Walkability May Be Key for Future Senior Living Developments

Baby boomers are bringing new expectations to senior livingincluding a distaste for isolated, rural communities.

Nowadays, walkable, urban neighborhoods and proximity to transportation are high priorities for prospective senior living residents, according to a recent survey report from A Place for Mom.

The Seattle-based senior care referral service asked nearly 1,000 senior living consumers about their living preferences and found that while expected priorities like quality of the provider and affordability remained all-important, a significant secondary priority is the neighborhood in which the community is situated.

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Approximately 11% of senior apartment consumers—adults 55 and older who do not require provided meals or housekeeping—ranked neighborhood as their top priority in selecting a senior living community. About 6% of independent living consumers and 2% of assisted living consumers also gave it top rank.

Though choice of neighborhood falls behind other priorities for prospective senior living residents, developers should take note of this secondary priority that could set a community apart from others, Ben Hanowell, data scientist for A Place for Mom, told Senior Housing News.

Merrill Gardens, an owner and operator of several senior communities in the Seattle area, has already taken walkability into account in some of its communities, with great success.

Merrill Garden at the University in Seattle includes both senior and multi-family housing in an urban environment that gives residents easy access to shops, transportation and amenities. It was selected as a finalist by the Urban Land Institute for quality of design in 2009, the year it opened, and since then it has guided many of Merrill Gardens’ decisions about site selections.

“The senior housing of Merrill Gardens at the University has been at 95% to 100% occupancy since it opened,” William Pettit, president of R.D. Merrill Co., parent company of Merrill Gardens told SHN. “Buildings with these characteristics essentially maintain very high occupancies. It has led us to strategically focus on town center locations.”

The company’s development plans for the future involve finding sites in communities with high walkability scores, said Pettit.

Finding a balance

Despite the appeal of urban-based communities for prospective senior living residents, there are risks and complications in these sites for developers, Pettit acknowledges.

“The reality with town center developments is that the sites are harder to find, will often take longer to entitle, and can be more expensive to build compared to three- to five-acre sites outside of town,” Pettit said. “However, these building will run long-term at superior occupancy rates.”

This risk-to-opportunity factor is one that developers will have to weigh, but A Place for Mom’s survey findings suggest that there are ways to harness the appeal of walkable communities without paying the price for urban real estate.

“Senior living developers face the same constraints that people looking for a place to live experience,” Charlie Severn, head of marketing at A Place for Mom, told SHN. “Developers want to build in as nice of an area as possible for the lowest possible price. Most walkable areas in big cities tend to be the most expensive places to live. You’ve got to find these urban pockets in the suburbs where land doesn’t cost quite as much.”

These urban pockets don’t necessarily happen over night, Severn pointed out. Developers should monitor the pulse of growing suburban areas to try and predict where walkable town centers are emerging.

Plus, the surveyed seniors prioritized proximity to travel in addition to interest in urban neighborhoods. Some people are fine with being further from town centers if they can easily use public transportation to visit family and access amenities, Hanowell said.

“Developers should look at finding a way to build along transit hubs,” he said. “For example, we’re based in Seattle where the light rail system is growing. As those lines pop up, that’s where developers are going to have a lot of interest and opportunity.”

Whether developers opt to invest in already highly desirable urban real estate, or take advantage of upcoming suburban sites or transportation hubs, building in areas that enable seniors to retain freedom of movement will keep communities on trend with the expectations of upcoming seniors.

“These urban, walkable sites are not the only smart way to do senior housing,” Pettit said. “Still, there is a healthy demand today for these types of sites and I believe there will be a much stronger demand in the future with the baby boomer generation.”

Written by Elizabeth Jakaitis

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