For The Mather, a Mather LifeWays continuing care retirement community in Evanston, Illinois, it’s always been about location, location, location.
Enjoying the perks of a walkable university town as well as proximity to both Lake Michigan and downtown Chicago, The Mather took first place in the Senior Housing News Design & Architecture Awards in the category of Best New Construction Continuing Care Retirement Community.
“What stood out most was the location, which promotes resident integration within the community and a healthy lifestyle,” says Raquel Mercer, vice president at Robycross and a judge for the SHN Design Awards. “The close proximity to the shopping, dining and local college help to promote an active daily life which improves all areas of health.”
“We’re fortunate that [The Mather’s site] exists in an urban area, because downtown Evanston is a very active, walkable community,” agrees Joe Zajdel, vice president of business development at Mather LifeWays. “We’re also fortunate that the sites are in a transit-oriented location, just a few blocks away from both Metra and CTA [Chicago Transit Authority] services, and a bus line only a block away.”
Sponsored by Mather LifeWays, a not-for-profit organization based in Evanston, The Mather offers what it calls a “Repriorment” lifestyle rather than a traditional retirement living experience.
“As an organization, our approach is all about engaging residents to create experiences that fulfill their desires and help them to achieve goals and aspirations that may have gotten set aside,” says David Kane, Vice President of Senior Living at Mather LifeWays. “Every staff person ends up being committed to being one of the characters, if you will, in helping to make that dream come to life on the stage that is The Mather.”
The Mather is the result of a repositioning of two separate communities that Mather LifeWays had already been operating. The two original buildings were the Mather Home, built in the 1950s, and The Georgian, a former hotel that had been converted to senior living in the early 1960s and operated by a different provider until the 1990s, when Mather assumed sponsorship.
The communities were located across the street from each other and had been run separately by Mather LifeWays for more than a decade, says Zajdel.
“Residents of both communities acknowledged that it was time to make some improvements, and we knew we could achieve operational efficiencies by combining the two buildings into one unified community,” he says.
While The Mather still consists of two separate buildings, they’re now connected by an interior corridor that runs under the main street.
“That was part of the initial concept of creating two buildings, but one community: to provide many spaces in each of those buildings that complement each other, so residents use spaces on both sides of the street rather than just one,” Zajdel says.
When planning the community, Mather LifeWays and the Chicago-based architecture firm it hired, Solomon Cordwell Buenz, remained very mindful of the existing community’s context, which was especially important considering the sites’ locations adjacent to Evanston’s historical district, which dates back to the 1850s, he adds.
“This resulted in a very contextual approach to the design of the buildings. We chose a facade we felt was very complementary to the existing multifamily buildings along the street and drew from other buildings in Evanston,” he says, going on to note other features, including Juliet balconies, that are “very much part of the architectural vocabulary of Evanston.”
The Mather also endeavored to maximize the use of glass throughout the two buildings to allow for the use of natural lighting in the apartments.
“I was impressed by the implied patience that owner and design team showed in the portage of all things historic—Chicago, Evanston, [Northwestern] University, nearby residences, even the old original buildings on site—into the new design,” says David Dillard, Principal at D2 Architects and one of the SHN Design Awards judges. “There are friendly reminders of tradition, physical and cultural, throughout.”
Starting in 2006, Mather began moving everybody still living in the former hotel into other Mather LifeWays locations. Building the new CCRC took place in two phases, beginning in July 2007 when the first building was demolished.
The floor plates of the existing building were very narrow, Zajdel says, and the apartment layouts were small. “We didn’t feel the building was conducive to a state-of-the-art design,” he says. “Many of the amenity spaces in the original building were below grade, with steps into the dining room in the Georgian that made it difficult for residents. We wanted to have more accessible dining for our residents.”
Mather LifeWays had to seek “significant” development allowances in the entitlements process due to the new Mather buildings having a larger footprint and being 10 and 11 stories tall, compared to the old 8- and 9-story buildings.
“We did a lot of outreach prior to even beginning the entitlements process and had more than 40 meetings with neighbors,” explains Zajdel, who says Mather changed the configuration of the CCRC based on some of the feedback received in early meetings. “We were very open to the community, brought them in early, and let them know what was going to happen.”
Although turning the project’s concept into fruition was a time consuming process, Mather didn’t encounter difficulty getting it funded. The organization was able to obtain financing for the CCRC in the nick of time—just prior to the housing market crash.
JP Morgan Chase provided up to $180 million in construction financing for the project over two phases, and Mather contributed some of its own equity.
“We were very fortunate to have planned the project and obtained financing before the economic downturn,” Zajdel says. “Financing was not really a big issue for us.” Using conventional financing had the added benefit of allowing The Mather to rapidly become debt-free as it used entrance fees, starting at $355,100, to pay off construction costs.
The first phase opened in October 2009, and the Mather quickly started demolition on the second phase, which opened in January 2012.
“We were delighted at the strength of the response to the first phase; it gave us added confidence to move forward directly with the second phase,” Zajdel says.
The project came in “well below budget,” he says, thanks in part to a conservatively-budgeted second phase that had assumed construction costs would continue to escalate as they had throughout the first half of the 2000s decade. Instead, construction costs dropped in time for the second phase, and Mather also benefited from a change in the structure of the interest rate market.
The Mather was officially completed in January 2012, and by the start of the new year was 99% sold and 93% occupied. The new state-of-the-art community provides a full continuum of living options, with 240 independent living homes, 10 assisted living and 12 memory support residences, and 35-bed healthcare center. For residents with Life Care contracts, monthly fees range from $3,773 to $5,775, while those with a modified contract pay between $2,845 to $4,847 a month.
Dillard applauded Mather LifeWays’ decision to not “overload” The Mather with amenities that would be unnecessary by virtue of its location.
“Let the immediate neighbors do that with their banks and stores and walking paths in the park—that’s what friends are for,” he said. “The courage to jettison those amenities left room and money to upgrade the rest, like the “Possibilities Room” and the 10,000-square-foot spa and fitness center.”
Many spaces throughout the CCRC have movable partitions for flexible use, and there’s no specific card room, Zajdel notes. Instead, a number of spaces could be used for a variety of purposes.
“People feel, when they walk into The Mather, that it’s like a boutique hotel,” he says.
“It feels like you’re in somebody’s home when you go from space to space—even though the spaces are large—because of the warmth in the finishes. It makes people feel at ease.”
The community’s comprehensive fitness facility features cardio and strength training equipment, a group exercise room for classes including chair aerobics, tai chi, and dance, a spa with two treatment rooms and a separate manicure room, a unisex salon, three main dining rooms with other opportunities for private dining and outdoor dining, a bistro, and a computerized wine bar.
The Mather also has an indoor pool, located in what Dillard says is a “brilliantly” designed pool room.
“We go out of our way not to build a retirement community,” Zajdel says. “We’re building communities that everybody would like to live in.”
Written by Alyssa Gerace
Editor’s note: The reporter for this feature is a member of the Mather LifeWays Institute on Aging’s InvestigAge editorial board, but was not involved with the SHN Design Awards.