for GSA. “That was on our minds during the project.”

Contracting Officer Saibeni, echoed those thoughts. “The idea that you’re able to improve people’s lives through creating an inviting environment is really fulfilling for us,” Saibeni added.