Developers rethinking retirement housing

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Changing economic times have more architects and developers rethinking designs for retirement housing. Out: isolated, gated senior living communities. In: cities and suburban town centers.

Seniors are not only postponing retirement, but also looking to save time and money by living closer to where they work and play. Experts are forecasting an older-aged migration toward cities and transportation hubs.

"We’re going to find that there’s more demand for urban and town-center housing" for seniors, said John McIlwain, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute. "The demand will outpace the supply, which means that will drive up value."

Nationwide, building permits for all types of residential redevelopment projects in central cities have dramatically increased in 25 of the largest metropolitan areas, an Environmental Protection Agency study in January showed.

Redevelopment in city and suburban cores accounts for nearly half of new residential construction permits in San Francisco, Miami, San Diego and Chicago, and more than half in New York, the study showed. Permits are an early step in the construction process, which typically lasts at least two years.

In Willoughby, Ohio, there are plans for a town-center project that includes retail shops and an assisted-living facility alongside with housing for all ages, said architect Cornelia Hodgson, a partner with design firm Dorsky Hodgson Parrish Yue in Cleveland. Zoning guidelines have been approved but the project is expected to take at least a year to complete.

That’s a reversal from trends of the housing boom. Many senior communities were built with land-grabbing amenities like golf courses, tennis courts and swimming pools, so they had to be built far from the city center. Residents drive miles to the grocery store, movie theater or hospital.

Today, developers and designers want to create more communities in areas where amenities, services and infrastructure already exist. "Walkability" is a key element in urban and town-center housing developments.

In a survey of more than 1,500 seniors this year, 57 percent said being near a shopping center was important when choosing a new community. More than half of seniors surveyed reported that being near a hospital or doctor’s office was important, according to the report by the MetLife Mature Market Institute.

Still, urban development has obstacles. Land can be expensive, and financing is hard to secure in a cautious lending environment. It often require rezoning of land, which can be time-consuming. Environmental cleanup can be costly.

Construction financing is scarce, and homebuyer demand has waned in the face of rising unemployment and tough mortgage lending. Construction of senior housing units for the year ending March 31 fell more than a third from the previous year and 45 percent from two years ago, according to the most recent data available from the National Investment Center for the Seniors Housing & Care Industry.

Nevertheless, in places like Los Angeles, where there is a chronic need for affordable retirement housing, redevelopment continues.

A good example is Foursquare Senior Living in Los Angeles. The three-story building will have 75 apartments located next to historic Echo Park, and will replace five older homes. It will have a community room, cafe, pool, gardens and a lawn area.

There’s also a community park, church and shops within walking distance. Angled balconies will have views of city skyscrapers and the park The development waits for city approval and is expected to be finished in 2011.

Another project, Angelus Plaza in the Bunker Hill area of Los Angeles, has 1,100 apartment units in five towers that are currently being updated, to be completed in 2011. About 1,300 low-income adults live in the downtown high-rises.

The development boasts a Meals on Wheels site, a thrift shop, a library and even a high school for continuing education. The Grand Central Public Market and the Walt Disney Concert Hall are steps away.

"Sometimes the best amenity that you can find is not one you build in your building but one that is around the community," said Manny Gonzalez, a senior partner at KTGY Group, a design firm in Santa Monica, Calif.

Building in suburban town centers provides the same benefits as urban redevelopment. These areas are less dense and suggest a slower lifestyle than cities, but still provide access to shopping, hospitals and cultural centers.

Suburban developers with stalled retail projects are redrawing site plans to include mixed-use developments with senior housing in town centers.

In Lyndhurst, Ohio, designers want to convert a golf course into independent living housing and continuing care facilities that blend into the surrounding neighborhood. The community will feature townhouses, apartments and houses, next to a hotel and a short walk to shops, offices and a public plaza. A completion date has not been set.

Hodgson, the architect, said, "People want to go back to this kind of neighborhood setting because it’s a comfortable community."

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