Location was the name of the game when it came to the development of Balfour at Riverfront Park, the 2015 Senior Housing News Design Award winner for “Best CCRC.”
Location is what prompted Balfour’s Founder and CEO Michael Schonbrun in 2005 to purchase the plot of land that would one day house Balfour at Riverfront Park, nestled in Denver’s Lodo neighborhood where the South Platte River meets Cherry Creek. Location is what inspired a certain cohesiveness between the retrofitting of the Moffat Depot, Denver’s second train station and a city landmark, and splashes of modernity throughout its interior. And location is what led Schonbrun to believe that a continuum of care in an urban setting would be viable long before such a notion was deemed plausible.
“We felt something of a contrarian plight, because there are a lot of people in the industry and outside of it who think that seniors should only be out in the countryside or suburbia, in a sort of ‘God’s waiting room,’ if you will,” Schonbrun says. “We think there are a lot of seniors who want to enjoy what a dynamic metropolitan area has to offer and still have new adventures and experiences. Denver provides that, and seniors can enjoy it as much as younger folks.”
And Balfour at Riverfront Park residents surely do take advantage of all that Denver has to offer, he says. With two parks, the city’s theater district and a plethora of shops and restaurants within reach, there’s no shortage of activities in which they can partake outside of the continuing care retirement community (CCRC), also known as life plan communities following a shift in terminology.
The sheer dedication that went into carefully weaving Balfour at Riverfront Park into Denver’s urban fabric alongside the expert incorporation of a historic building into the community’s overall aesthetic resulted in its victory in the “Best CCRC” category.
Plans for Balfour at Riverfront Park took shape under the idea that an upscale senior living community with a continuum of care would be well-received in a metropolitan setting—yet in 2005, the concept was a bit ahead of its time.
“There were an awful lot of both equity groups and lenders who thought the idea was preposterous—that an urban site in an affluent area wouldn’t be successful,” Schonbrun says.
In fact, after the land was purchased, bringing the idea to fruition seemed next to impossible, he says. An initial equity group had done its due diligence, executed joint venture agreements and reimbursed Balfour for some of what had been put down originally to secure the land and finish architectural drawings for the project. But in January 2008, a few months prior to the crux of the Great Recession, the group pulled out.
This was followed by 50 or more rejection notices from other investor groups and banks.
“We spent almost three years keeping the project alive and looking for a new investor group,” Schonbrun says. “We didn’t really have much success, and we didn’t find our potential partner until late in 2011.”
Though the concept at first seemed unthinkable to outsiders, Balfour’s persistence paid off, and it anticipated the desires of today’s senior, says Dan Cinelli, Principal and Executive Director of planning, design and consulting firm Perkins Eastman and one of the judges for the 2015 SHN Architecture & Design Awards.
“At the end of the day, it really is a shining example of what I think more and more seniors want, which is urban integration versus being in a beautiful age ghetto somewhere,” Cinelli says. “The more you can do things like this, even if it takes 10 years—that really makes a difference.”
Following years of rejection and relentless dedication, construction began on Balfour at Riverfront Park in March 2012. Balfour originally budgeted $78 million for the project, financed at 40% through debt and 60% equity. The loan was a seven-year, non-recourse construction mini-perm loan at a fixed interest rate, with a completion guarantee provided by Balfour.
Despite secured financing seemingly giving the greenlight, though, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. The train depot on site, for one, required more rehabilitation than expected, Schonbrun says, largely due to crumbling bricks and a deteriorating roof structure. However, disgruntled neighbors proved to be the project’s main roadblock.
Balfour at Riverfront Park was the last to be built as part of a neighborhood redevelopment project. As such, the plot of land had previously been utilized as a dog park and apartment dwellers were unhappy about the potential of obstructed views. Still others were concerned about how close to the lot line the senior living community would be situated.
Following an extensive mediation process with elected representatives of surrounding condominium associations, Balfour had to compromise: Windows were slated for the side of the building where views might have been disrupted and certain areas of the building were moved farther from the lot line, effectively shrinking the central plaza and eliminating a pedestrian bridge.
Despite the headache, though, the delay proved a blessing in disguise.
“We had to go back and totally redesign the building, which added both time and expense to the project,” Schonbrun says. “But that also meant that when we finally did get it built, Denver was on the road to recovery, as was the rest of the country, and if we had gone with the original plan, hadn’t had the neighbor issue or hadn’t lost our original investor, we would have opened the building in the middle of the recession. So it wasn’t all bad for us, but I can’t say it was part of any master plan.”
The first phase of Balfour at Riverfront Park was completed in October 2014 after nearly 10 years in development, with the remainder of the project wrapping up in early 2015. Costs came in below the original $78 million budget at just less than $77 million, and the finished product was downsized by about one-third at the request of Balfour’s partner. Whereas initial plans called for 278 units, including some skilled nursing beds, the finished product consisted of 112 independent living units, 65 assisted living units and 28 memory care units for a total of 205.
To date, about three-quarters of the independent living units have been filled, and occupancy for the assisted living and memory care units is on track, “but not yet where we want to be,” Schonbrun says.
Balfour hasn’t yet realized its return on investment with the Riverfront Park community, Schonbrun says, but the provider is still ahead of pro forma. Plus, original projections called for full stabilization within three years of opening.
“Everyone is very pleased with the results so far,” he says. “I’ll be pleased when we’re full.”
Beyond the numbers, Balfour at Riverfront Park has exceeded expectations in other respects, including breaking down generational barriers, says Jeff Anderzhon, a senior planner and design architect with Eppstein Uhen Architects and a judge for the 2015 SHN Architecture and Design Awards. Plus, incorporating the Moffat Depot into the design is nothing short of “commendable.”
“From an aesthetic standpoint, the designers wove new work into the fabric of the surrounding area,” he tells SHN. “It’s not overly contemporary and respects the design of the older buildings, yet it meets to contemporary needs of residents.”
The west wing of the mid-rise building features a penthouse bar for independent living residents to enjoy views of the Platte River and the surrounding area, and the east wing has an outdoor deck for assisted living residents. Meanwhile, the interiors are “exquisite,” Cinelli says, boasting a seamless transition from the outside in and excellent use of antiques and color.
“Parts of it are very historic, very contextual to the time, yet there are other spaces where you know you’re not in your father’s retirement community anymore,” he says.
Overall, Schonbrun says Balfour at Riverfront Park demonstrates that there indeed is an appetite for high-quality senior living continuums of care in 18-hour and 24-hour cities—and though such projects might end up more expensive, they are definitely worthwhile.
“This kind of project, if executed well, would work in another 20 American cities,” Schonbrun says.
Written by Kourtney Liepelt