Pieces of History: Senior Housing’s Fresh Take on Historical Redevelopment

As some developers grapple with building senior housing projects in urban areas, others are making a name for themselves by revitalizing historic buildings in underserved neighborhoods into vibrant senior living communities.

Developing in an urban, infill area presents its fair share of spatial challenges when finding the right place where a senior living project might make sense. But for one Cincinnati-based design firm, urban environments are ripe with opportunity, particularly within areas that are in dire need of redevelopment.

“Historic buildings give you the opportunity to work with something that you cannot recreate in a new building,” says David Johnson, chief operations officer and senior living client leader at CR Architecture + Design. “There’s an architectural interest and sense of place that only a historical facility can give you.”

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CR Architecture + Design does all phases of senior living, including assisted living, memory care and continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs), however, the focus of its past work has largely been on independent living in the Cincinnati area, particularly in redeveloping historic buildings in the city’s “Over-the-Rhine” neighborhood.

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Over-the-Rhine: A Long History

Over-the-Rhine (OTR) is one of the largest intact national historic districts in the county, as well as one of the largest collection of Italianate architecture, according to Model Group, a local Cincinnati developer who partnered on the Elm Street project alongside CR Architecture + Design and the not-for-profit Over-the-Rhine Community Housing.

Up until recently, the neighborhood has fallen on hard times. As of 2003, OTR had a 4% homeownership rate—the lowest of Cincinnati’s 52 neighborhoods—as deteriorating building supply and decades-long over-concentration of low income housing drained commercial life from the area.

The neighborhood has since been ground zero for an urban makeover at the hands of the City of Cincinnati and various community organizations, according to a 2002 Over-the-Rhine Comprehensive Plan.

Redevelopment on Elm Street

The Elm Street senior housing facility is one such project in the Cincy neighborhood that had undergone an exceptional revitalization.

Originally built in the 1860s as part of the Moerlein Brewing Company, the 15,000 sq. ft. structure has housed a saloon, grocery store, barber and billiards rooms throughout its illustrious history.

In May 2014, CR Architecture + Design converted a dilapidated building into the structurally sound, 15-unit affordable Elm Street housing community for seniors.

“What was unique about Elm Street was that it was three individual buildings that we put together to service one building,” said Matt Hemberger, client leader at CR Architecture + Design. “They have separate addresses, but it’s one building now.”

Hidden Gems

Perhaps one of the signature features of Elm Street is the community’s use of stained glass. Though modest in display, the design choice was purely coincidental.

“Elm Street was in pretty bad shape—it hadn’t had great care,” said Shannon Duffy, housing team leader at CR Design + Architecture. “We were surprised to find beautiful, original stained glass from the 1860s hidden behind plywood that was painted over, which were were able to preserve and maintain.”

Preserving the Period

Other key defining features of Elm Street is the building’s original wood trim, which was also restored in the redevelopment process and now adorns every opening within the facility, as well as carved stonework on the exterior’s main facade.

“Those detailed features, which you don’t find in current construction, echoes the period of the building,” said Hemberger.

In financing the preservation and rehabilitation of the Elm Street senior housing facility, the Ohio Housing Finance Agency (OHFA) awarded annual housing credits in the amount of $8 million over ten years.

The OHFA was among those recognized by the Cincinnati Preservation Association (CPA) for its involvement with the Elm Street project alongside CR Architecture + Design, Over-the-Rhine Community Housing, Model Group and the Ohio Capital Corporation for Housing.

“To have rehabilitated this storied building in such a way, and to make it the first area project to meet the needs of seniors here with equal parts of accessibility, affordability, and support services is quite an accomplishment,” said OHFA Project Portfolio Manager Kevin Clark in a statement following the award recognition from the CPA.

Luxury at the Turn of the Century

A couple of miles northeast of Over-the-Rhine sits Walnut Hills, a neighborhood just five minutes from the University of Cincinnati that plays home to its own brand of historical architecture.

It was here that CR Design + Architecture repurposed a Queen Anne Revival structure built in 1904 into an 83-unit senior apartment complex.

When originally built at the turn of the 20th century, the building accommodated 45 spacious apartments. But when CR Architecture + Design began encountered the building in the early 2000s, the building that had once been the embodiment of luxury design had already been subjected to nearly a century’s worth of decay.

“The biggest challenge was years of decay,” said Johnson. “Fire, looting and years of open-air exposure to the elements presented considerable challenges to renovating.”

From Ritz to Rubble to Repurposed

After eight to ten months of design, including the arduous task of navigating historic tax credits, the Alexandra Senior Living Apartment Complex was able to make a full-recovery thanks in part to the use of private and public investment, including a Community Development Block Grant and local building funds from the City of Cincinnati.

As it stands today, the Alexandra complex now features one- and two-bedroom apartments within its 83-unit structure, as well as laundry facilities, a community center, a nurse station, computer learning center and landscaped gardens.

By 2004, the development had won several awards, including the Paragon Award from the National Apartment Association and a Best of Senior Housing Silver Award from the National Association of Home Builders.

Back to the Rhine

The opportunity for redeveloping historic buildings into senior housing communities continues to thrive in the Cincinnati area—so much that CR Architecture + Design has teamed up once again with Model Group and several others on converting an old YMCA into apartments for seniors.

This project, once again, is happening in none other than the Over-the-Rhine area.

The Central Parkway YMCA

In October 2014, the YMCA of Greater Cincinnati Board of Directors approved a $27.5 million renovation project that would transform the nearly 100-year-old building—located just blocks from the Elm Street apartments—into a state-of-the-art, 65-unit senior housing complex.

When complete, the nine-story Renaissance Revival YMCA building will also dramatically improve the YMCA wellness facilities and provide over 25,000 sq. ft. of office space for the YMCA’s corporate headquarters. Apartments will be located on the upper floors, with the YMCA’s fitness facility on the lower levels.

The project is a public-private partnership that includes CR Architecture + Design, Model Group, the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority, Cincinnati City Center Development Corporation (3CDC) and Episcopal Retirement Homes.

Of the 65 total units, 15 will be low income adults age 55 and older developed using Low Income Housing Tax Credits, State Historic Tax Credits, Federal Historic Tax Credits and Low Income Public Housing Capital and Replacement Housing Factor Funds.

In 2009-2010, CR worked with the YMCA, 3CDC and the Model Group to submit the original Part I and Part II applications for the tax credits.

CR anticipates a May 2016 completion date for the Central Parkway YMCA project.

Challenging opportunities

Underserved areas can offer a number of opportunities to renovate aging or decaying buildings to serve a new purpose, but these kinds of redevelopment projects are rife with a number of challenges, especially if the building in question has some sort of historical significance.

“The truth is, not every building is going to be well-suited for every level of senior care, especially when it comes to accessibility and federal or local tax support,” says Johnson.

“There’s nothing quite like the opportunity a historic structure gives you. But on top of that, you have organizations that have deemed a particular building not only important from a legal standpoint, but also makes an important emotional connection for people that may have lived there for years.”

Written by Jason Oliva

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