Luxury and Affordability, often thought as two roads that rarely cross, happen to meet at the intersection of Kentucky Ave. and Jamaica St. in the city of Aurora, Colorado.
There, a public housing development has undergone a radical transformation into one of the city’s most thriving senior housing communities marked by contemporary architecture and design elements that passersby wouldn’t expect from a living facility solely for older adults.
“Village at Westerly Creek has a very handsome exterior. No one would look at it and imagine it is an affordable building,” says Elisabeth Bordern, principal of The Highland Group and one of the SHN Awards Judges. “The exterior materials are also very durable and will look good with little maintenance for a long time.”
Although you won’t find crystal chandeliers, marble floors or expansive fountains gracing the community courtyard—features commonly associated when thinking “luxury”—for the 72,353-square-foot Village at Westerly Creek, luxury translates into a little extra breathing room within each resident’s unit.
A project that was five years in the making, The Village at Westerly Creek experienced a plethora of challenges during the construction process, but their efforts paid off in the end.
In 2007, the Aurora Housing Authority (AHA), the owner and operator of the 65-unit Village at Westerly Creek, began contemplating the development nearly a decade ago, however, there was a central issue regarding the site of the future affordable senior living community: the redevelopment of the pre-existing public housing building.
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“We wanted to create a program within a set of buildings where residents already lived without relocating them or demolishing the existing building,” said Elizabeth Gundlach Neufeld, AHA’s deputy executive director of property operations and development.
With that vision in mind, AHA also wanted to ensure that the finished product would help residents live independently for a longer period of time as they aged. This meant giving their residents a “little extra” luxury in terms of space, with attention paid to kitchen and bathroom areas.
Prior to designing what would become the Village at Westerly Creek, AHA met a number of times with existing residents to gauge their preferences in terms of what they would like to see in the new community.
AHA also met with various senior-focused consultants when choosing features such as the types of finishes and color schemes would be most visible to residents. This latter feature was crucial to the design process, as AHA intended to associate each floor of the building with a certain color so that residents could easily remember what story of the community they were visiting at a given time.
As a result of the consultant and resident meetings, certain design elements, while still maintaining affordability, were able to at least give off the appearance of luxury features.
Units are abound with cherry wood finished cabinets, kitchen and bathroom floors that resemble stone tile, formica countertops that easily pass for granite, as well as nickel-plated fixtures and the sleek shine of black Energy Star appliances.
By the end of 2009, AHA had completed a rezoning requirement for the existing public housing building. The next year, the housing agency applied for low-income housing tax credits from the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority.
In August 2011, the Village at Westerly Creek was finally ready to begin construction. Assisting AHA in its redevelopment project would be EJ Architecture, a firm headquartered in Lakewood, CO.
Because the Village at Westerly Creek project was ultimately a redevelopment, rather than a ground-up construction, the construction process was wrought with its own series of unique challenges.
The biggest challenge was maintaining the building’s 120 existing residents, while designing and constructing the new community essentially around them.
“When working with a senior population, it’s important to disrupt the interruptions,” said EJ Architecture Principal Elizabeth Johnson, AIA, LEED AP. “That was a pretty big challenge to overcome.”
Since the project was designated as an affordable housing development, developers were also faced with the test of adhering to strict construction guidelines required by the City of Aurora.
For one, the City of Aurora has exterior guidelines that require a minimum of 60% brick or a combination of brick, stucco and metal of up to 80%, said Neufeld. Additionally, no more than 20% of a building’s exterior can be plank-siding or wood-siding materials.
“There was a challenge in creating a development that’s affordable since brick and stucco products are more expensive than wood-siding,” said Neufeld. “The city was not going to budge, but luckily EJ Architecture accommodated that.”
With many of the residents falling into the “very low-income” bracket, earning a median income of $8,500 per year, developers had to seek a subsidy from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that would assist residents with monthly rent payments.
But in order to obtain the HUD subsidy, units within the community had to meet minimum requirements that would facilitate resident accessibility and mobility needs.
EJ Architecture expanded on the minimum requirements by focusing attention to spaces in the kitchens and bathrooms, widening doors, installing cabinets and light switches that can be accessed at a height by residents in wheelchairs, and putting in extra-sliding glass patio doors.
“It was important to not just meet the minimum requirements,” said Johnson. “Our thought was: let’s make this feel not just affordable, but let’s give residents more cabinet space and storage, and make this environment feel more like home for them.”
The Authority and Architects also wanted to increase in the natural light inside the community, something that was lacking in the former public housing building.
“The community room is spectacular and light-filled, the entry/lobby and other common spaces were thoughtfully designed and placed,” says Borden of The Highland Group. “The units are also very high-quality well configured and with higher-end finishes and appliances, and over-sized bathrooms.”
The Village at Westerly Creek was completed 12 months after AHA, EJ Architecture and Shaw Construction—the builders for the project—broke ground in August 2011.
It wasn’t long until developers began to see a return on their investment. Within a month of completion, the Village at Westerly Creek was 100% occupied.
Building on the success of the initial development, both AHA and EJ Architecture have their sights focused on Phase II, which will entail the construction of a second building that will be modeled after the first. The new development will also help free up spots on the first building’s waiting list, which is currently 57 names long.
“The advantage of having completed building 1 is that investors and lenders could see the success of that project and the rapidity of which it leased up,” said Johnson. “There’s quite a competition between a new round of lenders and investors on building 2 who want to be a part of this success story.”
The second phase is designed to be a matched set with the first building, in terms of number of units and similar amenities, Johnson says.
Unlike the first building, however, the second development will feature underground parking spaces as well as a rooftop deck that faces west, giving residents who venture to the top floor an unobstructed view of the Rockies.
Developers anticipate the new addition to the Village at Westerly Creek will be complete by January 2015.
“It was a long journey, but hugely successful in the end,” says Neufeld.
Written by Jason Oliva