Best of CCRC Design 2014: Fitting Into the Master Planned Community

Building a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) that seamlessly integrates within a broader multi-generational neighborhood is the future of senior housing development, but not many developers have accomplished this—yet.

Generations at Agritopia, the 2014 Senior Housing News Architecture & Design Award-winning CCRC, fits snugly into the massive master-planned undertaking of Joe Johnston, a real estate developer in Gilbert, Ariz. Since the turn of the century, Johnston has been diligently building out 160 acres of his family-owned farmland to create Agritopia, a modern day village set within the urban fabric of the Phoenix metro area.

Comprised of 450 residential lots along with tracts for commercial, agricultural and open space development, the name Agritopia is about preserving urban agriculture and integrating it into a community that breaks down traditional barriers to encourage the formation of “real community” among people of various backgrounds, from children to families to seniors.

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Enter: Generations at Agritopia, a $26 million CCRC consisting of 74 independent and assisted living apartments and 48 memory care apartment homes that opened within the Agritopia master-planned development in July 2014.

Operated by Phoenix-based Retirement Community Specialists (RCS), Generations at Agritopia was the first project the company developed with Investment Property Associates, a multi-family developer with whom RCS later formed a joint venture partnership in September 2014.

The community offers a vibrant living environment throughout its approximately 143,000 square foot campus, mostly due in part to its wide variety of amenities including a spacious movie theater, various dining venues and activity spaces as well as an exquisitely appointed wine cellar and tea room—areas designed and furnished so intricately that they exude an air of liveliness even when vacant.

But perhaps one of Generations’ greatest amenities is its location nestled within the burgeoning Agritopia community, where the Gilbert Christian School sits only a soccer field away from the CCRC, and where residents can mingle at the nearby local Coffee Shop or Joe’s Farm Grill, a casual restaurant that has been converted from its previous origin as the Johnston family home.

“Increasingly, developers of housing and care communities are seeing the importance of placing senior housing and care options in dynamic contexts that allow those who live there to remain engaged in their communities,” says Elisabeth Borden, principal with The Highland Group, a Boulder, Colo.-based research, planning and marketing firm for 55+ housing and care communities, and who served on the awards judges’ panel. “Within Generations at Agritopia, the architects and owners have created a broad range of common spaces that support true, life-sustaining activity, both indoors and outdoors.”

Sharing a connection with the greater community is undoubtedly a hallmark feature contributing to the success of Generations at Agritopia. But the road that brought the CCRC from concept to development was paved with its fair share of hang-ups, not the least of which stemmed from Great Recession.

The Concept

More than 50 years before RCS and Investment Property Associates (IPA) put shovels into the ground for what would become Generations at Agritopia, the Johnston family purchased 160-acres of farmland in Gilbert, Ariz., fertile ground that during the early 1900s earned Gilbert the reputation as the “Hay Capitol” of the world due to the dominance of alfalfa hay on the local farms.

For Jim Johnston and his wife Virginia, the site would be the perfect size for a family farm and an ideal place to raise their three boys, Joe, Steve and Paul.

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By then the crops of choice had shifted to cotton and wheat and as the Johnston boys grew, they worked on the farm during the summers and as needed by their father. Steve and Paul graduated from the University of Arizona, both majoring in agriculture, and returned home to continue the family farming tradition.

However, Joe, the eldest Johnston son, decided to take a different path from his brothers, opting for a career in engineering rather than agriculture, thus setting the wheels in motion for what would transform his family’s land into Agritopia as it stands today.

Fast forward to the 1990s. Gilbert had been growing rapidly and it became clear to the Johnston family that the far would soon be surrounded by housing. It was during this decade that the family made the decision to begin planning for the future, particularly for what would become of the farm after nearly 40 years.

Working with a land planner, landscape architects and others in the development community, Joe Johnston spearheaded the design of what would become Agritopia. In 2000, the Town of Gilbert approved the zoning and land plan for Johnston’s plan and construction began.

About a year later, RCS President Eric Johnston (no relation) received a phone call. It was one of the Johnston brothers saying they were in the process of changing the use of Agritopia to a mixed-used development.

“They wanted to reserve a piece of ground within the development for a senior living community, so they could have the full gamut of people living there, from families and kids to seniors,” said Johnston of RCS, who suggested five acres would typically accomplish what his company would like to see created.

“They set that acreage aside and then went about creating residential homes and the [Gilbert Christian] school,” Johnston said.

In 2007, six years since his conversation with one of the Johnston brothers, Eric Johnston received another phone call. This time, it was Joe Johnston himself, saying that they had reserved land for the senior living community and asking if Eric would like to come visit the site to “take a hands-on look” to see if what the developers laid out made sense.

Unfortunately, while the development site was ready to house a senior living community, the results of a local market study showed that there wasn’t enough demand in and around the five-mile radius. This halted the start of Generations for a couple of more years while Joe Johnston and company continued to build out Agritopia.

In the meantime, Sunrise Senior Living opened a community in Central Gilbert and was experienced reasonable success, prompting RCS to reassess the market.

“We felt that would create a demand side,” said RCS’s Johnston. “Other than that community, there wasn’t a lot of competition or existing options for seniors in Gilbert.”

Around 2009, RCS remeasured the market need for a senior living community in Gilbert and found that it had evolved and grew enough to where the company should begin the development process. By 2010, plans had been conceived for what Generations of Agritopia would look like in terms of providing independent, assisted living and memory care.

The Construction

A CCRC is not the smallest of senior housing communities, so fitting it into a parcel of land smack dab in the middle of an existing community was not without challenges. The biggest challenge, however, occurred at the very start and ended up delaying construction yet again.

The recent economic downturn took its toll in housing markets nationwide, but for states like Arizona and others in the Sun Belt, the effects were more severe. Particularly, the labor force change drastically since the project was first proposed due mostly in part to the downturn.

There were also challenges in financing the project. Originally to be financed via the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Section 232 program, plans for Generations at Agritopia had languished at HUD during the recession.

“Nothing was built,” said Jeff Siddell, an architect with Todd & Associates, Inc. who worked closely on the Generations at Agritopia project. “Only the permit review was completed and that’s as far as it went with the previous ownership. HUD didn’t even complete their review.”

It wasn’t until 2012 that ownership of the project had changed hands to Investment Property Associates, which currently owns Generations at Agritopia today. While some updates needed to be made to the original design plans from 2010, such as tweaks to the building’s electrical engineering infrastructure, some defining design characteristics stuck.

Notably, the building’s physical architecture, which takes after a Spanish mission-style design, is perhaps the most defining feature of the community’s exterior. However, there was some initial concern that the style wouldn’t mesh well with the neighboring architecture, despite conventional perception of Arizona’s Southwestern aesthetic.

“The residential homes in Agritopia aren’t conventional Southwestern or Phoenix homes,” Siddell said. “This style of architecture is foreign to this particular enclave.”

Not every home has Spanish-style shingles or clay-colored facades one would usually associate with the Southwest. Rather, Agritopia embodies a more traditional, suburban style design with tree-lined streets, front porches and ample lawn space.

“Sometimes a mission-style can create a lot of color,” said Siddell. “There was a lot of debate back and forth, and eventually we were able to convince the Homeowners Association and Joe Johnston’s master-planning team that this was an appropriate style.”

The mission-style design was also a key point of interest among SHN Awards judges.

“Generations was designed well from a contextual standpoint,” said Jeff Anderzhon, FAIA, senior planner and design architect at Eppstein Uhen Architects, and also one of the SHN Awards judges. “It fits well in Arizona with its mission-style architecture, but not overdone.”

With the hurdle of gaining design approval now overcome, developers could move forward with actually building the CCRC’s 122 apartment homes and the elegant amenities that would add another dimension to the community.

To accomplish this, RCS considered what kinds of amenities and other features could help residents actively follow their pursuits as it searched for yet more ways it could exceed residents’ expectations and take its hospitality and services to the next level.

After years of delays, a change in ownership and weathering the worst economic downturn the nation has seen since the Great Depression, Generations at Agritopia was finally completed after 18 months of construction in July 2014.

The Completion

Generations at Agritopia as it stands today resembles something more of a high-end hotel than senior housing. And that has as much to do with its finishes and interior design as it does with the hundreds of pieces of art adorning nearly every aspect of the community.

“It was critical that we still open this new community in 2014 with a fresh, new design and not something designed in 2007,” said LuAnn Holec, principal of senior housing interior design firm Thoma-Holec Design, LLC.

Holec’s firm played an integral role in creating living spaces throughout Generations at Agritopia through contemporary, yet inviting, interior design.

The Vineyard Room may as well have taken a page from straight from Wine Enthusiast magazine, with its ability to make Napa Valley seem infinitely closer than its 800 mile distance from Gilbert. Fine wood cabinetry and flooring, along with a rafted ceiling design, mesh with the sturdiness of the room’s stone kitchen and wrought iron decorative features toward an air of elegance that is also cozy.

The Silk Tassel Tea Room is another example of how interior design can bring life to an empty room. Though the room specifically caters to female residents, it is not overly frilly or unappealing to the male gaze.

“Design-wise, it’s the amenities and the elegance that make Generations at Agritopia feel like a fine hotel or a five-star resort, but yet it’s still intimate,” says Holec. “It’s not austere and so contemporary that it’s uncomfortable for the residents.”

As occupancy would dictate, that is true for the residents currently living in Generations at Agritopia. Campus-wide, the CCRC is about 75% occupied. As for the independent and assisted living apartments, those are 95% occupied, according to Johnston. The memory care segment, which didn’t open until September 2014, is 50% occupied.

All apartment homes are designed with more of an independent or assisted living shopper in mind, Johnston said. With the exception of one apartment model that is a small one-bedroom with a kitchenette, all units have full kitchens, washers and dryers and well-appointed finishes. There are also 18 garage and 18 storage units on campus where residents can store their vehicles, if necessary, as well as other belongings.

So far, Johnston said the response from residents and family has been phenomenal—so much, that it is fueling RCS’s confidence in its second Generations endeavor, another CCRC slated for Ahwatukee, a suburban village of Phoenix.

Also carrying RCS’s “Generations” brand, Generations at Ahwatukee plans to break ground sometime this spring, perhaps even as early as May or the end of April, said Johnston, who hinted that the community will be a little bit larger than the Agritopia CCRC since it won’t have the same land constraint.

Ahwatukee will even contain some features not included at Agritopia, including a full swimming pool, outside jacuzzi and several other amenities exclusive to the new community.

But even with the variety of amenities, design and resort-style atmosphere, what it all boils down to for RCS is creating strategic, purposeful communities to carry its brand.

“When we approach a project, we’re constantly thinking about why we’re in this business. And that’s to create a supportive atmosphere where residents can maximize the pursuit of their passions—to create freedom, for them to pursue the things they haven’t been able to in the past,” said Johnston. “That is really the focal point.”

Written by Jason Oliva

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