Inside Otterbein SeniorLife’s Effort to Develop a 1,200-Acre Intergenerational Community

Robert Turner didn’t plan to develop senior housing, but that’s the beauty of intergenerational living: he ended up doing it anyway.

Turner’s work on a master-plan in Habersham, South Carolina, left residents so happy that they began asking him and his team how they could remain in the community even as they aged and their care needs changed. That led Turner — president at Habersham Land Company and developer with Union Village Development Company —  to think about how he could accommodate these residents.

His answer was to embrace New Urbanism, a methodology that touts what it calls “human-scaled urban design.” It can be summed up best by its “8-to-80 principle,” which says that a community must be built specifically for the needs of an eight-year-old, specifically for the needs of an 80-year-old, and everyone in between.

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Turner’s work on making Habersham a New Urbanist, intergenerational community caught the attention of Otterbein SeniorLife in Lebanon, Ohio. The nonprofit senior housing company was looking to develop the 1,200 acres of land it owned surrounding its 200-acre CCRC, and do so in a way that gave its nearly 900 residents access to a richer life of activities, amenities and resources. The company connected with Turner and his team, who are now working on a 45-year, intergenerational, mixed-use master-plan that wraps around the CCRC.

Turner recently shared his perspective on the intersection between intergenerational senior housing and New Urbanism — and the budding partnerships between senior living and all-ages developers — on Transform, the new Senior Housing News podcast sponsored by PointClickCare. Transform profiles the people and ideas shaping the future of senior living.

Highlights from the interview with Turner are below, edited for length and clarity. Subscribe to Transform via Apple Podcasts, SoundCloud or Google Play.

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The following has been edited for length and clarity.

On what the team at Otterbein wanted his team to deliver:

They’ve had this land and they always wanted to do something with it. They just did not want to do the conventional, what I would call “suburban sprawl.” They wanted to do more of a legacy project, something they’re going to be proud of.

So they saw what we did, and we linked up with Tom Compton, who was [Otterbein] chairman at the time, and he introduced us to the board of Otterbein. We pitched the idea that we could develop a multi-generational neighborhood around them that would also enhance what they’re doing by building a village center across the street from the existing campus.

We would build houses that were smaller: one-story, on smaller lots, less maintenance, and even condominiums and apartments. [Residents] can then live in those homes and eventually maybe move across the street.

On the opportunity in senior living for all-ages developers:

Since World War II, the trend of development has been pods of developments that are all segregated, maybe by price, [or by separating] commercial from residential. And when you look back [at] the really old neighborhoods built in the late 1800s and early 1900s, you didn’t see a lot of these CCRCs. There certainly was housing for people who needed additional care, but people kind of stayed in their neighborhoods much longer. Their families were generally closer to them, so they took care of them.

But since we’ve gone and changed the development pattern since World War II and created the sprawl, it’s created a need for these suburban, what I call suburban, CCRCs that are kind of segregated. Most of them are built on a parcel outside of a town, or on the edge of town, or in the suburbs, and they’re not connected to any commercial [properties], and if they are they may be on a really busy road where it’s very unsafe to walk.

In most of these CCRCs, you have a hair salon and maybe a little cafe and a coffee shop — there are different things that you have that are built into those that we already have [in New Urbanist communities]. You had all of these services on your main street, the houses were close enough and safe enough to walk to, and people could walk and get those services when they couldn’t drive any longer.

So we’ve been developing projects that are going back to that model of development, realizing that it’s a great service to the senior market, allowing them to stay in their home much longer. We saw the connection there, and now we’re looking at the longer connection there for a little more assisted care. That’s the one thing that we’re trying to figure out how to connect to our projects a little bit better.

On what Otterbein was planning prior to his team’s pitch:

I don’t know for sure. I know they had a developer prior to us who had developed a plan. But it was very heavy on commercial. There was [an] incredible amount of commercial built into the plan, and to me it had no sense of connection and neighborhood. Typically you design these neighborhoods so that it’s a five-minute walk. For every five minutes of walk time, you would create a neighborhood center. Maybe it’s just a cafe, maybe it’s a corner store, maybe it’s a couple little shops, but you try to incorporate a series of little villages, a centralized village every five minutes.

Parks and greenways are all built into these projects, so you’re always a few minutes away from a green or a park, and therefore your lot doesn’t have to be as big, because you have the opportunity to go play in a park. There is not as much need for these large, large lots that you see in suburban sub-divisions.

On the benefits to the Otterbein staff, along with the residents:

We’re trying to work with some apartments and develop product that will actually allow people to work and be close to the people they’re taking care of. I think that’s important as well. It’s so important for seniors and younger people to reconnect. I think we lost that in past generations. I think we’ve kind of segregated our ages and segregated the places where people live, and this is a great way to reconnect them.

On whether he plans to work more with senior living:

Yes. I feel like the model of New Urbanism hits many goals, and the history has proven it correct in which these great cities that were built hundreds of years ago that people just flock to. I always use Charleston to our north as an example, where people will come and stay a week in this town and ride a horse and horseback carriage in the middle of summer in 95-degree weather just to look at the houses that are there. I think the next level would be to have [more care services] mixed in. A lot of New Urbanist developers are doing that now, are looking for developers to team up with.

On what senior living misses out on by not considering the principles of New Urbanism in new communities:

Well again, I think it goes back to a little bit of age segregation. They’re designing their products to meet a certain target market — a defined market. And in learning through this last recession, the Great Recession, what you kind of realize is that you’ve got to be appealing to all markets and you’ve got to be able to make adjustments.

I think what they’re missing at some level is the idea [of] intermingling younger people in these facilities and being able to have that interaction with younger families. People feel younger when they’re around younger people, and that’s something that we can provide in these neighborhoods. And then they can provide the care that they need for the older age population. I think it can work really well together.

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